Next stop Europe

For thousands of economic migrants a tiny Spanish enclave in north Africa offers a shortcut to a new life in the West. Rory Mulholland visits the world's most popular refugee camp. Photographs by Sam Faulkner
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Indy Lifestyle Online
he Pillars of Hercules marked the western end of the classical world. The Rock of Gibraltar was the northern pillar and Mount Hacho in Ceuta (pronounced "Theuta"), a Spanish enclave just across the strait in Morocco, was the southern one. For the refugees in the overflowing Red Cross camp there, the Spanish enclave of Ceuta now marks the beginning of the European world. Word of this back door to Europe has spread, and migrants have come from as far as Peru and Bangladesh in search of a ticket to a better life. But most are Africans. More arrive almost every night, climbing over or cutting their way through the fence that lines the mountainous border with Morocco.

Sako Ousmane is one of the 1,600 or so residents of the camp, which has facilites to cope with 500 people. Sako, a smiling 26-year-old from Mali, usually sells newspapers in the town. But today is Sunday and there is no paper, so he's hanging around by the waterfront with a friend, killing time. From where Sako is now standing, the jutting Rock of Gibraltar and the southern Spanish coastline are clearly visible across the blue Mediterranean that separates the two continents.

Spain claims a historical right to Ceuta and its other North African enclaves. The area is devoted to the military (almost half its 19 sq km is occupied by the army), duty-free shopping and dodgy cross- border commerce. It's a pleasant, modern place, unmistakably Spanish in character. Yet a third of its 75,000-strong population are Muslims of Moroccan origin; Arabic is heard in the streets and, in recent years, more and more black faces have appeared.

On weekdays Sako sells El Faro - you can hear "Faro, Faro" (the word means lighthouse) being softly called at street corners and in cafes. Sako explains that the refugees, or los ilegales, can wander freely about town once the police have given them a registration document. He reaches into a pocket to take out his own document, which the wind snatches out of his hands and deposits in the sea. Luck is with Sako, however, and the current carries it back towards the wall of the dock, where it is retrieved with much amusement and the aid of a stick.

"When I left Mali I first went to Niger, then I flew to Algiers and then to Casablanca," he says in French. "I spent three months in prison in Tangiers, then they brought me to Oujda [a Moroccan town on the Algerian border that features frequently in refugees' tales] and put me on a bus across the border. But I sneaked back in and spent days walking to Ceuta." The story of his journey here is a typical one. He says he left for Europe simply because he couldn't earn a living back in Mali, where he wants to return some day to marry his fiancee.

His account of life in the camp is also typical. "There are fights over food and about people trying to get sleep," he says. "I sleep outside beside a fire at night because there is no space for me in the tents. During the day I have a sleep in the tents." He claims that "it's mainly the Nigerians who cause trouble" and "mostly the Arabs who smoke hash".

This morning Sako walked the three or four kilometres into town. Every couple of hundred metres along the coast road the refugees have set up a car wash into which they beckon passing motorists. Near the entrance to the camp, Idrissa Sou is sponging down a car. He averages three vehicles a day.

"There's no fixed price - some people pay 500 pesetas, some give 50," he says. He is 22 years old. He left his home in the West African republic of Guinea-Bissau six months ago. "We're poor; there's nothing there," Idrissa explains.

He tells his story in French, although his native languages are Portuguese and Creole. He went on foot and by car across Senegal, Mali and Algeria. He eventually arrived in Morocco through Oujda, made his way to the mountains overlooking Ceuta and waited for nightfall. "Life will be better in Spain," he says. "I'll do any work there."

A pair of public telephones have been installed by the road below the Red Cross camp, which is called Calamocarro. These have a permanent queue of 10 to 20 people, and around them there is usually a throng of up to 100 others. A steep track leads to the hilltop camp, at whose entrance a round-the-clock watch is kept by a police vehicle from the Guardia Civil.

Calamocarro exists because migrants see Ceuta and Melilla, another of Spain's North African enclaves, as the easiest way to break into fortress Europe. None of the refugees interviewed thought they would be sent back home. This belief was not contradicted by any local officials, Red Cross workers or police. The authorities are reluctant to put it so bluntly, but they all seem to agree with the refugees that if you can make it to Ceuta, you've made it to Europe.

Britain deports migrants who admit that they have come for economic and not political reasons. But southern Spain's farmers are dependent on immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, and the country's attitude to economic refugees is more relaxed than Britain's. Refugees usually stay for two to four months in Calamocarro while their paperwork is sorted out. Then they're given a boat ride to the Spanish mainland, where they are fixed up with a job and a place to live, explains Roberto Franco, the chief press officer of the Ceuta administration. After a year their case is reviewed and if they've been behaving and have stable work, they can usually stay on legally. Many end up with Spanish citizenship, and they can then legally move anywhere in the EU.

Those claiming political asylum have little chance of being granted it. Only about 4 per cent are successful. But even those cases which are rejected can easily disappear into the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in Spain.

Men balancing large branches on their shoulders walk in through the camp entrance. The wood will be used in fires or to build shelters. There is a mud track through the middle of the camp. To the right is a concrete platform filled with dozens of bright blue tents that sleep over 30 people each in bunk beds. Above and below this platform, small tents of the type you see in holiday campsites spread across the hillside. They are interspersed with shacks that refugees have constructed, and the occasional shed.

The central path is lined with refugees chatting and keeping a curious eye on who is coming and going. Steve, the proud owner of an MA in business studies, is among them. He talks about the fire in December that destroyed 18 tents and of the more recent flooding. Then he talks about his ambitions.

"Spain is the only country in Europe that will let in economic migrants," he says. He'd prefer to go to England, but laughed at the idea of the British Embassy in Nigeria even considering him for a visa. So he'll make do with Spain. The man who has been standing next to him, listening in, strolls across the path and disappears inside a prefabricated building four or five times the size of a telephone box.

Is this the toilet? The question provokes hilarity. This is where Steve lives along with 10 other men. He opens the door to reveal a few bits of cardboard spread across the floor, a pair of suitcases and a pile of clothes. Steve says they sleep here without any mattresses or blankets. Or they at least try to sleep.

"It's not easy with the cold and the noise. The noise goes on till two or three in the morning."

The people sharing Steve's accommodation are nearly all Nigerians. A little further down the hill is an old barn in which 80 bunk beds are jammed together. There are a few married couples living here, and a few kids. But, as in the rest of the camp, it's mostly men in their twenties and thirties. (Of the 1,600 residents, just over 100 are women.) The refugees billeted in this barn are French- speaking West Africans.

People from similar backgrounds stick together in Calamocarro. Currently 24 nationalities are represented, the vast majority from sub-Saharan countries, but there are also over 100 Algerians. There is much inter-ethnic rivalry and recrimination. The Nigerians come in for a lot of stick from the French-speaking Africans, and it's hard to find anyone who has a good word for the Algerians.

The sweet smell of hash drifts here and there among the tents. Police seized several kilos in the camp last summer. Some former camp residents were returning from Spain hoping to get started in the drugs import-export business. But this, say officials, has been stopped because police at Algeciras, the Spanish port next to Gibraltar, are no longer letting refugees board the ferries for Ceuta.

There are many claims that illegal immigrants based in various EU countries were arriving in Ceuta because they had heard they could get their situation regularised there. Some of these were said to have arrived with thousands of dollars in their pockets. They are the ones wearing the designer clothes and sporting mobile phones, claim the less well-dressed. One man questioned about his mobile phone is defensive and says it is only for incoming calls. And, he insists, it is not his, he has merely borrowed it.

The police keep a low profile in the camp. A couple of officers are always stationed at the entrance, and their numbers are reinforced when the Red Cross makes its twice-daily food delivery. The food is cooked by the army - it's exactly the same menu that the soldiers get - and brought to the camp in large metal containers. The police have to be on hand to make sure the pushing and shoving in the queues does not develop into violence.

Calamocarro is run by the Red Cross, but its staff are based in the town and their activities at the camp are largely confined to delivering the food. But they also send a doctor and a nurse each morning. Today the doctor hasn't been able to make it and nurse Maria Vittoria Torres is on her own. "We have to deal with all sorts of medical complaints," she says. "But there are a lot of people with cuts on their feet which they got on their way to Ceuta."

Life is undoubtedly hard, but the camp's residents find time for recreational and spiritual pursuits. A large carpet stretched over a patch of concrete serves as a mosque, there are regular Christian services, and there is a daily five-a-side football match. African music blasts out from numerous cassette players, and enterprising residents have set up stalls selling everything from whisky to toilet rolls.

Seventeen-year-old Ibrahim Kakaesa-Bachu fled Congo after his mother was killed by Laurent Kabila's troops. He says that he'd like to be a professional footballer when he gets to Spain, but if that doesn't work out he'd be happy with any sort of job.

He's not complaining about life in the camp. "It's not that hard," he says, as he stands by a fire waiting for water to heat so he can have a wash. "I'm happy to be here after what I've been through. I've seen the camps in Rwanda - my region in Zaire is near the Rwandan border - and this is good by comparison."

The refugees' final hurdle before arriving on Spanish territory is the EU-financed border fence. Sergeant Antonio Acuna Guererro of the Guardia Civil seems very proud of it. It consists of two 2m-high barriers with a track in the middle and a road alongside on the Spanish side. Its entire length is floodlit and heavily patrolled by the army, the police and the Guardia Civil. The sergeant is keen to point out the cameras that line the fence as he drives along in his Nissan patrol vehicle. But these are not yet functioning. Nor are the sensors between the two fences. They've been in place for several months now, but he doesn't know when they will finally be up and running.

Tonight his patrol began with a drive along the coast to check for any boats that might be transporting illegal substances or persons. He explains that if Moroccans get caught entering Ceuta without the necessary papers, they are quickly dumped back across the border. This is why many of them try their luck with a night ride on a skiff across the Mediterranean to Spain. This costs them about $1,000, but it's a high-risk business. Over 3,000 have drowned on such crossings in the past five years.

The sergeant more or less admits it is just about impossible to stem the flow of illegals into Ceuta. What does he do if he sees one climbing over the fence? Does he push him back into Morocco? "It's difficult," he says. "They'll just move 100 metres or so down the line and try again." By 2am that night no intruders have been caught, although one soldier does report a figure disappearing into the Moroccan night.

The migrants are a problem not only for Ceuta, explains Sergeant Guererro, but also for Madrid and for Europe. This is what most people in the town, from taxi drivers to shopkeepers to columnists on El Faro, will eventually say when you get them talking about the situation.

However, Luis Manuel Aznar, the editor of El Faro, says that his paper, unlike much of the British press, does not go in for anti-immigrant headlines. "These people behave well," he insists. "Relations are good between the townspeople and the illegals." Relations do indeed seem to be good. A taxi driver said the presence of all these black people in Ceuta was not good for the town's image, but everyone else questioned was sympathetic to the refugees' plight.

Aznar does not think the government in Madrid needs to change its immigration policy. "The people in Murcia [a region in southern Spain] are glad to have them because immigrants work harder than the Spanish. And besides, the Spanish won't do those jobs." But he does think the refugees need to be moved on more quickly to the mainland to ease the burden on Ceuta. There are plans for a transfer of over 300 in the coming weeks, and there is much talk of a new building to house the refugees. But neither project has been confirmed, and for the moment the overcrowding continues.