Europe's Back Doors

Two sleepy Spanish enclaves on the coast of Morocco are suddenly of concern to both sides of the Mediterranean -- as entry points for Africans slipping illegally into the European Union

T HE first time Michael Emeka heard mention of Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa, he was lying under a truck. The truck was parked alongside a road on the outskirts of Lagos, the capital of Nigeria; Emeka was with three other men, co-workers who had suddenly found themselves out of jobs when the warehouse where they were employed burned down. Taking advantage of the shade the truck offered, the young men were discussing their options: return to their homes in Lagos, or seek opportunity elsewhere?

The decision was not a difficult one to make: go elsewhere. After all, they were young men, confident of their own powers, unencumbered by responsibilities, and, given Nigeria's deep-seated poverty, doubtful about future opportunity at home. So, elsewhere. But where?

One of the men suggested a place called Ceuta; he recalled having read a magazine article about a Spanish city of that name on the northern edge of the continent, a city into which thousands of fellow Africans had already slipped, thus stepping into the embrace and privilege of the European Union.

Emeka's friend was not misinformed. Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish cities -- former penal colonies -- on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco. During the 500 years they have been possessions of Spain, these unobtrusive enclaves have for the most part fallen outside the range of mainstream European affairs. But their peripheral status ended when Spain entered the European Union, which effectively moved the southern border of Europe into Africa and made Ceuta and Melilla funnels for clandestine immigration.

In the past immigrants -- at least those in search of economic opportunity, which means most of them -- would have had little reason to make their way to Spain. Spain is a nation from which people have traditionally emigrated, from the New World conquistadors to nineteenth-century settlers in Cuba and Argentina to manual laborers in postwar Germany. Even today Spain's emigrants outnumber its immigrants.

But in 1995 several nations in the European Union began to enact the Schengen Accords, by which internal EU borders were weakened and external borders were strengthened, and entry into Spain became a virtual guarantee of unimpeded passage to Germany, France, or nearly any other EU country -- a powerful temptation for a potential immigrant. And Spain has not been spared the shrinking labor pools and restructuring economies that have affected nearly all industrialized nations. Like its Northern European neighbors, Spain needs guest workers to harvest its crops, build its buildings, clean its houses, and labor in its factories.

Significant numbers of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa began appearing in Ceuta and Melilla in the mid-1990s, almost as soon as the accords started to go into effect, and nearly 12,000 have made their way there so far. At least 6,000 entered Ceuta illegally last year. Despite Spain's attempts at vigilance and prevention, perhaps twenty to twenty-five Africans reach Ceuta daily, and some 10,000 are said to be biding their time in nearby Moroccan cities such as Tangier and Tetouan, waiting their turn for experienced local smugglers to show them how, when, and where to cross the border.

These figures are not large in comparison with immigration figures for other EU nations, such as Germany and France, and tiny in comparison with the number of legal and illegal immigrants who enter the United States each year. But they are certain to grow. The Spanish Foreign Ministry estimates that Europe will see up to 25 million legal and illegal immigrants over the next ten years, with the bulk coming from Africa; if such predictions prove correct, the impact on Spain will be great.

"The figures are small, but the phenomenon itself is new,"says Hector Maravall, the director of Spain's National Immigration and Social Services Institute. "Today there are about ten thousand immigrants out of all Africa, including Morocco, into Spain each year. If you compare that with the immigration pressure on Germany or even Italy, it's nothing. But four or five years ago there were five hundred annually to Spain. You have to ask, What is going to be happening five years from now?"

The Schengen Accords foresaw some of the potential complications in Spain's insistence on maintaining the enclaves -- a position, like the United Kingdom's refusal to relinquish Gibraltar, rooted in both sentimental historical reasons and strategic military ones. However, when the accords were drafted, the primary concern was clandestine immigration out of Morocco, where, according to a recent Moroccan study, poverty, unemployment, and demographic distribution are such that up to 89 percent of young Moroccans aspire to emigrate to Europe someday.

An elaborate system of border controls was devised to coincide with implementation of the accords, in order to thwart a deluge of uncontrolled immigration from Morocco into the enclaves and not asphyxiate their economies, which are almost entirely dependent on trade (much of it clandestine) with the Moroccan hinterland. Moroccans living in the Rif, a poor, mountainous, and historically separatist region of Morocco in the immediate vicinity of Ceuta and Melilla, are free to enter the enclaves, but because of controls on outgoing aviation and maritime traffic, they cannot continue onward to the Spanish mainland.

Moroccans lacking permits who are detained in Ceuta and Melilla, or who are caught trying to pass from Ceuta and Melilla to the mainland -- most frequently under or inside trucks on ferries -- are dealt with straightforwardly: they are deported to Morocco. However, when non-Moroccan immigrants -- primarily from sub-Saharan Africa -- began showing up in Ceuta and Melilla, the issue became more complex.

When detained by the Spanish police, these immigrants routinely give false names and countries of origin, having previously destroyed or concealed their identification cards and passports. The purpose of the subterfuge -- common throughout Europe -- is to delay the repatriation process. Under Spanish law, if an undocumented immigrant has not been expelled from the country within forty days, he or she can be detained no longer. And even when an immigrant's country of origin is verifiable, the same bureaucratic loophole prevails, given the combination of clumsy EU norms and clumsier (and often uncooperative) bureaucracies in many African nations. As a frustrated police administrator working with African immigrants in Ceuta says, "You try calling Burundi. You try sending a fax to Sierra Leone. See how fast you get an answer."

Once an immigrant has set foot in Ceuta or Melilla, the onus of repatriation is on the Spanish government. This is not simple. Deporting undocumented illegal immigrants to Morocco -- whence, obviously, they must have crossed into the enclaves -- is in theory a legal alternative. A 1992 Spain-Morocco readmission treaty, similar to many treaties signed in recent years by Germany and its neighbors in Eastern Europe, calls for the return of undocumented immigrants who can be proved to have entered Spanish territory through Morocco.

In practice, however, deportation is not feasible for Spain in these cases. Morocco does not officially recognize Spanish sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, and although it avoids making direct challenges, it resists cooperation with Spain on many border issues involving the two cities. Thus Morocco steadfastly refuses to accept virtually all non-Moroccan deportees from Spain. And even in the rare cases when non-Moroccan immigrants (caught scaling a fence, say, or slipping through the drainage tunnels that mark the frontier) have been returned to Morocco, the Moroccan police are said to have looked the other way, for a fee, while the immigrants remained in the region and prepared for later attempts at crossing the border.

THE first groups of undocumented, undetained Africans were left to wander around the enclaves without work, food, or housing (and without legal rights to obtain them), yet were understandably disinclined to return to their native countries. In the early 1990s, the time of the first arrivals, neither city had a detention center or an office for handling immigration affairs. Few of the immigrants spoke Spanish. Ceuta and Melilla are not large places: Ceuta covers about eight square miles and has a population of about 70,000; Melilla covers less than five square miles and has a population of about 60,000. The black Africans were conspicuous, because of their enforced and very public idleness as well as their skin color.

The Spanish authorities, at least initially, did nothing, apparently hoping that the situation would disappear if ignored long enough. A primary concern was to avoid treating the immigrants in a way that would encourage others to follow -- for instance, by creating comfortable conditions or being liberal in granting political asylum. The mayor of Ceuta, Basilio Fernandez, was explicit in a 1995 interview with the Spanish newspaper El País: "If we improve the situation, more will continue to arrive. Ceuta can't become Europe's ghetto."

The Africans in Ceuta took refuge in grottoes within the fortifications that crisscross and encircle it -- fortifications that were built mostly by the Portuguese in the mid sixteenth century, shortly before the enclave (and Portugal itself) became part of the Spanish empire. The Catholic Church, led by Father José Bejar, the local parish priest, brought in mattresses, food, clothing, and other basic amenities. But when a group of sixty Kurds suddenly showed up in Ceuta and joined the Africans, their request for political asylum was rapidly processed and they were transferred to an immigration center on the Spanish mainland. The Africans rioted in response. Paramilitary groups entered the melee with rocks, sticks, and iron bars. The chaotic brutality was captured on video and repeatedly broadcast on Spanish television. In the aftermath the Spanish government installed the immigrants in an open-air camp on the outskirts of the city.

Called Calamocarro, the camp sits on a wooded hill about two miles from the center of Ceuta. From the top of the hill, amid stands of eucalyptus and pine, there is a clear view across the Strait of Gibraltar to the city of Tarifa, separated from Ceuta by a mere eight miles or so of water at the strait's narrowest point. The camp was formerly used by youth groups from Ceuta; today it is a welter of government-issue blue tents, worn and faded by the harsh North African sun. Although its official capacity is about 500, Calamocarro regularly houses 1,000 to 2,000 immigrants; the overcrowding and lack of functional plumbing are as evident to the nose as to the eye.

The immigrants are divided into two main groups on the basis of language (Francophone and Anglophone), and each language group elects a representative to handle dealings with aid workers and the Spanish authorities. Those from Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, are in the majority, but Calamocarro has seen Africans from all over the continent. A separate cluster of tents houses a group of Algerians (about a hundred earlier this year), and another cluster includes immigrants from places such as Kashmir, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, whose presence in Calamocarro testifies to the worldwide pull of clandestine immigration.

A privileged few have their own tents, inherited from others who preceded them in the camp. These tents are smaller and sleeker, more like a backpacker's than a refugee's, and they are pitched on higher ground, separate from the others. This area is known in Calamocarro as the USA.

One tent, the largest, serves as a makeshift chapel. The chapel's hard-packed dirt floor slopes with the hill on which it stands, making yet more precarious the rickety folding chairs arranged in neat rows. Two strips of black cloth pinned to the front of the chapel form a cross. Worshippers often stand before the cross and recount their arduous journeys across great stretches of Africa, testifying to the miraculous nature of their safe arrival in Calamocarro. Their tales invariably include references to traveling companions who perished en route -- victims of illness, violence, or the infernal heat of the deserts in Mauritania and Algeria. A smaller tent serves as a mosque for the chanted prayers of the camp's many Muslims.

Private enterprise thrives in Calamocarro. Planks propped on rocks display cigarettes, candy, and batteries for sale. One tent holds a barbershop and hair salon. Another functions as a restaurant, offering bowls of chicken stew and breadlike masses of dough; the Ghanaian proprietor cooks on a small wood fire using sticks gathered at the edges of the camp. Many of the Africans descend daily into Ceuta, where they line the oceanfront highway, toting buckets and rags and offering to wash cars for three dollars.

is the Madrid correspondent for ARTnews. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, and he has written for The New York Times, Newsday, and Travel & Leisure.

The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; Europe's Back Doors - 00.01 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 1; page 26-33.