The dreams of the desperate: How migrants on Ceuta are willing to risk it all to get to Europe

Thomas Graham, winner of the Rupert Cornwell Prize 2020, reports from the Spanish African enclave where thousands are trying to get to Europe

Tuesday 24 August 2021 18:00 BST
Migrants aged below 18 wait to be tested for Covid-19 upon their arrival in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in May
Migrants aged below 18 wait to be tested for Covid-19 upon their arrival in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in May (AFP/Getty)

It’s a sharp, clear morning in Ceuta on 20 July, the day before Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice. People walk their dogs along the beachfront. Cyclists in lycra fly by.

And hundreds of bleary-eyed boys step out of their sleeping places. They are some of those than remain from the three days in May when perhaps 10,000 migrants swam around the border wall that separates Ceuta, the Spanish north African enclave, from Morocco.

More than half were summarily returned, but thousands remained.

The city, and its 85,000 inhabitants, scrambled to manage the new arrivals. Ceuta was already under exceptional strain.

In March 2020, citing the pandemic, Morocco closed the land border around it. It has remained shut since, with no indication of when it might reopen. The economy has suffered badly.

Even the wealthier centre is papered with liquidation and for sale signs. Many shops are shuttered. Relations with Morocco, which does not recognise Spain’s sovereignty over Ceuta, remain tense.

The diplomatic crisis started with Madrid’s silent refusal to join the United States in recognising Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony. The continued closure of the border around Ceuta, and the sudden arrival of the migrants in May, ratcheted up the pressure.

When I arrived in the city two months later, the initial chaos had given way to a new normal, which continues today. The majority of the migrants are now in repurposed warehouses near the border with Morocco, out of sight and out of mind for most of the people who live there.

They are provided for, in a basic way, while their asylum applications are processed. But there are still as many as one thousand migrants, including several hundred minors, living in the streets.

No one knows the numbers with any precision, but their presence is plain to see. Many live along the coastline that runs from the centre of Ceuta along to Benzu, a small town that lies just before the border with Morocco.

Moroccan migrants climb a cliff as they attempt to cross the border to Spain’s north African enclave of Ceuta, 19 May 2021 (AFP/Getty)

Between Ceuta and Benzu runs about 4km of road, with beaches to one side and mountains to the other. Walking along this road, the sleeping spots reveal themselves. Shadows stir in an abandoned car, before the door opens and a body unfolds out of it, stretches, and heads over to the public showers on the beach.

More bodies emerge from half-built houses; from behind the desalination plant, where the nooks between the great rocks of the breakwater offer spots of shelter; and down the steep bank beside the road, which is covered with wire mesh to prevent landslides and makes easy scaling. Above, tents and huts are visible on the ridge.

Around lunchtime, the migrants begin to gravitate away from the beach and up to Sidi Embarek, Ceuta’s biggest mosque. The day before Eid al-Adha is a public holiday in Ceuta, where roughly half the population is Muslim, but the place is abuzz. An NGO called Luna Blanca operates out of the mosque’s basement, and volunteers in green and white are piling plastic bags with food for migrants in every spare space.

They plan to work through the whole holiday. “We cannot stop,” says Mustafa Abdelkader, who manages Luna Blanca. “They will still be here.”

In his office, Abdelkader leans back in his chair. He offers me a bottle of water while a fly hovers around the room. “Ceuta is a border city: we’ve always seen entries. But a massive entry used to mean 100 people – something that could be controlled, something the city had resources to deal with,” Abdelkader says. “This isn’t just massive. It’s extraordinary.”

At any time, Ceuta holds a number of migrants. The centre for adults has a capacity of 500, though it often exceeds that. Then there are several facilities for the mostly Moroccan minors, with a capacity of several hundred.

The centres are open and migrants can wander the city, whiling away the months while they wait and hope to be transferred to the mainland. Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s other north African enclave, are the only land borders between Europe and Africa. This makes them the cheapest way to get into Europe, and therefore attracts the most desperate migrants.

Those that came in May included many from across Africa and the Middle East, including Senegal, Cameroon, Yemen and Syria, who left home long ago and had been stuck in Morocco, trying to get into Spain, sometimes for years.

But it also included a great number of Moroccans themselves, who sought to escape a hand-to-mouth existence. Many tell the same story: they were encouraged to come. They were put on buses, told that Ceuta was open and the way to Spain was clear. Or they saw people posting on social media and didn’t want to miss their chance. (The Moroccan government denies it facilitated their entry.)

“They were deceived,” says Abdelkader. “After a few weeks, the migrants realised that everything they were promised was false. And they began to suffer. Because they were on the street and they are still there today. Two months of eating in the street, sleeping in the street. No toilets, no hygiene.”

Some voluntarily returned to Morocco. The majority of the rest have opted to live in the warehouses administered by the local government. But even now a little under one thousand turn up at the mosque every day for lunch, suggesting that many are still living in the streets.

Spanish police control migrants crossing the border back to Morocco at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on 20 May (AFP/Getty)

The sheer number of Moroccans that came in the first place likely reflects the desperate situation in the Moroccan cities around Ceuta.

“From what we hear, it’s very, very bad,” says Abdelkader. “We are suffering in Ceuta, but Castillejos is suffering ten times more. With the border closed, they have no way to earn money. All the families, 99.9 per cent of them, lived off the border trade.”

A joyous noise draws us out the office and into the courtyard. A skinny boy is beaming and clutching some papers in his hand. He speaks no Spanish, but one of the volunteers steps in to translate. “I’ve got my papers. I’m going to Spain tomorrow.” And then, in broken Spanish: “Spain – good, beautiful. Morocco…”

I ask Abdelkader whether, given his contact with the migrants living in the streets, he knows what they intended to do. “Look, it’s well known that all of them – without exception – want to cross the Strait and get to Europe,” he says.

“The way they do it doesn’t make a difference to them. They might try for political asylum. Or they might try by raft, by jet ski or under a lorry that boards a ferry. They know the risks. They’ve seen the images that the Mediterranean brings us every year.”

In the hot hours of the afternoon, Ceuta’s port is listless. Since the land border closed and trade dried up, only a few boats come and go each day.

A four-lane road runs parallel to the sea, lined with supermarkets, petrol stations and closed travel agencies. The sun bears down overhead and shadows shrink to nothing. Skinny legs stick out from doorways.

The port is where the youngest of the migrants tend to congregate. And it is where No Name Kitchen, a Ceuta-based NGO, goes around in their van, looking for them, providing aid.

“The good drivers have left,” says Mar Soriano, laughing, as she crunches the gears and the engine groans. The minors tend to move in groups, and each has their patch – often a petrol station, where they can earn a few coins washing cars. We pull into one and find a group of ten crouching in the shade.

The boys seem to range in age from as young as 12 to 20. At first, only a few have the confidence to speak. Communication comes in a mangling of Spanish and Moroccan Arabic. To one side, Soriano tells me the older boys look out for the younger ones. Sometimes, anyway. It’s not always so friendly.

The government has asked people not to feed the children in the streets, hoping the promise of food might draw them into the centres set up to accommodate them. But some minors say they prefer to live in the streets because they hear rumours that those in the centres are sent back to Morocco.

On 13 August, they were proven right. The Spanish government began bussing groups of minors back to Morocco. After doubts about the legality of the process, the deportations were temporarily suspended on 16 August.

But the other reason some minors choose to live in the streets is that, come nightfall, they can do “el risky”. This imported anglicism is one of the few Spanish words they know. It describes any attempt to break into the port, stow away on a ferry and reach the mainland.

The port is built to resist this. The walls that surround it are several metres high, with piercing, slicing edges. In places, bright tufts of fabric have been caught. Even if they scale the walls without detection, they face police and dogs that check every vehicle boarding a ship. Still, some boys make it. But much more often they fail, and they bear the damage. Some die. This group is in bad shape. Bloodshot eyes; torn clothes; fingers somehow grimy, despite washing cars. And they are covered with gashes, burns and bruises.

One has suppurating weals from jellyfish stings. They sit there sharing cigarettes and drinking fizzy drinks. Soriano and Cristiana Corral, another volunteer, tend to them. They disappear into the van and emerge with antiseptic cream, iodine and bandages, as well as water, shoes and clothes.

At first, the Spanish government hoped Moroccan families might come forward to claim their children. A few did. But more offered encouragement, told them to keep going, to make it to Spain. Other children may have left their families for good reason. Save the Children interviewed hundreds of the minors who came to Ceuta in May and found a quarter reported physical or sexual abuse. A number had been living in the streets in Morocco for some time already.

Migrant boy swims to Spain's Ceuta with plastic bottles to stay afloat

No Name Kitchen seems to have a policy of not asking too many questions. They don’t nag them about where they sleep, about the junk food they choose to buy with their few euros, about the kids smoking hashish.

They win their confidence with small kindnesses. The boys are drawn in. One of the youngest, a small boy wearing a bumbag with a cannabis-leaf print, takes a long pull on a joint, then finds a bar and starts doing pull-ups. Feeling his audience, he hits the ground and does some push-ups.

Then he wrests a pair of red-and-blue roller blades from another boy and puts them on. He cuts smooth arcs on the open space of the petrol station, as if ice skating. He scrapes to a stop and shoots us a look.

Back in the van, I ask whether the boys have problems from the owners of the petrol stations. Not really, says Corral. The owners aren’t there, anyway, just the employees, many of whom are of Moroccan origin themselves. As we are pulling out, the boys start shouting and running after us.

The one in roller blades flies up to the window, grinning toothily; Corral has forgotten her lighter. “And they call them thieves.”

Dusk arrived and I am outside the Sidi Embarek mosque again, waiting for a migrant called Mohamed. We met at a protest for migrants’ rights a week before and he invited me to spend an evening where he lives. It ends up being the evening before Eid al-Adha.

The Feast of Sacrifice comes from the moment when the Prophet Abraham is ready to sacrifice his son for God, only to be relieved at the last moment, told he can sacrifice a ram instead. In Ceuta, as elsewhere, the Muslim community celebrates by doing the same. Outside the mosque, trucks shuttled past with trussed-up rams in the back.

Mohamed appears with a friend, Amir, and we walk through town, then up a dirt track, rising. At the top, on an elevated plateau, there are four huts assembled from junk. Mohamed says there were twice as many to begin with, but people have gone: some to Spain, some to the warehouses, some back to Morocco.

“It’s beautiful,” I say. To the west, the mountains and Morocco. To the east, the isthmus of Ceuta reaching for Spain. And ahead, the Strait of Gibraltar and the Rock. The electric lights are coming up. “That’s beautiful,” Mohamed says, sweeping his hand across the view. “This,” pointing to the huts, “is horrible.”

Mohamed offers me the seat in the entrance of their hut. We share the peach juice and chocolate I bought on the way; Amir offers cigarettes. Mohamed begins to talk, while Amir, who speaks only Arabic, sits silently, smoking and watching videos on his phone.

Mohamed grew up in a Moroccan city near Ceuta. His parents divorced when he was young; he left home and school when he was 14, going to Rabat, Morocco’s capital, by himself. He began to work in kitchens. He did that for many years – he is now 27 – before he came back to his city five months ago, for Ramadan, and ended up staying.

On 18 May, Amir, a childhood friend, rushed to him at his new job.

“Amir came and said, ‘Moha! Moha! The border is open, everyone is going to Ceuta. We’ve got to go, right now!’ I told the boss, ‘I’m going to buy some medicine, I’ll come right back.’ And I took a taxi. I still haven’t called him!”

They swam in with the rest. They found this spot and started building their huts, piece by piece. The first two days they didn’t eat and the cold at night was terrible. At first the police followed them around, but they had long stopped coming up here.

With time, Mohamed and Amir settled and found their routines. They shower down by the beaches and get lunch from the mosque. They decked out the hut to repel the cold and the snakes, lizards and racoons that share the area. And they found sporadic work as bricklayers and tilers, earning a little money, if they get paid at all.

Before the land borders were closed, some 30,000 people used to cross into Ceuta from Morocco every day, including many workers. It seems some of the homeless migrants are filling this void of cheap labour.

“The Moroccans that came in May are working,” says Mohamed. “They are soldiers; they work on anything. And they lived like this in Morocco before. We know this life like we know our families.”

The light is fading and the cicadas set up a wall of sound. Every few minutes, a motorbike rips up the road below. From the sports centre just off it comes the smacks, squeaking trainers and echoing shouts of several games of squash. Mohamed speaks with some bitterness of the lack of hospitality they had received.

“In the first days, we went to the locals and asked for help, for food. And they want to hit us. They get angry.” Even the Moroccan-origin locals, who he thought might understand, turned away. “The answer every time is, ‘Why did you come here?’ I want to say, why did you come here first? You got your papers; I don’t have my papers yet. But I will get my papers. And I will come back and ask you again!”

Mohamed checks himself: not all the locals are like this. But his own family had let him down. He has an uncle who lives in Ceuta, not far from where we are just now.

“I met him twice. He never asked me, ‘Do you want some help?’ You’ve seen my situation. Of course I want help. But he didn’t ask me that. He just asked me, ‘Oh, you left your job in Rabat? Why?’ And I think to myself, you know our country, you know everything, so why are you even asking me that?”

The adult migrants in Ceuta give various reasons for coming. Some talk about being able to provide for family. Some talk about material things: houses, cars and so on. Others talk about freedom and rights. All of them want to work. None believe they could attain these things in Morocco, even if they had a job.

And then they see how people live in Europe – or at least the online image of it.

“This generation is different,” says Mohamed. “They have technology. From 13 years old, they know everything. When they open the internet, they see the reality. So why are they still there? Nobody in Morocco can ask this question. But in their hearts, everybody wants to ask it.”

The muezzins begin to call from the many minarets in the city. Mohamed and Amir do not stir. “Maybe I will get to Europe, maybe I will make some money,” Mohamed says. “But at the same time, I’ll miss so many things. Tomorrow is Eid al-Adha. Everybody is going to celebrate with their family. And me?” Mohamed’s thoughts turn to his mother.

They talk on the phone every day. “She’s 60 years old and she works. When I get to Europe and I start my job, I’m going to tell her, ‘OK, stop the work. Be in your home.’ Even if I don’t have money, I will send something.”

It is dark by now, and the lights are bright and beckoning on the other side of the Strait. I ask Mohamed if he had tried “el risky”.

He frowns and shakes his head. “I think I can go with a kayak. But when you do it, you have to think, ‘This is my dream. If I don’t do it, I will die.’ If I have this in my mind when I enter the sea, I will get to the other side. I swear to God; I know myself. It’s not impossible. It’s so close. I know friends who did it, and right now they are in Spain.”

From the start of 2021, at least 159 people having died trying to cross the sea to Spain. I ask if he’s really thinking about doing this.“Why? Is it not safe, or what?” Mohamed laughs. “First I’m going to do my asylum papers. But if something happens… I have my plan B.”

Mohamed rubs his forehead, searching for the words. “I think on Monday I’m going to the warehouses. I’m going to rest. It was a hard two months in Ceuta,” he says. “Like a dream.”

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