By Rick Terpstra
While the hotspots of the so-called migration crisis in the EU can be found in the south-east of the continent, thousands of migrants are jumping the fences of Europe’s only territorial border with Africa in the Spanish cities Ceuta and Melilla in the north of Morocco. And the EU? They seem to stand back while the Spanish Guardia Civil violently govern the border territory without restrictions.
“Viva España, boza, boza!” Hundreds of African migrants storm the fences of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast shouting out their popular war cry. It gives them hope, it gives them power, and there is faith that God will help them in their first, second or even tenth attempt in reaching the Spanish territory. Hoping they will manage to climb the high fence, wishing that the Spanish border police do not literally kick them back to Moroccan territory.
The Spanish inhabitants of Ceuta and Melilla, two port cities on the northern coast of Morocco that have been under Spanish rule since the fifteenth century and seem to have become used to these sights. Since the start of the 21st century, the cities has been the gateway of thousands of mainly sub-Saharan migrants who try to breach the only terrestrial border that Europe shares with Africa. On a monthly, and sometimes weekly basis, they try to jump the metres-high fences in massive seemingly coordinated attempts, reach the cities by boat, or sometimes even by swimming. They take all this effort, because reaching the cities means reaching the European Union: their Promised Land.
The Spanish response to these structural migratory problems has always been quite controversial. The border fences and the coasts are heavily patrolled by the Guardia Civil and are equipped with the latest technologies in order to detect irregular migrants and defend Fort Europa before the African migrants get a chance to try and enter. But those who manage to reach the Spanish cities have an even more uncertain fate. Instead of the protection they are supposed to receive from a legal and humanist perspective, many of them will be sent back to Morocco. After months of camping in the Moroccan mountains and planning their attempt of entering, they are back at zero again.
The defence of the Spanish-Moroccan border and these so-called ‘hot returns’ are carried out in collaboration with the Moroccan border police. What happens to those migrants after being pushed back to Morocco? That is still rather unclear. Some return to their tent camps in the mountains to prepare for another attempt, but there are also reports of migrants being deported to the Sahara Desert after the Guardia Civil handed them over to the Moroccan authorities.
This collaboration with Morocco in protecting one of the EU’s borders has been everything but stable over time. Back in February 2017, after months of effective border patrolling, almost a thousand migrants managed to get into the Spanish cities in just one weekend. Spanish border patrols stated that Moroccan police practically let the migrants through, not even trying to stop them. Interestingly enough, at the same time, Morocco was in a clash with the EU due to a trade agreement in which the African country was not included. So, is it a coincidence that the Moroccan authorities decided, just like that, to soften their border policy?
Apart from this unstable relationship, human rights organizations have always heavily criticized the practices carried out at the Spanish-Moroccan border. According to international and European human rights conventions, everyone who arrives at EU territory seeking asylum has the right of a fair process if it is not sure what will happen to the migrant if he or she would get deported. The main issue with the hot returns is that migrants are kicked out of EU territory within two days and without such due process. Consequently, these migrants are facing an uncertain future. The Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy understood the potential illegality of these practices and just simply legalized the practice by national law in 2015.
And the European community? What has been their response to the controversial migration policies on what is also their border with Africa? Here we find the biggest implication of the problem: the EU has been awkwardly silent about the human rights violations on their own, breached border. Since Spain stated that they do not need the help of the EU’s border agency Frontex, it seems like they can reign over the territory as they want. And when the European bodies do finally speak out, they tend to do so with clashing opinions. While the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks stressed the Spanish obligation to abide the international human rights treaties and stop with the hot returns, the EU Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopouluos, backed Spain and stated that they were not doing anything wrong.
In the end, Spain seems to possess a free pass regarding their national migration policies. The EU appears to be too busy with irregular migration on the Eastern front and does not want, can, or dare to intervene with the controversial policies Spain is implementing. But as other migratory routes to Europe are being blocked off, pressure is and will keep on rising on Ceuta and Melilla. And does the EU really want to sit back and watch how another humanitarian crisis unfolds while now is the time they can still act? Until that moment, “boza, boza” will remain a common sound in the Spanish port cities.
About the author: Rick Terpstra is a first-year Euroculture student, fascinated by everything that is even slightly Hispanic and at the same time permanently frustrated by violations of human rights.