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Clandestine immigrants incognito in Melilla

Latest update : 2008-05-15

Undocumented immigrants from Africa go through considerable hardships to get to Europe and are often caught because their skin marks them as foreign. But a new kind of clandestine migration relies on invisibility.


In one bloody night in October 2005, an estimated 400 immigrants rushed the razor-wire topped fence that separates Melilla from Morocco, and the border guards opened fire. When the sun rose the next morning, six people were dead, and dozens were recovering in hospital.


Spain has since spent 33 million euros to seal the border once and for all, doubling the fence’s height and adding a variety of high and low-tech security features. (See slideshow at right.)


Amnesty International reports that Spain’s investment worked, pushing most of this sub-Saharan migration to the Canary Islands, causing the explosion of arrivals there in early 2006.


But the fence doesn’t worry Rashid M. He’s part of a new generation of immigrants who don’t need to climb a fence or paddle a boat to Europe: they simply walk across, and the border guards don’t say a word.


Rashid isn’t the typical picture of an undocumented African immigrant in Europe, simply because he’s not African. He left his home in India over 2 years ago and has been calling the immigrant detention centre (CETI) in Melilla his home for the last nine months.


While black Africans have moved on to the Canaries as their preferred point of entry, Indians and Bangladeshis have begun flowing into the CETI. They now outnumber sub-Saharan Africans by more than 2 to 1.


Rashid and his compatriots didn’t climb the fence; instead they simply slipped across the border dressed as Arabs, an option not open to sub-Saharan Africans for obvious reasons.


Spanish enclaves provide easy access to Europe


Melilla is a geographic anomaly, a tiny piece of the European Union in Africa. It is, along with a few islands and the city of Ceuta, one of the last vestiges of the Spanish empire in Morocco. But more recently, Melilla has become the southernmost outpost of Fortress Europe, the continent's comprehensive network of border controls designed to keep contraband products – and people – out.


Spain’s investment is part of a Europe-wide effort to curb undocumented immigration, and it’s an impressive sight. The six-metre high triple fence is enhanced with everything from cameras and motion detectors to razor wire and a bizarre, waist-deep spider web of steel cables, intended to trip people between the fences.


But Rashid doesn’t think these new defenses are the reason the border rushes stopped. “The height [of the fence] is nothing. It's the Moroccan army camped out along it that poses the problem – they shoot,” he said.


Yet while the high-profile mass fence climbs have ceased, the number of arrivals in the CETI has remained stable, said Maria Dolores, the Spanish government-appointed legal advisor there.


"There are a few more people in the camp now compared to two years ago. For the last little while the Sub-Saharan Afican arrivals have dropped off because the border is more solid," Dolores said.


"Shopping days" - a step closer to Europe


Melilla, with its beaches, discotheques and European shopping malls, is a major attraction for Moroccan shoppers – not for staples, which cost 10 times less in Morocco, but for big purchases like electronics and furniture. Melilla opens the border for Moroccan shopping days: three days a week for seven months of the year, when Moroccans flood into the city to spend money.


Rashid said he obtained an Algerian identity card and memorized the information. Then it was as simple as wrapping a keffiyeh around his head and walking into Europe.


“They didn’t ask me any questions, but just sent me on through because they thought I was shopping,” he said.


He then made his way to the Police station where he registered as a refugee claimant with his real name and nationality.


“When you arrive, they sit you down and interview you for hours, asking you all sorts of questions to find out if you're lying about where you're from and how you got there.”


Rashid explains that he left home because India's caste system meant that he would never make enough money to have a family. He saved enough for a plane ticket to Mali, where his journey towards Europe really began.


From there he hitchhiked, took buses and walked through Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco before crossing into Melilla. The trip from home to the CETI took an entire year to complete.


Rashid has now been living in the CETI for almost a year. “Before, if you were here for six or seven months, they'd send you to Spain, and you could work while your papers were processed. Now that's stopped. Everyone waits here.”


Rashid reports that approximately 80 Indians were sent home by plane six months ago from the detention centre after seeing their applications turned down. “Those of us who are still waiting are almost out of hope. We know we're next. It's only a dream to get into Spain now.”


Rashid expects a final decision on his refugee status in the coming months.

Date created : 2008-02-29