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Melilla: Europe's risky gateway for migrants

Flowers are laid on the ground in memory of migrants who died at the Spanish-Moroccan border [Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images]
Flowers are laid on the ground in memory of migrants who died at the Spanish-Moroccan border, 24 June 2022 [Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images]

The Spanish enclave of Melilla, one of Africa's main gateways to Europe, has had to deal with a new major influx of migrants every year.

Despite the barbed wire and fence, towering meters high completely surrounding the city, hundreds of migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, manage to enter Spanish territory every year.

However, these attempts sometimes result in real human tragedies. In one such instance, several dozen died as they attempted to storm the Spain-Moroccan border around Melilla last June.

Visiting the site, Anadolu Agency gathered details first-hand on the measures put in place at the border between Melilla and the nearby Moroccan town of Nador, also listening to the testimonies of migrants seeking to reach Europe against all odds.

Crossing into Spanish territory demands patience, especially in the North African summer heat, as the process begins with Moroccan police checking passports at the foot of high blue gates, as well as other administrative formalities, before the Spanish Guardia Civil takes over with similar checks a few meters ahead.

Moroccan and Spanish police officers operate the controls in a friendly manner, but this crossing, which many use on their way to enjoying a day at the beach, or to do some shopping during the holidays, remains one of the only two land borders between Africa and the EU.

The other is the enclave of Ceuta, also a part of Spain, located roughly 225 kilometres west, at the mouth of the Strait of Gibraltar.

The imposing barbed wire fence that surrounds both Melilla and Ceuta testifies to the firmness and determination of both the Spanish and Moroccan authorities to prevent illegal immigration.

'Waiting my turn'

In the Moroccan town of Farkhana, which borders Melilla, a young man named Yusuf still voiced hope that his chance would come to smuggle himself across the barricaded perimeter.

This 22-year-old Guinean, who arrived in Morocco in 2021, lives on the streets alongside others who have not been able, for the moment, to reach Melilla.

"I'm waiting for my turn," explained the young man, without ruling out the possibility of "remaining stranded in Morocco".

Acknowledging the difficulty of crossing the border, he said the risks were "high for those who try", but that he remains determined.

Several other African nationals he met along his demanding journey managed to get to Spanish land, with the ultimate goal of being welcomed at a detention centre for migrants and then transferred to Madrid, he said.

But the border crossing remains the scene of recurring human dramas, as many migrants die each year, falling from the fence or getting crushed in their flight.

READ: Record number of people cross the Channel to reach the UK in 1 day 

Border danger

On 24 June, several thousand knife-bearing migrants headed for Melilla, in a bid to cross the fence at all costs.

Several pieces of footage that Anadolu Agency reviewed show a determined procession hundreds-strong, heading towards the border on foot, through the streets of Beni Ansar, another town in the immediate vicinity of Melilla.

"They rushed to the fences and most of those who lost their lives died after falling from the fence and were crushed by the gates," a Moroccan police source said on condition of anonymity.

The same source claimed that the Moroccan police "did not, at any time, use firearms that could have caused the death of anyone" but nevertheless acknowledges the "use of tear gas intended only to prevent assault".

But the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) has called the situation alarming.

With the official death toll at 37, the Association said that 64 migrants, mainly Sudanese or Chadian, remain missing since 24 June after attempting to cross.

The Association also denounced the lack of efforts from authorities to find those missing.

Despite varying views on the migrant issues, condemnation has been uniform against the multiple deaths, caused by desperate attempts to reach European territory.

On 17 August, the provincial Court of Appeal in Nador sentenced 13 migrants arrested last June to two and a half years in prison and imposed a fine of 10,000 dirhams (about $950), after they attempted to make it over the fence.

In Melilla

Once on Spanish territory, these migrants hope to be protected by European law that bars authorities from sending them back to countries at war.

For those who get into Melilla, it is at the Temporary Accommodation Centre for Migrants (CETI) that their fate is determined.

Located opposite the border post, a few meters from the fence that marks the Spanish enclave's perimeter, the CETI currently hosts nearly 130 candidates for immigration.

At the site, Anadolu Agency spoke to three sub-Saharan nationals who did not wish to reveal details on their identity for fear of reprisals.

They claimed to be "properly treated" at the CETI and that they were "happy to have succeeded in reaching this step."

In rough English, one of them even described their situation as "paradise," compared to their past ordeals.

In an interview with Anadolu Agency, Ikram, a staff member at a body that works with the CETI, insisted that the facility was not a "detention centre" and that the people housed there were "free to enter and to leave".

The young woman explained that they would be allowed to travel outside Melilla a month after their asylum interview.

This formality must then allow them to be included on the "list of transfers" to other cities in Spain, before eventually heading to other European countries.

Official figures in the first quarter of 2022 indicate that 14,746 attempts to enter Spanish territory illegally have failed.

In 2021, Moroccan authorities prevented 49 coordinated operations, described as assaults, including 47 in the direction of Melilla.

Read: Council of Europe urges Spain to ensure humane border control policies with Morocco

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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