David Roman, Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2014
On a recent morning, about 150 men, most hailing from West Africa, hiked down a Moroccan hillside, scaled a set of 20-foot-high fences and jumped onto the soil of Melilla, a small swath of Spanish territory on Africa’s Mediterranean coast.
Raymond Persie twisted his ankle when he hit the ground and ended up in the custody of Spanish police. Yet those stumbles didn’t cripple his dream of working in Europe and sending money home to his father and younger brother.
That is because under EU law, member states are barred from using force to keep out migrants and must allow those who gain entry to apply for political asylum. On Thursday, leaders from the European Union and Africa moved to make the process more orderly with a three-year plan aimed at facilitating legal migration from Africa while stepping up border enforcement and the fight against human trafficking.
Few migrants actually win asylum in Spain, but even those who fail are allowed to remain in the country, since few African countries have extradition treaties with Madrid.
Several thousand people fleeing war and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, and a smaller number from North Africa, have made the risky trek north, dodged Moroccan police, and stormed the barriers at Melilla and Ceuta this year. In March, authorities reported at least two attempts by groups of more than 1,000 to vault the fences at once.
On Thursday, about 150 migrants rushed the fences at Melilla, but Spanish and Moroccan police drove most of them back, leaving about 30 clinging to the top for several hours before they were forced down onto Moroccan soil, the Spanish news agency EFE reported. Some of the fence clingers had bloody bare feet and shouted “Freedom!” and “Spain!” The last two came down after a 10-hour standoff in a chill wind.
The tiny Spanish territories on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast are now among the most besieged gateways to a Europe that is struggling with a surge of illegal immigration.
About 4,200 migrants reached the enclaves illegally last year, up 49% from the previous 12 months, according to estimates by the Spanish government and Frontex, the EU border agency. EU countries counted a total of 77,140 illegal crossings last year through September, the agency said—a 30% jump over the period of 2012.
More migrants are trying to enter the enclaves because of the drop in the number of attempted illegal landings by boatloads of migrants in Spain and Italy, Spanish officials say. The decline occurred after those countries stepped up sea patrols in the Mediterranean when nearly 400 migrants drowned in shipwrecks off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October.
Spanish officials, police and social workers in Melilla say migrant smugglers have rerouted their vessels to the two Spanish enclaves, which have Europe’s only land borders with Africa. Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz said during a visit to Ceuta in February that 80,000 migrants were waiting in Morocco or along its border with Mauritania for a chance to reach the enclaves.
With financial aid from Spain, Moroccan authorities are trying to hold back the fence-rushing migrants. On the other side, the Guardia Civil, Spain’s paramilitary police force, has stepped up round-the-clock police patrols and electronic surveillance.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Thursday said illegal immigration was “unacceptable” and vowed to maintain a “very vigorous” fight against it. “We have the EU’s only land border with the African continent, so we will keep working on it,” he said in Brussels.
The nine-year-old barriers that demarcate the borders between Morocco and each of the two enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are themselves daunting—three parallel fences, two of them 20 feet tall, standing about three feet apart. There are plans to reinforce the barriers with additional barbed wire and other modifications, said Mr. Fernández Díaz, the Spanish interior minister.
After hurdling the fences, they are questioned by police and sent to an overcrowded but clean shelter that now houses about 1,800 migrants. The publicly-funded shelter offers medical care, three meals a day, a basketball court, and lessons in Spanish and the use of computers. Migrants may come and go as they please.
Most leave for mainland Spain within a year or two of arriving in Melilla, sponsored by friends or relatives who live there or nongovernmental organizations that enroll them in job-training programs.