Spain: Keeping Africans out 


Spain retains political control over two semi-autonomous city states in northern Morocco that are protected by fortress-like fences and high-tech surveillance equipment. Their very existence has prompted allegations of racism and a renewed hold on colonialism. David Meffe reports following a visit to the enclaves.

Somewhere in the lush forest, I realise I’m lost. But given the complex geography, it’s not altogether surprising. There are no landmarks, trails or friendly placards anywhere; at any moment, a chance encounter with a soldier could land me in detention, or at minimum lead to a few awkward questions. Caught along the barrier between two nations plagued with centuries of bloody history and mutual conquests, the dirt beneath my feet is African, but I’m officially still in Spain.

Roadblocks and sentries have forced me into the bush in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of the most closely guarded borders in the EU, which just so happens to be in North Africa of all places.

I meet an old man somewhere on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea and ask which way to the seemingly invisible fence. “The border? The border is all around us! Walk in any direction long enough and you will find it,” he says, laughing casually. “But do not let the soldiers see you. There are no photos here; they will think you are a spy.”

Finally, two parallel chain-link fences appear amidst thick greenery and overgrown trees, clearly accustomed to plenty of sunlight. A small asphalt walkway outlines a winding length of no man’s land that stretches off in both directions into the Mediterranean. Both barriers are topped with heavy barbed wire; the Moroccan side is rusted red, while its Spanish counterpart shines with sharp and uninviting clarity. It’s exceedingly clear who is welcome, and who is not.

The feeling is one of latent paranoia, exacerbated by a line of sentry towers manned by vigilant soldiers wielding rifles and binoculars. Along the beach, throngs of soldiers jog in the early morning sunlight, away from the prying eyes of tourists. There is no war; these are peacetime patrols. Their battles are ongoing, their fight is never-ending. Their enemies are swarms of unnamed, unarmed illegal migrants for whom the border demarcates more than the partition between two nations. It is the division between two separate worlds, just close enough to home to be worth fighting over.

The last Spanish colonies

Though both Spain and France recognised Moroccan independence in 1956, following a long period of colonisation, the Spanish retained political and economic control of Ceuta and Melilla, two port cities in the north of the newly founded country.

Today, both remain overseas territories that use European currency and have Mayor-Presidents; they hold the title of semi-autonomous cities, giving them a rank between a standard city and an autonomous Spanish community like Andalusia or Catalonia. Ironically, Ceuta and Melilla function much on the same Finders, Keepers principle as Gibraltar, a disputed peninsula and military strongpoint in the south of the Iberian Peninsula that has been under British control for 300 years – to the dismay of the Spanish who have repeatedly called for its annexation.

These two North African cities hold bragging rights as some of the most guarded territories in all of Europe. The fences are just a portion of the intense security that goes into keeping the cities militarily cordoned off from surrounding Morocco.

Over the years, the walls have claimed the lives of hundreds of migrants who attempt to illegally cross into Europe, fleeing conflict and economic despair from various nations across the African continent. The millions spent patrolling these controversial boundaries has led to accusations of neo-colonialism and outright racism on the part of the Spanish government.  

Madrid argues that its historical presence in these cities predates the modern concept of Morocco as a nation, and thus refuses to relinquish political control despite years of protest from the Moroccan government. The enclaves are postage stamps of European colonialism in a northern region of Africa that Arabs historically referred to as Al Maghrib al Aqsa: the farthest land of the setting sun. 


Ceuta is located about 12 miles off the Spanish mainland, just across the Straits of Gibraltar. If you cannot afford a private helicopter, there are only two ways in or out of the enclave: a 45-minute ferry ride from Algeciras or walking through the only border opening, a heavily guarded crossing known as la Frontera.

Ceuta, considerably larger than its counterpart Melilla, covers about seven square miles of a peninsula that has been used as a trading port since the time of the Carthaginians in the 5th century, who then called it Abyla.

Though Muslim rule ended in 1415, the Treaty of Lisbon officially ceded control of the city and its fortifications to Spain as of the first day of January 1668. 

Ceuta’s roughly 8,200 inhabitants are Christians and Muslims, Europeans, Arabs, Indians and Berbers that speak a clever mix of languages throughout the streets. The city represents a fusion of cultures and religions that speaks not only to its geographical location, but also its muddied historical significance as a military and economic strongpoint in the Mediterranean.

Former Spanish Premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and King Juan Carlos visited the enclaves in 2006 and 2007 respectively, sparking outrage from the Moroccan side. Morocco has never officially recognised Spanish sovereignty in Ceuta or Melilla, and their existence is partially to blame for ongoing tensions between the two nations, though both economically benefit to a certain extent from their continued existence.

The great wall of Ceuta

Since Ceuta is officially an overseas Spanish territory, getting over the fence is an easy way for illegal migrants or drug smugglers to gain access to Europe without having to take rickety boats to Sicily, Portugal or mainland Spain. In an effort to curb these actions, a five-mile, 20-foot-tall fence was erected in 1993 to physically cut off the Ceutan peninsula from mainland Morocco.

Tasked with round-the-clock surveillance, the barbed wire steel fence is perpetually guarded by nearly 1,000 police and Guardia Civil officers. Whatever they might miss is captured by infrared cameras, motion sensors and hyper-sensitive noise detecting hardware.

The peninsula is, to all intents and purposes, a high-tech fortress that stands in modern contrast to the city’s multitude of ancient stone forts, tourist-friendly navigable moats and the Royal Walls of Ceuta, which were declared a Spanish heritage site in 1985. To this day, Ceuta remains one of the most heavily guarded and thoroughly patrolled borders in the EU. 

The city of Ceuta itself is a quaint seaside resort town with a decidedly European feel and mix of architecture and cuisine. A stroll through the streets speaks nothing of its disputed status or controversial security measures, aside from roving groups of guards that can be seen hovering near the port and city centre.

Smiling patrons line outdoor café terraces and restaurants along the water in the shadow of a distinctly Spanish cathedral; the majority of women wear western clothing and grocery stores openly sell alcohol and jamón ibérico (Spanish ham). At first glance, it’s almost hard to believe this is North Africa.

It’s no surprise that a poll conducted in 2011 by Instituto Opina found that 87.9% of people from mainland Spain consider Ceuta and Melilla to be Spanish. 

The Spanish authorities in Ceuta go to great lengths to ensure that the barrier and geographical exclusion remains as far away from public consciousness as possible. For reasons of security, access to the surrounding fences is strictly forbidden along with any photos or videos; all roads leading to the wall are strictly reserved for military personnel and official vehicles.

Talking about the border is also something of a social faux-pas amongst residents who mainly identify as Spanish citizens. 

Going over

Ceuta gained notoriety in 2005 when hundreds of African migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, stormed the fence, leaving 50 injured and anywhere between 13 and 18 people dead – though this was by no means the first such incident, nor the last. Live ammunition and rubber bullets were fired from both the Spanish and Moroccan side. That year alone, over 11,000 migrants attempted to breach the fence at night with ladders and boards, tearing at their flesh along the barbed wire in the process. Those who made it over alive were winners in the costly gambit for a chance at a new life in Europe.

In February 2014, anti-riot rubber bullets fired from the Spanish side contributed to the drowning of at least 15 migrants trying to swim around the 80-metre breakwater fence separating Spanish and Moroccan waters. The other 23 who reached the shore were forced back to Morocco without official procedure, prompting groups like Amnesty International to call for Spanish accountability in the “appalling” deaths. The following month, however, Spanish authorities blocked an official investigation into the incident. Madrid originally denied any shooting from their side, but an amateur video of the event eventually forced Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz to admit that rubber bullets were shot, though only toward the migrants, “not at” them.

The very existence of the fortified borders in Ceuta and Melilla has spurred outrage from critics who describe them as a deeply racist remnant of African colonialism, even dubbing them the “Walls of Shame”.

In May 2014, during what is now being called one of the largest breaches of the fence in Melilla, over 1,500 migrants stormed the fence at five separate locations in a coordinated effort. Reports indicate that at least 500 made it across the border, though it is unclear how many died in the process. Many of those apprehended on the Spanish side were held at CETI, a temporary migrant detention centre built to accommodate 480 residents, but which now allegedly houses over 2,000. This influx of arrivals forced Spanish authorities to set up temporary tents outside the facility. Here, the migrants can wait months for their refugee status to be decided. 

The Spanish government has recently agreed to spend over €2m to boost security in Ceuta and Melilla. Reports by various news agencies, though unconfirmed by the Moroccan government, show that further defences are being erected on the Moroccan side of Melilla that include an additional fence with a dugout trench at its base, both topped with razor wire. 

Human mules of Ceuta

Due to its European status and storied importance with regards to naval trade along the Mediterranean, Ceuta has developed a complex informal economy based on blind eyes and mutual benefit with the surrounding communities. Every day, millions of Spanish commercial products are delivered to Ceuta and Melilla, which are part of the Spanish Eurozone and a special low-tax zone.

This means that the price of goods and services is considerably lower in these cities than mainland Europe. It also means that goods can pass freely into the port and out into Morocco without any additional taxes. Every day, hundreds of Moroccans line up for hours to buy bulk European goods in Ceuta in order to transport them into Morocco for sale at souks (large, open air markets) across the country.

Traders do not need a visa or a passport to enter the commercial zone, a series of massive warehouses along the border, provided that they leave immediately afterwards, and on foot. To curb smuggling, authorities have banned any commercial transport vehicles from the border; that includes trucks, donkey carts and even wheelbarrows.

This has led many to sometimes carry over 100 kilos or more of duty-free merchandise on their backs. They’ve been dubbed the human mules of Ceuta. The trading process is closed to the public and closely scrutinised by Guardia Civil officers who corral the heavily burdened traders like cattle using metal barriers, intimidation and sometimes force to keep the line moving. Both men and women use thick ropes to harness their goods onto their bodies in any way possible so as to be able to carry the maximum amount across the border.

The rule is simple: as long as it’s on your body, you can leave with it. This industry employs thousands on the Moroccan side, especially women, who report to the border at the break of dawn and often make several trips back and forth throughout the day.

Ceuta’s economy is based primarily on this form of mass informal trading and exporting, though tourism also plays a small part. Its special tax exemptions and exotic status make it a perfect holiday getaway for Spaniards who want to taste the flavour of North Africa without actually having to leave their home country.

In through the out door

Across la Frontera, on the Moroccan side, hundreds of small white taxis line a nearby hill just past the heavy iron bars painted a calm shade of rusting blue. Here, they wait patiently to transport tourists to nearby Tangiers or Chefchaouen – the hashish capital of Morocco – as they cannot themselves cross the border without a visa, let alone with a vehicle.

I squat behind a taxi to take a photo when I’m spotted by a driver who immediately grabs my camera and begins shouting, aggressively demanding that I turn it over, along with its contents.

“No photos here! No photos! You are with the Spanish!” he yells repeatedly in French, attracting the attention of others who surround us and begin shoving me in an effort to loosen my grip. They try and call over an armed guard patrolling in the distance, assuring me that I will be arrested and jailed for espionage. 

Mistrust and apprehension exist on both sides of the border and tensions remain high. On this side of the fence, it seems, I’m the unwelcome one. 

Source: New African Magazine


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