A better life? The European Union’s other problem
Spain – part I
The blackened, skeletal bodies of dead men scattered across the Sahara desert is a haunting image. Their empty eye sockets and stiff, scorched limbs belong to a horror film. One of the dead men is frozen in a prayer-like position, on his knees, torso horizontal, arms splayed in front of him, forehead touching the sand.
An asylum seeker who escaped this fate, captured the desperate scene on his mobile phone. The footage was eventually edited with harrowing, mournful music, almost as unbearable to listen to, as to watch. Yet, despite the visual evidence of such suffering, it is a story rarely told.
A teenage asylum seeker I met on the Spanish island of Ceuta showed me the footage. Abdoulaye Bah, a 19-year-old from the Republic of Guinea, saw many of his fellow travellers give in to the heat of Sahara. The dead bodies kept him going; he did not want to die that way.
“I am passing very hard travel but …I don’t have the words to explain to you,” he says. “You meet many different people who want to kill you. If you don’t have money to give them, they think you are lying. Some people will leave you in the desert. If they leave you there you have don’t have a chance. More than 4,000km – all you see is only desert.”
Abdoulaye’s mother was killed in the political violence that plagued the Republic of Guinea between 2009 and 2010. The fighting has stopped, he says, but he left anyway, partly because he belongs to the Fula tribe, which is a minority group in the village where he lived.
The Algerian Sahara, a popular route for migrants travelling to Europe from West Africa, has become an increasingly lawless place, where a person’s fate depends on having enough cash to bribe border guards and traffickers.
To survive the journey north to Morocco and then to Europe, most migrants on this route have to pass through Magnaia, a particular dangerous part of Algeria. They are incredibly vulnerable, with little or no protection from authorities. Migrants and aid workers say that often the ‘mafia’ buys the silence the Algerian guards patrolling popular migration routes.
Jesus Castro Gontales, a Spanish aid worker I spoke to, tries to explain the complexities of this world, where the protectors become tormentors, and victims, unable to escape, are forced to torment others that follow behind them. “Mafia is a difficult word. What is mafia? Mafia is the Algerian person, the police, the mafia is all the immigrant people that live one, two, three years here. They work in the mafia. It is a problem at the frontier.”
Abdoulaye had enough cash to pay Mali militiamen, who then helped him cross the desert in a four-wheel drive. After a short distance on foot, he arrived at the border between Mali and Algeria, where he paid soldiers to let him pass. “Enter Morocco, then you pay to enter Rabat, then you pay to enter the bush [woodlands] near a town near Ceuta,” he says.
Two months later Abdoulaye arrived on Ceuta’s coast in an inflatable dinghy with three other people. “I was scared. It is very dangerous because many people lose their lives in the water.”
On a clear day you can see the hills of Ceuta across the Mediterranean from mainland Spain. Equally vivid to the hundreds of bedraggled African and Asian migrants stuck in Ceuta is the enticing Spanish coastline, and beyond that the promise of Europe.
The island, a duty free playground for rich Moroccans and Spaniards, is dotted with ports full of expensive yachts, bars and designer shops. Among the glitz and glamour, destitute migrants try to eke out a living, all while waiting for an opportunity to resume their journey to Europe.
Ceuta, and it’s neighbouring island Melilla, are gateways to Europe for many migrants, particularly those from West Africa. The peak period for travelling was 2005, where at one point 2,000 people were crowded into the immigration removal centre in Ceuta, where Abdoulaye is being held.
“Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish cities in Africa,” says Jesus Castro Gontales, whose charity, the Association of Elin, was set up in 2000 to deal with the large numbers of destitute Moroccan street children living in Ceuta. “The situation in Ceuta and Melilla has changed very much over time. Ten or more years ago, there was no frontier. It was possible to pass through Ceuta easily [from Morocco].”
A number of factors, which include pressure from the European Union, led to the Spanish government tightening its border with Morocco, making it more difficult for people to use Ceuta and Melilla as a passage to Spain.
The Spanish government also made various agreements with Morocco. As part of one such agreement, Moroccan politicians promised to deport tens of thousands of migrants, who at the time were sleeping rough in its cities close to Ceuta and Melilla, waiting for the opportunity to enter Spain via the islands.
The violent tactics of border police to keep this promise came to a head one day in September 2005. Reports differ but the consensus is that several hundred (some say 200, others 500) migrants tried to cross the six-mile long barbed wire fence from Morocco into Melilla at once, and were shot at by border police. Many were seriously injured in the crush and five people died. Spain blamed the Moroccan border police, saying its own guards fired only rubber bullets and used tear gas.
What followed was worse. Urged to resolve the situation by Spanish and European governments, the Moroccan police swept through the country rounding up around 500 black men, women and children waiting to cross the border into Europe, and dumped them, without food or water, in the Algerian desert. Jesus Castro Gontales says the Association of Elin followed the buses loaded with migrants and interviewed those stranded. Many died in the desert, while others picked themselves up and continued their journey out of the scorching African desert, and into Europe.