Tensions as refugee centre overflows with ever more long-term residents
It is 7.30am in the Beni Enzar district of Melilla, a Spanish city on north African soil that is perched between the Mediterranean coast and Morocco. This bustling part of town has a border where every day Moroccans carry goods from Spain back across to their own country to sell.
Dozens of these porters, carrying huge bundles of wares on their backs, are lined up waiting for the border to open. A Spanish police van pulls up. Several policemen jump out and start shouting at the Moroccans, kicking their wares along the road for no apparent reason and striking some of them with truncheons.
Moments later, the border opens and the porters push as one towards the gate separating them from Morocco.
Most Spaniards would find it hard to believe that this chaotic scene, which is repeated each morning, is taking place in their country.
But Melilla’s unusual status as a Spanish enclave in Africa has not only made it a frenzied trading hub. It is also an attractive entry point for migrants. It has become an alternative door to Europe for Syrian refugees and every day they cross at Beni Enzar, entering Spain as the Moroccan porters leave.
Only an estimated two or three dozen Syrians are understood to be reaching the city on an average day, many of them having arrived in Morocco via Algeria. But thousands more are believed to be waiting to cross.
“I got hold of a Spanish passport, someone gave it to me for a large amount of money and I crossed the border,” says ‘Amar’ (35), who prefers not to give his real name. “I learned only how to say ‘ hola’. I said that and I got across the border.”
The crossing was more dramatic for his Moroccan wife and five-year-old son, who hid in the back of a car while a smuggler drove them over. The boy was given sedatives to stop him alerting the border guards.
The family has now been in Melilla for three months. They are staying in an apartment, but go to the Immigrant Temporary Stay Centre (CETI) on the edge of town for free meals and legal counsel.
“I’m not happy taking money or food from the government,” Amar says. “Some people think they are coming to paradise. They think they’ll arrive and get given food and a house and they will get given everything. I call them idiots. No one will give you all this for nothing.”
When asked if he is happy to have used this route to reach Europe, he replies: “If we continue like this we will go back again to Morocco, then to Turkey and go to Europe that way, because we have been here so much time, we are wasting time for nothing.”
Previously, young sub-Saharan African men who had scaled the six-metre-high fence that surrounds Melilla were the most frequent arrivals here. But earlier this year, the Moroccan authorities dismantled their makeshift camps in the mountains nearby and sub-Saharans are going elsewhere to reach Europe.
Now, the vast majority of those who arrive in Melilla are Syrians.
According to José Palazón, of Prodein, an NGO that helps migrants in the city, the slowness in processing new Syrian arrivals is a deliberate attempt by Spanish authorities to deter others from coming. Refugees routinely have to wait three months before receiving a “red card”, which allows them to travel freely across Spain while their legal status is reviewed, sometimes for a further period of up to 18 months or more.
“Spain has reached an unofficial border agreement with Morocco on the refugee issue – it’s not written down because that would be illegal – and a quota of arrivals has been set,” Palazón says.
“Morocco controls the flow. That’s where 20 or 30 [Syrians] are selected each day and the selection is done according to how much the Syrians can pay.” he explains that those who are unable to get hold of a Moroccan or European passport have to give the Moroccan police about €400 for a child to cross and up to €3,000 for an adult.
The CETI migrant centre, where many of the Syrians end up, has generated controversy. Built to house 480 migrants, it currently has about 1,900, of whom only some 150 or so are not Syrian. The cramped conditions and lack of resources there prompted Miguel Urbán, a deputy in the European Parliament for Podemos, to describe Melilla as a “Spanish Guantánamo” after a visit last month.
The mayor of Melilla, Juan José Imbroda, contested that verdict, declaring that Melilla was “the European champion” at dealing with refugees.
“The system is at full stretch,” says Teresa Vázquez, a lawyer who works in the centre for the Spanish Commission to Help Refugees. “The CETI is a place of transit, it’s not built for long stays.”
She points to a lack of urgency at the top level. “The system here is very slow, but we do get what we ask for,” she says. “If we make a request [to the government] it might be delivered six or seven months later.” One such request was for Arabic translators in the centre, who arrived in early October.
Vázquez tells of a relatively recent trend among the people smugglers. Some will promise to help a whole family get to Melilla, but at the last minute, when they are crossing, the smuggler grabs hold of a child, keeping him or her in Moroccan territory, and demands more money. “They even start hitting the child in view of the parents who are on the other side,” says Vázquez. “It’s extortion.”
No representative of the CETI was available to comment on the Syrian refugee issue, nor was the mayor’s office, or the local branch of the Popular Party (PP), which governs Melilla and Spain.
Media are not allowed to enter the CETI. However, The Irish Times spoke to several refugees outside the doors of the centre and it became clear that it is under severe strain and those inside are deeply frustrated at the length of their stays in the city.
Also, national tensions are rife. A trio of Syrian teenagers complain that Moroccans try to steal their money and phones when they are in the shower. A young man from the Republic of Guinea, meanwhile, says he stays away from the Syrians altogether.
Moments later, a fierce scuffle breaks out just inside the CETI. Security guards push a furious middle-aged Syrian man out of the door to cool off. He continues shouting at the guards for several minutes. “That’s the Syrians for you,” the Guinean says, laughing.
Three days earlier, a Syrian and an Algerian were taken to hospital following a knife fight in the centre.
Such scenes do not square with most Syrians’ idea of Europe. Asif Duwara (23) entered Melilla using a Moroccan passport two and a half months ago. Once his legal status is cleared, he wants to join his brother in Germany.
“After everything I’ve seen and what I’ve been through here in the CETI and in Spain, I don’t feel safe,” he says. “On the contrary, I feel safer in Syria than I do here.”