'I'm prepared to die to get to Europe': migrant life in Spain's Melilla
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More and more African migrants are trying to cross into two Spanish enclaves on the coast of Morocco. For them, the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla represent a golden opportunity to escape the poverty and persecution of their homelands, and reach Europe. Mike – from Ivory Coast – is one of them. He even managed to cross the border in December. Read his personal testimony...
Screen capture of a video posted on to YouTube by EQUO Melilla showing two migrants who successfully crossed the border into Melilla.
More and more African migrants are trying to cross into two Spanish enclaves on the coast of Morocco. For them, the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla represent a golden opportunity to escape the poverty or persecution of their homelands, and reach Europe. Mike – from Ivory Coast – is one of them. He even managed to cross the border in December.
On March 18, around a thousand migrants made a desperate attempt to scale the seven-metre high fence that separates Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla. According to local authorities, it’s one of the largest groups to have tried to do so in recent years. Several migrants were injured, others ended up in hospital after wounding themselves on barbed wire.
More than 200 sub-Saharan migrants successfully climbed the fence and got into Melilla on February 28, roughly one month ago. This video, posted on YouTube by EQUO Melilla, shows one of them celebrating on the streets of the Spanish enclave.
Earlier, at the beginning of February, 15 immigrants drowned when they tried to enter Ceuta during a mass attempt to reach the town along the coast. A few days later, Spain’s Interior Minister – Jorde Fernandez Diaz – admitted that police had fired rubber bullets to prevent them from swimming to shore.
If the migrants manage to evade the border guards and get into an enclave, they’re housed in a centre known as the CETI [Temporary Stay Immigrants Centre] while Spanish authorities examine their cases. They’re then either deported or given a residency permit. But given that there isn’t a repatriation agreement between Madrid and the countries where the majority of the migrants come from, deportation orders are almost impossible to carry out. That means that once they’re on Spanish land, they‘re generally allowed into Spain – and thus Europe – as Madrid has agreements with NGOs to care for the migrants.
The Spanish Interior Ministry told FRANCE 24 that due to the massive influx of migrants over the past few weeks, the CETI in Melilla is severely overcrowded. 1964 people are currently being held at the centre which has a maximum capacity of less than 500.
Young African migrants at the detention centre in Melilla. Photo posted on to Facebook by José Palazon.
The triple fence separating Morocco and Spain. Photo posted on to Facebook by José Palazon.
Shirts, shoes and a glove left behind by migrants during attempts to climb the fence. Photo posted on to Facebook by José Palazon.
“Out of a total of 50, only eight of us managed to cross the border”
Mike crossed the border in December. Since then, the 23-year old Ivorian, originally from the town of Grand Bassam (A few dozen kilometres east of the economic capital, Abidjan) has been waiting patiently to leave the temporary centre for immigrants in Melilla. He hopes one day to reach Belgium, the Netherlands or Germany.
“I left my country, Ivory Coast, at the end of the civil war in 2011. My parents were killed during the conflict. To stay alive, I had no choice but to leave. My brothers and sisters did the same as me, but we were separated in the panic. I have had no news from them since. Before arriving in Melilla, I went through several countries: Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and finally, Morocco. My journey lasted more than two years.
In Morocco, I spent eight months living around Nador in a camp with other immigrants. Several groups formed and sometimes, one of them will decide it’s ‘the big night’: that means it’s time to try to cross the border. In general, the departing group is helped by a separate group, which leaves a little earlier to try and divert the border guards’ attention. Even though this technique doesn’t always work, at least it gives those leaving a small chance.
I was part of a group of 50 people. Only eight of us managed to get over the three fences. I was left with cuts to my arms and knees, but it was nothing compared to the emotion I felt at the time. I told myself: ‘That’s it, you’re in Europe, nothing can happen to you now, all your troubles are behind you.’
“If I have to go back to Ivory Coast, I’ll go crazy. I have no family there, no future.”
I know full well that I have taken huge risks, but I am prepared to sacrifice my life to cross the border, even though I was very scared at the time. My ‘brothers’ and I all have the same reasoning: It’s Europe or death. Even if we fail to cross the first time around, we’ll try a second time, a third time… until we succeed. If I have to go back to Ivory Coast, I’ll go crazy. I have no family there, no future. I would prefer to die on a fence with my head held high. At least I would have tried everything, and would have no regrets.
Migrants at the Melilla camp. Photo posted to Facebook by José Palazon.
In Melilla, I spend my day doing odd jobs, like cleaning the residents’ cars. I can earn up to eight euros a day, allowing me to buy a mobile phone and a rechargeable SIM card. The ‘seniors’, the migrants who’ve been at the camp longer than me, also help me financially. In a way, they fulfill the role of ‘elders’.
My eventual goal is to find work and start a family in Belgium, the Netherland or Germany. There are a lot of Africans in France and I know their situation there is very difficult. Today, I just hope to live like a European in peace.
I have lived at the welcome centre in Melilla for three months now. There are many of us inside, but that doesn’t bother me. I have lived in worse conditions before. I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait, but I know the names of those who obtain the’ golden ticket’ will be written on a board. My turn will surely come [Amnesty International says the wait can take several years].
According to the prefecture, thousands of asylum seekers are currently being held around Melilla: between 1,500 and 2,000 on Gurugu Mountain, where migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have built camps; while between 8,000 and 10,000 migrants are living around the Moroccan town of Nador [15 kilometres from Melilla].
Spanish authorities estimate that around 80,000 migrants are waiting to cross into Melilla and Ceuta, the only two land borders that separate Europe from Africa.
Article written with France 24 journalist Grégoire Remund (@gregoireremund).