Migrants in Ceuta: 'When I knew I had to go back to Morocco, I felt pain and grief'

Left: Migrants who remain in Spain’s Ceuta stay in accommodation provided by the Red Cross. Right: Marie, a Congolese migrant, was sent back to Morocco after attempting to cross into Ceuta.
Left: Migrants who remain in Spain’s Ceuta stay in accommodation provided by the Red Cross. Right: Marie, a Congolese migrant, was sent back to Morocco after attempting to cross into Ceuta. © Observers

An estimated 8,000 migrants from Morocco poured across the border into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on Monday, May 17. However, more than 6,500 of these migrants were sent back to Morocco once Spanish police and military were able to control the influx. The FRANCE 24 Observers spoke to some of these migrants, both those who remained in Ceuta in the Red Cross camp or returned to Morocco. 


Photos and videos show thousands of people crossing into Ceuta on Monday, May 17, as the Moroccan government allegedly loosened its border controls with Spain following a diplomatic spat. While many of the migrants were Moroccan, a number were of sub-Saharan African origins, having reached Morocco as the final outpost in their journey to Europe. 

‘They wanted to send us back but we cried and said we can’t go’

One of these migrants was Aicha (not her real name), a woman from Mali who spent two and a half years in Morocco before seizing the opportunity to enter Ceuta. 

I was with my friends (Editor’s note: on Monday, May 17) and I was bringing some things to sell on the road. Some people, Moroccans, told us that we could go to Ceuta. They said anyone can go. We left everything on the road and we ran. We ran to the border and we swam across. They wanted to send us back to Morocco but we cried and said we can’t go. In Morocco, we suffer, all the Black people suffer. Sometimes we didn’t have anything at all to eat, we just had to go and beg.

Aicha is currently staying at the Red Cross camp in Ceuta with several other Malian women and their children. They hope to find the opportunity to move to the European mainland and find work. 

We are safe now. The Red Cross is caring for us, they give us food, three meals a day. On Saturday, we did the vaccination for coronavirus.

According to Mariam (not her real name), who spent four years in Morocco before crossing to Ceuta, Morocco is a challenging place for sub-Saharan migrants, often fleeing violence in their home countries, to live. Mariam is currently staying in the Red Cross camp with Aicha. 

We came to Ceuta because we needed help. We didn’t have any means in Morocco, we didn’t have any means in Mali. We are exhausted. Since the war, we have nothing in Mali. We ran, we ran all the way to Morocco. And we ran to Ceuta, we got into the water to swim across with a 2-year-old child. We didn’t want to return to Morocco because it’s difficult for us there. We sat in the streets with our children and we asked for money. Each night we paid to have a place to stay.

Refugees from Mali account for a growing proportion of asylum requests in Spain, a consequence of the protracted conflict wracking the West African country since 2012. Organisations such as the Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency have mobilised to provide immediate aid and long-term assistance to asylum-seekers. 

However, the sub-Saharan migrants who were returned to Morocco have undergone a significant step back in their journey to Europe. 

‘We went back home on foot’

Marie (not her real name), a migrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been living in Tangier, Morocco since 2016. She arrived in Ceuta the evening of May 17, crossing the border on foot, but was sent back to Morocco the following day.

There were many of us crossing the border, with the majority being Moroccan. We arrived safely and were well received. They gave us a place to sleep. The Red Cross helped us a lot and gave us everything we could need. I even had some aches and pains that they helped treat. 

The next day things started to go badly. Many of the Moroccans started throwing rocks and the police tried to maintain order, but in vain. We were turned away. The Spanish authorities opened the gate and put us outside, then they closed the gate. Some of the Moroccans were more aggressive, while the Spanish wanted calm. They started throwing tear gas at each other across the gate, even though the migrants were outside. We returned home on foot. When I knew I had to go back to Morocco, I felt pain and grief, I was completely destabilised. We tried to take the bus but we weren’t able to, because the Moroccans said they didn’t want us on their bus. Me and several other Black people were able to get away, but they had taken some other Black people away, I don’t know where. We went back home on foot, causing lots of pain in my feet.

The road from Ceuta to Tangier is more than 70 km long. Marie and her family returned there, carrying several provisions they were given by the Red Cross, including diapers, food, and blankets. 

Despite this setback, Marie’s goal is still to reach Europe for better opportunities. 

We are tired of being here in Morocco, it’s not a good place for Black people. Even if you can find work, people do not respect you. We don’t work, we have no money. We are just looking for a way out because this isn’t a country where we can live. We need help for our children.

Often, groups of migrants live in makeshift tents in forests or in temporary nightly accommodation, paid for by panhandling during the day. Sub-Saharan migrants are regular targets for police raids or arrests. In March, Moroccan police were accused of burning down a migrant encampment. 

In 2018, Amnesty International called Morocco’s crackdown on sub-Saharan migrants in northern cities “cruel and unlawful".