Where the borders stayed shut after the pandemic: Ceuta and Melilla, north Africa’s frontier cities

The prolonged closure of borders has underlined inequalities and wreaked havoc on their economies. Thomas Graham, Rupert Cornwell prize winner, reports from the enclaves

Friday 29 October 2021 15:52
Comments
Panorama of the port of Cueta, Spain's city on north coast of Africa

It is 10am on a Wednesday, but the long road to the border is deserted.

Almost every shop along it is closed. The scene outside the asylum office is like the aftermath of a skirmish. It’s strewn with sleeping bodies bothered by flies and the morning sun.

Melilla is a cramped city where noise seems inescapable, but here it’s quiet, even peaceful.

Sedik is standing outside his shop, watching the empty boulevard. I ask him how it was before. “Hombre, it was a riot. This little conversation we’re having – that wouldn’t have happened. You couldn’t even walk on the pavement.”

He looks down the row of shuttered shops, then at the men dozing by the asylum office. “Now it’s like this.”

In March 2020, borders were closing everywhere. But few places felt it like Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish cities in North Africa that face the Mediterranean to one side and Morocco to the other, beyond a six-metre border wall.

Prior to that, roughly 30,000 people crossed the border from Morocco every day, swelling the daytime population of the enclaves from their resident base of 80,000 citizens.

Some of these people had jobs in the enclaves. Many were involved in contraband, in one way or another. Others just dropped in to see friends and family, or to do a little shopping for themselves.

The smooth passage of people was enabled by the enclaves’ special status under the Schengen Treaty, which allows Moroccans from Tetouan and Nador – the regions around Ceuta and Melilla, respectively – to come and go freely during the day, without a visa, but neither to spend the night nor travel onto the mainland.

Mountains of goods were smuggled across the border in the other direction. Ceuta and Melilla are outside the EU’s customs union, which means they can levy a much smaller tax on imports.

Cargo ships brought goods from Europe and Asia into the enclaves, where businessmen had ways to spirit them across the land border to Morocco without paying customs taxes. Some estimate this trade accounted for 25 per cent of the enclaves’ GDP.

On the other side, Moroccan cities sprung up in a kind of symbiotic arrangement. Before the pandemic, Beni Ansar, Melilla’s twin, had approached the same population as the Spanish city. Castillejos, Ceuta’s, had even outgrown it.

Rachida, spokesperson for the trans-border workers that remain in Ceuta

Families often bridged the border. Roughly half the population of each enclave is Maghreb-origin. Even though many of these families have been in Ceuta or Melilla for generations, they still tend to have relatives in Morocco. All told, the social and economic lives of Ceuta and Melilla had for decades intertwined ever more closely with those of their Moroccan hinterlands.

Then the borders closed and the guillotine came down on these ties. As time went on and borders reopened elsewhere, those around the enclaves did not. The borders closed because of the pandemic, but they may have stayed closed for other reasons.

They became, in effect, another way for Morocco to apply diplomatic pressure on Spain. Relations had deteriorated after Madrid’s silent refusal to join President Trump’s administration in recognising Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony.

Since Spain relinquished the territory in 1975, it has been claimed by both Morocco and a Sahrawi guerrilla group called the Polisario Front. Today, after decades of on-and-off conflict, Morocco controls most of it.

In a speech in August 2021, King Mohamed VI played down tensions between the two countries. Given the King’s position as head of Moroccan government, analysts read this as signalling a reset in relations. Later that month, the Moroccan ambassador in Spain returned to Madrid. But no one yet knows when the borders around Ceuta and Melilla might reopen.

Morocco has long maintained that the contraband trade impeded economic development in the north by undercutting local industry. It was only tolerated because it provided jobs in an underdeveloped and restive region. Some analysts believe the pandemic gave the Moroccan state an excuse to push through a painful adjustment in the regional economy.

Cut off from each other, the economies on either side of the border have withered. In Morocco, Castillejos and Beni Ansar have been drained of people, as internal economic migrants sought work elsewhere in Morocco. The state has cracked down on protests against the border closure. People with family in the two cities tell me stories of destitution and deaths: some getting trapped in debt and committing suicide; others, mostly younger, trying to swim into the enclaves at night and disappearing.

Within Ceuta and Melilla, the pain has been severe, too. But it has been felt unevenly: deeply by some and barely by others. The border closure has underlined the inequalities of the two border cities.

Several migrants wait next to several policemen after they managed to jump the border fence to reach the Spanish enclave of Melilla from neighbouring Morocco

Mohsin was in the kitchen when he heard a rumour the border might close. He’s the head chef in a restaurant and one of the 3,500 Moroccans that had work contracts in Ceuta. (In Melilla, there were 5,000.)

Every morning they crossed the border to come in, and every evening – in theory – they went back to Morocco. Mohsin didn’t think too much of the rumour at first. Besides, it was a Thursday night and the restaurant was fully booked through the weekend. His boss is a good man and he didn’t want to give him trouble. He decided to take stock on Sunday. The border closed the next day. “And then the reservations disappeared.”

The closure was so abrupt that thousands of people – workers like Mohsin, but also holidaymakers – were suddenly trapped on either side of the border. Mohsin had to sleep in the restaurant until he found somewhere to rent, cash in hand.

It took months for the two governments to come together and help these stranded people. In September 2020, they temporarily opened the border to repatriate workers trapped in the enclaves. Many took the offer.

But Mohsin had to evaluate his options. The restaurant had opened again. He has a family to support in Castillejos. If he left, he would lose this job with no guarantee of finding another. He decided to stay. It’s been 19 months since he saw his son, who’s now five years old.

“It’s hard to explain to him why I’m not there,” he says.

I meet Mohsin at a protest for the trans-border workers that remain in Ceuta, almost 20 months on. There are 60 people there, but when I ask Rachida Jraifi, their spokesperson, she says there might be as many as 400 still in the city.

The workers are asking the government for a temporary permit that would allow them to visit Morocco even while the land border remains closed, either by opening a special corridor for them or allowing them to travel via the mainland. They want to avoid having to choose between their family and their job.

Back in September, some decided to go back to Morocco and are now in desperate situations, Rachida tells me. Others decided to stay, only for family members in Morocco to fall ill.

“That’s the hardest thing: when someone in the family dies and you can’t be there. One of the women with us lost her husband and her mother in the same week. And she’s got two children who have no one. She’s here and they’re there.”

Pepe’s shop, also named in Russian to entice visitors who bought duty-free goods in Ceuta in the 80s

The border between the enclaves and their hinterlands worked both ways. Cheap labour came into Ceuta and Melilla, in the form of trans-border workers like Rachida and Mohsin and many more who worked under the table. Then cheap goods went in the other direction as contraband, part of what was officially known as “atypical commerce”.

Most of the private sector activity in the two enclaves depended on this form of commerce, which operated on various scales. At the top, there were powerful businessmen with warehouses by the border and fleets of vehicles at their command. Then there were small-scale entrepreneurs working out of shops in the centre.

But there were also many others, mostly in the poorer neighbourhoods along the wall, who made a living by ferrying things across the border, either in vehicles or on their backs.

Pepe, a merchant from Ceuta’s small Hindu community, falls into the middle category. Walking along the seafront in the city centre, in all its faded grandeur, the name of his bazaar catches my eye: Магазин Космос (Cosmos Store). I wander in. Pepe looks up and said, “Russian?”

The name is a little marketing ploy. Back in the 80s, when Pepe set up the store, Russian ships used to come and stock up on duty-free goods to take home. He wanted to grab their attention. He learned Russian, too. He had hoped to get a little practice when he saw me come in.

It wasn’t just Russians who used to come, but Bulgarians, Romanians and Portuguese. Before that, it was the Spanish themselves. In the 70s, thousands of people took the boat from the peninsula every day, just to shop. Then there were all the boys from the mainland who came over on military service.

In the late 80s the pivot towards the Moroccan market began.

These were the good days, in Pepe’s telling. He shows me photos of him and his brothers in the shop with various sports stars I don’t recognise, surrounded by brilliant glass cases filled with jewellery, watches and electronics.

Transborder workers, trapped in Ceuta, protest outside the government delegation

The shop I am in looks much the same – but as if a compulsive hoarder has moved in. There is little room to move between the towering piles of boxes. As I take photos, Pepe seems to get embarrassed: “It’s a little messy.”

When the border closed, Ceuta’s merchants were suddenly stuck with their inventory. Pepe tells me his sales have dropped by 90 per cent.

I ask Pepe the approximate value of the inventory he is holding. He demurs. “It’s a lot. We were selling goods to the whole of Morocco.” Businesses like Pepe’s are folding all over the city. “Look at the main street – I had never seen a shop closed there before. Now there are many. The ones that are surviving are the big shops from outside – Zara, Stradivarius. But even they are starting to close.”

The rents keep being lowered but no one is staying. They can’t be lowered enough when the business no longer exists.

“In the 70s, there were more than 400 bazaars. Now there are 10 of us left, at most.”

Pepe doesn’t plan to stay much longer. He intends to relocate to the Costa del Sol and set up an export business there: the same supply chain, only with Ceuta cut out of it. The margins will be smaller and the prices for the end consumer higher, but he will manage.

He has family on the Spanish mainland, but he is fretting about it. He’s 65: it’s not easy to start again at his age. He should be thinking about retirement. But he is convinced that the commerce will not be coming back.

“In the good times, Ceuta was a mine of business,” he reminisces. “But that’s all over now. Whenever they open the border, it won’t be the same.”

This feeling is echoed by many: that the border must reopen to people at some point, but that the smuggling which once defined the regional economy will not return. The end of atypical commerce was not Ceuta and Melilla’s choice. But now it has been forced on them, a chorus of voices in the enclaves and on the mainland see it as an opportunity for a long overdue correction in how the enclaves are run.

For those minded to national security, the enclaves have been excessively dependent on Morocco, and therefore vulnerable. Some businessmen, too, dislike how the enclaves’ economies are specialised for atypical commerce over other activities.

Jaime Bustillo, a politician who works for the Port Authority in Melilla, is among those that hopes the contraband trade is gone for good. When I meet him, he is brimming with ideas for the city’s reinvention. As he tells it, the contraband trade and the shadowy figures behind it have held the enclaves under their sway for years.

“The fact is, Melilla is optimised for contraband. Everything to do with the economic regulation of the city was adapted to do it as well as possible.”

The faded seafront boulevard once had some of the most valuable commercial real estate in Ceuta

In short, he says, everything that was good for contraband was bad for integration with the European Union. Not being in the EU Customs Union, for example. The enclaves have isolated themselves.

“But now all the economic activity and the businesses connected with this transfer of goods have been short-circuited,” he continues. “The most important thing about this period of crisis is that both the authorities and the economic actors are starting to permit themselves to think about other economic activities.”

Bustillo drives me around Melilla’s port area, painting future industries on the landscape as we go. He sees warehouses dedicated to processing commodities on their way from Africa to Europe. Buildings full of talent working in the digital economy – particularly online gambling businesses. And cruisers: before the pandemic, someone from Carnival Holding, a cruiser conglomerate, scouted Melilla and was, Bustillo assures me, very taken with its potential.

Several times in our conversation Bustillo mentions Gibraltar as a kind of inspiration. Prior to 1969, Gibraltar and its Spanish hinterland had a relationship not unlike like that of Ceuta and Melilla with the surrounding parts of Morocco. Then Spain closed the borders around Gibraltar and they stayed closed for 13 years.

Almost incredibly, Bustillo tells me that it was his father-in-law who shut the gate at the border. He was a policeman who had just arrived from Navarra, and as it was a job no local wanted, it landed with him.

It was in this drawn-out crisis that the Gibraltar of today was created. It wasn’t an easy path, says Bustillo. Gibraltar had some luck with international politics and the entry of the UK into the EU. It made the most of the UK’s strengths in finance and the maritime industry.

With the right support from the peninsula, and leadership from within, Bustillo hopes Melilla could chart a similar course, integrating into the global economy, diversifying, and breaking its dependence on Morocco.

But the comparison with Gibraltar is striking for another reason. When I spoke to Dr Jennifer Ballantine-Perera from the Gibraltar Garrison Library about those years in the city, she describes a society that was divided, but perhaps not in the same way as Ceuta and Melilla are today.

There were commercial interests in Gibraltar that tried to push for a rapprochement with Spain. “The Doves”, as they were known, wrote a letter to Madrid in 1968, shortly before the border closure, seeking to improve the deteriorating relationship. They did so without any democratic mandate, and when the letter was published in the press, there were riots.

After the border closed, a couple of the main actors of The Doves continued to pen articles in favour of rapprochement and reopening the border in a publication they funded called Calpe News. But by 1979 they had stopped. Dr Ballantine-Perera, who has spoken with the then editor, said Calpe News ended up more of a cultural vehicle, as they felt they weren’t gaining enough currency in the political ambit.

In the meantime, Gibraltar had replaced the lost Spanish workforce with labour brought over from Morocco. Support from Great Britain was solid. It began the process of diversification into tourism and financial services. It endured.

Those 13 years have become part of Gibraltar’s mythology. “It helped Gibraltarians construct a political identity, but also a national and cultural identity,” says Dr Ballantine-Perera. “The notion that they are British because they are not Spanish. That Britishness underpins everything, even though when you come to Gibraltar you see that it’s hybrid and not that clear cut.”

It’s hard to know how those years truly felt in Gibraltar. Perhaps society was less united that it seems in hindsight. But the story told is at odds with the present situation in Ceuta and Melilla, where the border closure has, if anything, exacerbated inequalities and aggravated tensions within the two cities.

Unsold inventory is piled up in Pepe’s shop.

Roughly half the working population in each enclave is employed by the government: their jobs are secure and they have little economic need for the border to reopen. It is the other half, and particularly those directly involved in commerce, like Pepe, that have borne the effects.

Separately, about half the population of each enclave is of peninsular origin, while the other half is Maghreb origin. The former has few social ties with Morocco. The latter, even though many of them have been in the enclaves for generations, tends to have family in Morocco.

As most public sector jobs in the enclaves are held by people of peninsular origin, this means that there is one part of society for which the border closure has had little effect, while for another part of society, for both economic and social reasons, it has been particularly difficult.

As such, where the closure of the land border around Gibraltar may have brought that isolated community together, the closure of those around Ceuta and Melilla has done more to divide theirs.

This difference has been particularly acute in Ceuta, where Vox, the far-right party, has spoken of “fifth columnists” for Morocco in the city’s Muslim community, and suggested the border should remain closed indefinitely.

“What should have been seen as an attack on Ceuta in its totality… what should have made us close ranks and find a way for the city to move forward, has instead seen the privileged sector of society turn its back on the situation,” says Mohamed Mustafa, leader of Ceuta Ya!, the city’s newest political party. “They do not see the challenge of the border closure as an external challenge for Ceuta, but rather as an internal one.”

Perhaps, looking back, these years in Ceuta and Melilla will come to be seen as 1969-1982 is in Gibraltar. Perhaps the enclaves, with backing from Madrid, will find direction, diversify, and become less vulnerable to the caprices of Spanish-Moroccan relations.

But almost two years on, people in the enclaves know what they’ve lost and stand to lose, but not what will replace it. The silver lining of the border closure – the chance to reinvent the enclave economies – risks being squandered. In Melilla, Jaime Bustillo fears as much. “There is a lack of clarity of ideas,” he says. “And a lack of will to do it.”

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in