Behind three towering fences, over razor wire, beyond the 10 foot-deep trench and past the police watchtowers lies Europe. Some attempt to scale the fence, risking serious injury, a beating or even death. Others protest. Recently, desperate Syrians have started to come here and shout at the border guards who they say work with local gangs to extort migrants and limit access to the other side, and with it the opportunity to request asylum. This is not Greece, Macedonia or Hungary, but Spain - and here the experience of a decade of tough border control has made clear the harsh reality the rest of the continent could be heading for as Europe tries to close its borders.
Migrants have been coming to Melilla - a 4.7-square-mile Spanish enclave in North Africa - for years with the hope of making it to Europe. Over the last decade, Spain has poured millions into ramping up border security in Melilla, which, along with the similarly tiny Ceuta, are the only two land borders between the European Union and Africa. Despite the investment, however, illegal attempts to cross the border remain frequent, as do deaths and claims of human rights abuses at the hands of police.
With Slovenia and Austria the latest countries to announce plans to build fences, learning the lessons of the successes and many failures of the Ceuta and Melilla fences - the “symbols of Fortress Europe,” according to Amnesty International - has never been more important.
Syrians only began coming here fairly recently, and in relatively small numbers compared to those traveling along the Eastern Mediterranean route, but African migrants have been coming to the northern tip of the continent for years and show no sign of stopping despite crossing the border becoming increasingly difficult and, seemingly, more dangerous. A steady stream of young men and boys - meeting someone over 30 is rare - make the perilous pilgrimage from across sub-Saharan Africa to the tip of the continent where they try their luck being smuggled inside car engines, navigating the coast in flimsy dinghies or, if they cannot afford these options, braving the razor wire and jumping the fence.
According to the Amnesty International report published this week “Fear and Fences: Europe’s Approach to Keeping Refugees at Bay,” the best way to deal with the refugee crisis and improve border security is to create formal, regulated avenues for applying for asylum. The current model, they say, is unnecessarily endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands and fueling the people smuggling economy.
October recorded more attempts than any other month so far this year, according to the Spanish Red Cross. In Ceuta, Spanish forces rescued 165 persons in 14 instances of migrants braving the challenging currents of the Strait of Gibraltar with the hope of reaching Spanish territory undetected. Two died and another is missing. In February 2014, Spanish police fired rubber bullets and smoke bombs as dozens of men attempted to swim the short distance around the breakaway that demarks the start of Ceuta. At least 14 drowned in the shallow waters mere feet from the shore. In October, a judge closed the case, ruling that there was insufficient evidence of police wrongdoing to justify a trial.
In Tangier I met a Cameroonian man who had been in Morocco for several years trying to reach Spain. He had tried jumping the fence, swimming and going by boat, but never made it.
Despite having seen several friends die along the way, he told me he would keep trying.
“We don’t want to take these risks,” he said. “We go because there is nothing here.”
Responding to the growing numbers of Syrians arriving at its gates Spain opened immigration offices at border crossings to process requests for asylum in early 2015. The centers were to facilitate the process and provide a safe alternative to the often fatal alternative routes to Europe.
Those who make it into Melilla, often after long periods on the other side, are housed only a few hundred feet from the fence that kept them out at the refugee processing center, known by its Spanish acronym CETI. The short distance between the border and the refugee center is dominated by an immaculately maintained golf course, its verdant dark lawn stretching to the very frontier of Spanish territory before promptly giving up as it meets the fence. The stillness of the green is occasionally disrupted by the sounds of sirens signaling an attempt on the fence, or a passing army patrol on maneuvers.
Outside the center (journalists are not allowed in, I was told), I spoke to Asan, an 18-year-old Kurdish Syrian from Damascus. One of around 1,500 people staying in a facility built for less than 500, Asan (not his real name) tells me of the long journey he and a minority of Syrians have taken to this lesser known gate to Europe, a route that avoids dangerous sea crossings but often means paying considerable sums to people smugglers for safe passage.
“Getting to Europe is very expensive. Lots of people can’t afford to do it and end up trapped sleeping on the street [in Morocco],” he said. “I haven’t seen my family in two years. I’m here alone.”
As of November, he has been in Melilla for three months awaiting permission to travel to the mainland, but before he could get here, he had to pay 1400 euros to local mafias for access to the Spanish border and the opportunity to claim asylum.
José Palazón, spokesman and president of local migrant rights group Prodein, has been documenting abuse at the border for years. In September, Prodein released footage apparently showing how Syrians are charged large sums for access to the border. Palazón said the same system functions to limit the numbers able to request asylum each day according to an unofficial “quota.”
“Around 20 or 30 are allowed to the border each day. This is the limit established by Spain and enforced by the Moroccans,” he told me.
There are no exceptions to the fees, no clemency for those fleeing war.
“Everyone pays,” he said. “There are many people stuck [on the Moroccan side of the border]. Many run out of money and can’t get through. There are families separated with half on this side and half there.”
In September, Spanish news reported the story of a 38-year-old Syrian man who after unsuccessfully attempting to negotiate access to the border, took a canister of petrol and threatened to set himself and his infant son ablaze. According to the article, he eventually backed down and was arrested by police.
Others have already noted Spain’s strategy on border control, though, seemingly, not the failures of the model.
When Hungary weathered criticism for its treatment of migrants earlier this year, its ambassador to Madrid said the construction of a 109-mile barbed wire fence along the country’s southern border with Serbia - a bitter irony in light of Hungary’s historic dismantling of its border with Austria in 1989 - was no different from the fences Spain had built more than a decade earlier in Ceuta and Melilla.
“The fact that no one apart from Hungary and Spain wants to defend Europe’s borders is quite depressing,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wrote in September. But Hungary and Spain are far from alone. Back in 2012, Greece built a fence along part of its border with Turkey to control migration. Bulgaria responded to the influx of migrants from Greece by constructing its own fence.
Amnesty International argue these borders have done nothing to stem the flow of people into Europe - estimated by the United Nations to be 700,000 so far this year - it has only forced them to take ever greater risks.
“EU countries’ attempts to prevent irregular arrivals simply force refugees to more clandestine - and as a result mostly more dangerous - routes,” the report reads. “The comparably easier routes being closed off forces refugees to take more difficult and dangerous journeys to reach safety in Europe; either over wide, fast-flowing rivers, or longer sea journeys.”
Hungary’s fence diverted migrants, but appears to have done little to dissuade them from coming to Europe. In the last month, Austria and Slovenia have announced plans for their own fences. Ceuta and Melilla are just the latest of countless examples to show that fences alone will not stop desperate people from risking everything for the promise of a different life, however remote the chances of making it.
Europe’s leaders know this, and in some cases are effectively employing other countries as gatekeepers, most obviously Morocco and Turkey. There hired hands may temper migration through border checks and cooperation with Europe, but Ceuta and Melilla show us that these alone will not stop the problem. The work of journalists and NGOs suggests that transit countries are systematically using fear to supplement the fences and dissuade migrants from attempting the crossing.
Contracting this job out to countries with no free press and a scant regard for human rights makes the West complicit in the beatings, intimidation, extortion, corruption and killings that frequently follow.
Now is the time for Europe to ask itself whether it has the stomach to become a true fortress.
By Sam Edwards