In September, more than 350 sub-Saharan migrants attempted to enter Ceuta via sea, by swimming around a forbidding wire fence separating the tiny Spanish enclave from its border with Morocco. In rubber rings, tyres, with life jackets and armbands only 91 managed to evade the Moroccan border patrols, the rest were repelled back to the northern African nation by border police.
When the 91 swimmers landed breathless and exhausted on the beach, there were shouts of ‘ole’ and one unfurled a Spanish flag. But soon they were confronted by security forces who transported them in vans to the city's Centre for Temporary Stay of Immigrants (CETI).
There are frequent mass breaches of Ceuta but attempting to swim to the frontier city is relatively new. Trying to get in by land can be lethal. In 2005, at least 17 people died when they were caught between the rubber bullets of Spanish police and machine gun fire from Moroccan security forces.
Protecting Europe's only land borders from outsiders are two parallel three metre (10 foot) fences topped with barbed wire, with regular watch posts. In between runs a road where police patrol. Underground cables connect spotlights, noise and movement sensors. Several police ships guard the coast.
Those who make the perilous journey from sub-Saharan Africa to Ceuta are often doing so to escape armed conflict or political persecution. Others are looking for work and a better life than the one they have left behind. The journey into the Spanish enclave can take months, even years, and it can be life threatening. Some migrants fly to Morocco, others are smuggled across Africa by traffickers based on promises they do not intend to keep, who demand more money throughout the journey, often taking travel documents off migrants to exert more control.
Migrants typically spend months hiding out in the mountains of Morocco waiting for an opportunity to cross the border. There are said to be hundreds, if not thousands, camped out. Those who are caught by Moroccan police are deported to the border of Mauritania, 3,000 kilometres to the south. Those that succeed in crossing Ceuta’s fortified fence are corralled into the CETI. The centre has capacity for 512 and is currently running at 700.
Described by one resident as a 'voluntary detention centre', debate rages as to whether it is the epitome of good practice or is plunging people into an inhumane situation where they may remain for years. Residents are given an identity card and can receive legal services. There is a gym and a 24-hour medical facility. Breakfast, dinner and snacks are available. There is a curfew - inmates have to be in by 11pm and can't go out again until 7am. It is risky staying in the CETI; being known by the authorities could mean sudden deportation.
Nobody is obliged to stay in the centre but in Ceuta there is no other way to survive. A relatively small enclave with one main high street, migrants are not allowed to work legally. Finding ways to make money is impossible due to the size of the territory and the fact that Moroccans seem to have a monopoly on poorly-paid unregulated employment.
In effect, the city, with its fences and sea, is one big detention centre from which migrants cannot leave. Once in the system the real waiting game begins. A confusing legal tangle dictates if, and when, someone can travel to mainland Spain, just 13 kilometres away. Ceuta is part of the EU’s Schengen area but because the borders within Europe have been weakened, Europe's external borders have been strengthened. The enclave, along with Melilla, is responsible for protecting the external southern border of Europe - the crossroads between two continents - and the rest of Europe wants this gateway sealed off. But Ceuta is part of Spain and so migrants should have the right to cross to the peninsula.
Romero Aliaga, a lawyer for the Comision Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEARS), says the whole process is illegal: ‘Keeping people in Ceuta is against the law. The Spanish High Court states that migrants should have the freedom to move throughout Spain and the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) agrees. In theory, the maximum stay for someone in the CETI centre is three months; in practice, people have been there for up to four years.
At the end of Ceuta's single main street is an astonishing view - to the left, the African continent spreads out far to the south; to the right is mainland Spain and the rest of Europe, tantalizingly close but bureaucratically far. For those who have escaped political persecution and war, to have journeyed so far and to then have to endure endless waiting is a brutal psychological assault.
If entering Europe seems unlikely, returning to countries of origin is not an option. Some migrants are asylum seekers, others no longer hold documents and Spain does not have a repatriation treaty with a lot of sub-Saharan countries. Deportation to Morocco often means harsh treatment by the police and for non-Moroccan citizens, further deportation to the border of Mauritania, West Africa - an unknown country for many. For most migrants and their families, the economic, physical and emotional costs of travelling to Ceuta mean that giving up hope and going back home is unthinkable.
Tom, a resident of CETI says: ‘It is not the clothes or the food we want. We ask only for our dignity, for the right to work and to live.’ This is a feeling echoed by all of the centre's 700 or more residents. They want to build a new life for themselves. But in the CETI they stay, waiting, unable to go forwards and unable to turn back.
For more information on the situation of immigrants in Ceuta see the Land In Between website.
This blog is part of New Internationalist's human rights series for Blog Action Day 2013.