How Europe created a theatre of cruelty to deter migrants

The Guardian, April 18 2010

“British jobs for British workers.” It’s an easy thing to say. Gordon Brown came out with it in June 2007, just before he became Prime Minister. Since then, the easy words have been picked up and recycled by pundits and pickets and politicians from the British National Party on the right through to the biggest trade union in the country, Unite, on the left. The reality, however, is a little more difficult than the idea.

Come 1,200 miles south, to Melilla – a single city which embodies the hidden complications of the great migration debate. It sits on the coast of north Africa, surrounded by the waters and territory of Morocco, but, courtesy of military conquest more than 500 years ago, it belongs to Spain. Geographically, it may be Africa – but legally it is Europe.

For the ceaseless tide of migrants flowing northwards through Africa, Melilla is like an urban life raft. If they can survive the gangsters who rip them off at every turn in the road, if they can make it across the scorching emptiness of the Sahara, they still face one even greater danger in the dark, choppy waters of the Mediterranean where so many of their predecessors have drowned like fleas. They know they can avoid this danger, that legally they can reach Europe, if they can just smuggle themselves into Melilla or into the equally Spanish city of Ceuta, 250 kilometers to the west.

You can begin to see the hidden complications if you listen to Jose Palazon, a teacher who lives in Melilla. Back in the autumn of 1998, he noticed that something strange was happening each night to the dustbin in front of his house. He kept an eye out and discovered that under cover of darkness a young boy was removing the rubbish from the bin so that he could sleep in it.

The idea of the child being reduced to the status of trash was worrying but not entirely surprising. By that time, there were already hundreds of migrants sleeping rough on the streets of Melilla, trying to break into a European Union which was increasingly loathe to accept them. Palazon and his wife, Maite, managed to get talking to the boy in the bin and found that he was only eleven years old and that he had been living in the dark corners of the city since he had come over the fence from Morocco some three years earlier.

Palazon recalls how, after this incident, he and his wife succeeded in adopting the boy and tried to persuade the city’s council to help the other migrant children on its streets, joining with friends to form a campaigning group called Prodein, and how they encountered a resistance with a powerful motive: “They didn’t want to help the children, because that would encourage more to come to Melilla.”

And that is the heart of the complication: if you treat migrants well, if you go and give them the kind of human rights which Europeans demand for themselves, you only encourage them to keep coming. So, Melilla has become a kind of theatre, acting out the most intense human dramas which are calculated to send a message of deterrence to that great global audience of hopeful poor. The message of the drama says “Don’t be fooled by the wide avenues and beautiful fountains of this Spanish city. None of this is for you. You stay away from our city, you stay where you are, you stay poor and, if you dare to try to come here, we’ll hurt you: if we catch you climbing our fence, we’ll shoot at you and we’ll kill you, and nobody will be punished for the murder; if we catch you inside our fence, we may just seize you and drive you into the desert and dump you there; or, if you’re really unlucky, we’ll let you stay here and you’ll have no way out, no way into the rest of Europe, no way back home, you can just stay here and be poor and hopeless and trapped without any legal rights to call your own.”

This theatre clearly involves the Spanish, although they have shown some signs of attempting to be humane, but it is by no means uniquely their production. The Moroccans, too, are deeply implicated in the killing of migrants on the African side of the fence as well as in the entirely illegal dumping of men, women and children in the desert beyond their borders. And the European Union as a body is the power behind the Spanish, funding the production, writing the script, ignoring the casualties, whether physical or legal. To protect our jobs, the EU authorises Melilla to be a theatre of cruelty.

Back in the late 1990s – around the time that Jose Palazon found the migrant boy in the bin – this could be pretty crude. The Council of Europe’s committee for the prevention of torture uncovered evidence that Africans who made it into Melilla were held in farm buildings where conditions were so bad that some of them took refuge in abandoned cars on a near-by rubbish dump. They were then liable to have police give them a drink of water containing a tranquiliser after which they could be wrapped up in adehesive tape covering almost all of their body including their mouth for easy delivery by military plane back to their country of origin where, in some cases, there were reports of their being ill-treated and even killed by local law officers.

In those days, the ten-kilometer fence around the landward side of the city was not much more than rolls of barbed wire. In 1999, as EU resistance to migration grew, the city erected an intimidating new barrier – two parallel wire fences, reaching up to 12 feet in the air, topped with rolls of razor wire and with a tarmac strip running between them for patrols by the Spanish Guardia Civil, all of it monitored by 106 video cameras, infra-red surveillance, a microphone cable and helicopters. In Melilla, I met a man who had worked on the fence and who told me he would come to work in the morning to find his ladder covered in blood, where migrants had tried to use it to climb into the city and had become victims of the razor wire.

Some made it over the fence. Some managed to smuggle themselves into the city in the backs of cars. Human Rights Watch found that children traveling alone were still finding their way in and were being held by the Spanish in an old fort, La Purisima, where they were liable to being beaten by staff, robbed and assaulted by older children and kept in punishment cells for up to a week without bedding or toilets before being shoved back into Morocco where the police might give them another beating and put them out onto the streets to  fend for themselves. Human Rights Watch concluded that the Spanish were breaking their own immigration laws and were guilty of ‘arbitrary and discriminatory’ behaviour. (You begin to see why Jose Palazon’s dustbin seemed attractive.)

Still, the new fence worked –  not by stopping the migrants but by diverting many of them out to sea. They emerged from the Sahara and embarked for the Canaries or southern Spain in tiny rowing boats, sometimes succeeding, sometimes drowning – until 2004 when the EU paid for extra coastal patrols and sent them flowing back to Morocco and to a new and bloody crisis.

The migrants gathered in hundreds in the scraps of woodland outside Melilla and organised mass assaults on the city’s perimeter. By the summer of 2005, Amnesty International was reporting that those who were caught on the fence were being treated with excessive force by Moroccan and Spanish guards and that those who were caught inside the fence were being illegally expelled back into Morocco, often to be dumped in the desert. By the autumn of 2005, there was clear of evidence of murder at Melilla and, along the coast, outside the second Spanish city of Ceuta.

A human rights lawyer from Melilla, Jose Alonso, went out to the fence at night: “It was the closest I have ever been to a war, going to the fence and seeing what was happening. There was a helicopter over the Spanish side with a huge light shining down on the Moroccan side. There was shooting. From where I was, I saw hundreds of people trying to get over the fence. Both sides were shooting down at them. It was like a film about a war.”

Between August and October, there were at least eleven deaths at Melilla and Ceuta – most of them shot with live ammunition as they rushed the fence at night; one man with his throat crushed by a rubber bullet; dozens of others injured by bullets or by falling from the fence; many of them reporting that they were assaulted and robbed by security forces. The Spanish said it was the Moroccans; the Moroccans said it was the Spanish. On one night in October, six men were shot on the Moroccan side of the fence: the Moroccan authorities said this was self-defence because the migrants were throwing rocks at them. Nobody was charged with any of the killings.

In the background, Amnesty International tracked Moroccan security forces sweeping through the makeshift camps in the woodland, rounding up hundreds of migrants, including asylum-seekers, and dumping them out in the desert on the Algerian border, 30 kilometers from the nearest village, without food or water. Some of them tried to walk into Algeria, only to be caught by Algerian forces and sent back to Morocco. Some of them were using mobile phones to speak to Amnesty while they were wandering lost in the desert. Unconfirmed reports said some of them were dying there. Medecins Sans Frontieres found five hundred migrants, including pregnant women, stranded in two villages in the area and reported that in the previous two years, they had treated nearly 10,000 migrants with illnesses and that nearly a quarter of them showed clear signs of violent attack including beatings, shootings, attacks with dogs and sexual assaults, all of which the victims attributed to security forces. The Moroccans blamed the Algerians. The Algerians blamed the Moroccans.

Amnesty concluded in a special report: “In the past few weeks, scores of people have been injured and at least eleven killed while trying to cross into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Mellia when they were confronted by the law enforcement officials of both countries…. Hundreds more, including possible asylum-seekers, have been rounded up by the Moroccan authorities and placed in detention or forcibly removed. The evidence we saw showed that law enforcement officials used force which is both unlawful and disproportionate, including lethal weapons. They injured and killed people trying to cross the fence. Many of those seriously injured inside Spanish territory were pushed back through fence doors without any legal formality of medical assistance.”

The Spanish reacted – by building an even bigger fence, subsidised by the European Union. By the time they had finished, the landward side of Melilla was protected by three parallel fences, reaching up to 20 feet into the air, rigged with obstacles to slow the invaders’ progress, decorated with motion sensors and video cameras and watch towers, prowled by cars and helicopters and more troops than ever. The migrants kept coming. The guards kept shooting. On one violent night in July 2006, three African men were killed at the fence and twelve others were injured, some by bullets, some by falling from the fence. Others started coming round the seaward side of the city, sometimes in small boats or even jet skis, sometimes simply paddling in life jackets, sometimes face down and no longer breathing.

The Spanish and their paymasters in the EU reacted by creating a new kind of fence, a bureaucratic one. Migrants trickle into the city. Some apply for asylum, some simply ask for the right to reside. Their cases are considered and almost always rejected. Some of the rejects can then be expeled back to their own countries. But masses of them come from countries which have no repatriation agreement with Spain. For years, the Spanish dealt with this by giving them a letter telling them that they were expeled and putting them on the ferry to mainland Spain with instructions to take themselves back home, knowing very well that they would disappear into the hidden world of black market jobs and phony papers. But as word of their success spread homewards, more followed and so, the natural logic of the theatre of cruelty dictated that the message of hope must be stopped: now, they are not allowed onto the ferry; and they cannot be sent back home because their own countries have no agreement with Spain; they cannot be shoved back into Morocco because there is no agreement with them either; and so they stay. Endlessly, as a kind of living warning to those who might be tempted to follow.

There are literally hundreds of these stranded people in Melilla. Many of them are Asians whose families have sold their possessions and borrowed from banks in order to raise the money to pay people-smugglers to get them to Europe. In Melilla, I met them and heard stories of terrifying journeys, which began well enough, with the smugglers flying them from the Indian sub-continent through Dubai into central Africa, often into Mali, and which then disintegrated as the smugglers betrayed them.

Shaibul was 23 years old when he left Comilla in south east Bangladesh, clutching his degree in commerce, aiming for Madrid and the chance to earn money to send back home. He was stranded in Mali for six days, alone in a house, while the smugglers disappeared; stranded again with 17 other Asians surrounded by sand and mountains somewhere in the Sahara when the smugglers’ driver vanished; picked up and dumped in a date field in Algeria, where a gardener betrayed them to police, who drove them out to a scorching wasteland back on the border with Mali and left them.

“We found people in tents there,” Shaibul told me. “They were lost, too. They called this place Zero. We begged some food and water. One person in our group had a mobile phone and we spoke to our families. We were crying, very afraid. It was stone cold at night, then baking in the day. There were high winds and sand storms. Our families went to the smugglers, who said they must pay more money. My father said ‘I cannot lose my son’ so he borrowed more from the bank and gave it to the smugglers. Other families did the same.”

Moved by this extra money, the smugglers came and drove them back into Mali and, as the month went by, they extorted two more payments from the families of their passengers while they pushed them northwards, abandoned them, rescued them, drove them southwards again until finally, having sold the family’s land in Bangladesh, Shaibul’s father secured him a place on a speedboat which took him from the coast of Algeria to the bottom of a cliff. “They told me ‘This is Spain, you must wait for the sun and then go up the cliff’.” Of course, it was not mainland Spain – it was Melilla. It was December 29 2005 when Shaibul reached the top of the cliff and walked into the city. It had taken him 23 months to get there. And now, more than four years later, he is still there. He is now 29.

He can’t move onto mainland Spain, because the Spanish will not let him, although it is not clear that they have any legal right to restrain his movements in this way. He has not been charged, convicted or jailed for any crime. He is simply stranded. He cannot get back into Morocco or Algeria, because they will not take him. He cannot go back to Bangladesh, because they have no repatriation agreement with Spain and anyway, Shaibul says, he has to go on: “My family have lost everything to pay for me to be here. Better to kill us than to make us go back.”

He and several hundred other Asians survive in Melilla, partly because the Spanish authorities were embarrassed by the NGOs recording the death and abuse around the fence and have provided a new Centro de Estancia Temporal de Immigrantes, known as the CETI, where there are clean, safe dormitories and regular meals for the migrants. They survive, too, because people in Melilla hire them for odd jobs, washing their cars and sweeping their paths.

Some of these lost people showed signs of deep anguish when they talked about their position, constantly asking the staff in the CETI if there is any news of any permission to stay, constantly being told that it is for the police or for the government to decide. The CETI give them tranquilisers to help them. Ali Achet, who used to work in a CD shop in Dakha, has been stuck in the city since December 9th 2005. His family paid 3,000 euros to a smuggler who agreed to fly him direct to Morocco. Instead, he was sent  by bus to India and then by plane to Ethiopia and Togo where he lived as a beggar for a year and was reduced to a walking skeleton, drinking his urine, before finally his family helped him to bribe his way into Melilla in the back of a car. He said: “We came looking for liberty, but we are stuck in  a prison. Melilla is a prison. What have we done? Every day we wait for a solution. We are suffering. We have nothing now. A prison sentence is definite – this is endless.”

They say the only way to get a place on a ferry to the mainland is to act as an informer for the police. They refuse to do it. From time to time, police raid the CETI in the early morning to grab migrants for expulsion. The migrants post night guards so that they can see them coming and alert everybody to run. There are dozens of migrants who prefer to sleep on the streets than to sleep in the CETI with the risk of the police raids.

There are others trapped, too. I met a Moroccan soldier, Hicham Bouchti, who had applied for asylum in Melilla as a whistle-blower after accusing the Moroccan authorities of running a regime of torture in their prisons and who had spent more than four years as a kind of human bagatelle, bouncing between borders and always coming back to rest in the nowhere land of Melilla. The last I heard of him, he was deep into a hunger strike.

There was a young couple, who were a bureaucratic version of a tragic love story. The girl is Moroccan and has just given birth to a boy, whose father is a young Indian. They profess real love for each other. But she was being told she had no right to stay in Melilla and must go back to Morocco where she feared her family and even the police would punish her for having sex when she was not married and, particularly, for having sex with a man who was not Moslem. The boyfriend was being told that he could not go with her into Morocco, because the authorities there would not accept him and, three years after he arrived in the city, that he must simply wait and wait.

Gregorio Escobar, governor of the city of Melilla, sits in his well-appointed office in his neat grey suit and explains that his government has two responsibilities: “We have a responsibility to take care of this border, not only for our own citizens but for all of Europe. Also Spain has a responsibility to take care of the people who happen to get inside.” He is no monster and he explains that he understands the pressure when the average per capita income inside the city is 15 times higher than on the other side of the fence, in Morocco, and almost immeasurably higher than in sub-Saharan Africa, from where most of the migrants come.

Not far from his office, a group of about 50 Asians gather in the Plaza Menendez y Pelayo and chant a call for their human rights. Amnesty International has continued to record reports of migrants being beaten and/or shot and/or dumped in the desert by the Moroccans. In Britain, the jobs are safe for British workers.

Translating work by Jill Baron