Spain has announced that immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa who crash through the frontier into Spanish enclaves in Morocco will be immediately deported.
The government's crackdown coincided with yet another nocturnal assault by Africans massed on Morocco's border with Melilla, the Spanish autonomous city on the Mediterranean.
In the sixth human avalanche in a week, a thousand would-be immigrants, desperate to grab a foothold in Europe, stormed the parallel razor-wire fences at several points early yesterday, but were repulsed by a massive security operation mounted on both sides.
Moroccan police detained 265 people and six were reported to have died on the Moroccan side, with 30 injured and receiving hospital treatment in the border town of Nador. Hundreds of determined young men have poured into Melilla in recent days, vaulting the 20ft spiked fence with ladders of branches cut from the pine forests where they had been living rough, waiting for their chance.
Spanish and Moroccan military jeeps patrolled Melilla's four-mile barrier through the night, their headlights sweeping the rugged African terrain, while helicopters with heat-seeking cameras and spotlights rattled overhead.
Those who scaled the first fence were hauled off Spanish soil by security guards before they could reach the second. Only one made it through the wire, and was taken to hospital in Melilla with serious cuts from the curtain of coiled blades that covers the outer fence.
Spain's Deputy Prime Minister, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, said late yesterday during a visit to Ceuta, the enclave in Morocco close to Gibraltar, and Melilla: "Under exceptional measures, in coming hours, probably today or tomorrow, illegal immigrants will be returned to Morocco ... Citizens of Ceuta and Melilla, and Spain in general, must be assured that this government guarantees the security of our borders."
The expulsion order was greeted with dismay by human rights organisations and refugee support groups who met Mrs Fernandez de la Vega in Melilla. "We completely disagree with mass expulsions. They amount to a death sentence," Jose Alonso, the secretary of Melilla's Human Rights Association, said. "If immigrants are returned to Morocco, Moroccan police will dump them on the Algerian border, which is wild desert country where they will surely die."
News of imminent deportations spread rapidly among more than 1,500 people crammed into Melilla's immigrant holding centre on the dusty outskirts of the handsome, if flyblown, fin de siècle town centre. A field of campaign tents house peoplewho cannot fit. The euphoria of those who had reached Europe after tramping across Africa for months or years turned to fear at the prospect of being turned away.
"It's terrible news. We are very afraid of being sent back," said Augustin, 20, a farmworker from Mali, whose odyssey to Melilla had taken two years. "I've suffered so much to get here, I prefer death to expulsion," and said his experience of living rough in Moroccan woods, scavenging food from dustbins, was "worse than slavery".
Mrs Fernandez de la Vega said Spain was reactivating a 1992 agreement with the Moroccan government, never implemented, in which Morocco agreed to readmit African refugees who had passed through en route to Spain. Up until now, Spain had allowed incomers with no passport, or from countries where Madrid had no repatriation agreement, to stay. The EU finally released this week a long-promised €40m to help Morocco combat illegal immigration, a payout widely seen as conditional on Morocco co-operating actively.
Rabat, meanwhile, wants an EU "Marshall Plan" for Sub-Saharan Africa to combat the poverty and despair that drives thousands north to seek a better life. Jose Antonio Alonso, Spain's Interior Minister, said yesterday the first group of 70 illegal immigrants were to be expelled immediately, and others would soon follow.
Spain plans to make further reinforcements to the border of its two ancient territories in North Africa, replacing the fearsome, but now largely ineffective, razor-wire fences with a hi-tech "three dimensional" barrier equipped with early warning systems. But politicians recognise no barrier can stem the flow.
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Prime Minister, emphasised yesterday the international scale of a crisis he considers the responsibility of all Europeans. "We must work rapidly to reduce the gap in prosperity between Spain and Morocco and countries to the south of Morocco," he said in Madrid. "The prosperity gap between Spain and Morocco is the largest in the world between bordering countries."
Last week Spain sent troops and riot police to control the border, but recent days have revealed a tide of desperation and resolve among those seeking a better life that neither razor wire nor rubber bullets can discourage.
'I have lived in hell... and it's left a mark on my heart'
Raoul Tchinda, 25, from Gabon and now in Melilla's immigrant transit centre, made a six-month odyssey across Africa to try to reach Spanish soil.
"I left Gabon in January, 2002 to get work in Cameroon, but I couldn't find any. Then I travelled with a Malian through Nigeria, Niger, Burkino Faso and finally Mali, where I hoped to work as a municipal cleaner. I spent six months there but couldn't get work. I met people from many nationalities in transit.
I reached Algeria and finally found work in an orange grove, in the countryside. I worked six months in that field but earned just €5 (£3.40) a day. You can't eat on that. So I decided to look further. When the orange harvest ended I was unemployed again, so I pushed on to Morocco, but when I got there I found things even worse. I had no lodging and no work. Moroccans are forbidden to give work to people without papers.
I lived in the woods at Oujda on the Algerian border, and met other Africans. We slept in the open. It was cold and we had hardly any clothes, no tools or anything. Moroccan police beat us, searched us and stole all our money.
I walked to the woods at Gurugu (outside Melilla) and spent six months trying to cross. It depended if I felt strong enough. Lack of food made me weak. I was returned to Oujda four times. Each time it took a week to walk back. Last Thursday, five of us made it, but the fence cut me badly.
I feel free, and hopeful, but if they expel me I'll be knocked sideways. I have lived in hell for three years and it's left a mark on my heart."Reuse content