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At Spain's Gate, Africans Dream of Europe

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 28, 2001; Page A01

MELILLA, Spain -- In this seven-square-mile patch of Spain on Morocco's northern coast, the poverty of Africa and the promise of Europe are separated by two high-rise metal fences that stand about five yards apart and are topped by razor wire.

Police officers man sentry posts along the fence, trying to keep Africa out. But every night, Africa comes -- Moroccans and Algerians, but also Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans, Mauritanians, Cameroonians and Malians, all trying desperately to make it over, or through, or under, or around the fence, to set foot here in the closest touchstone of European sovereignty.

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"That barbed wire is too high," said Abu Uza, a 30-year-old from Sierra Leone who came here fleeing the civil war and poverty he knew back home. "I almost entered four times and they caught me. The fifth time, I got it." He made it by swimming along the coast and entering on the one side of Melilla not closed off by a fence. "I can swim very well," he said, smiling.

Melilla is a historical anachronism, a far-flung part of Spain that, like another Spanish enclave, Ceuta, farther west, lies across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain proper. Spain does not consider these places to be colonies, but rather integral parts of Spain. Melilla, with an official population of about 65,000, has been a Spanish city since 1497 and was never part of what is now Morocco.

For the rest of Europe, where there is growing concern over a rising tide of illegal immigration, Spain is often viewed as the continent's soft underbelly, the easiest and closest place for African job seekers to enter a European country.

The continent is rapidly moving toward its goal of having no internal borders. The Scandinavian countries became part of Western Europe's passport-free zone this month; Spain is already part of it. That means that once illegal immigrants make it into Spain, they can easily move to France, the Netherlands, Britain or wherever there might be work.

For most, that is the dream of Europe -- work, some money to send back home, a better life.

"I left Nigeria because of the economic squeeze," said Melvin Uldeh, 29, who describes a lengthy journey that took him through Chad and Libya and then over the Melilla wire, on which he cut his foot badly. "I took the first step, I took the second step, and I never looked back. And I won't look back until I get where I want to go."

A university graduate with a degree in political science, Uldeh said "common sense" told him to make the trek to Europe. "In Nigeria, you have no chance. You can't stay there. You can't survive."

But there are rules on who can legally come to Europe, and fences with razor wire to keep everyone else out. Still, "no law is rigid," he observed. "Whatever law is, man made it. Whatever the law is, it can also be bent."

He wonders why Europeans go to such trouble to keep immigrants out. "The kind of jobs these people take are jobs they don't want to do," said Uldeh, who still hobbles on his cut foot. "Trying to put up the barbed wire or tighten the border won't really solve the problem. . . . These people are coming because they want greener pastures. You can't stop them from coming there."

Farther Than It Looks

Not everyone makes it over the fence so quickly.

Melilla is just within sight for 28-year-old Valdo and five other Cameroonians who have been living on the side of Gourougou mountain, outside the wire on Moroccan soil. From the mountainside, Melilla looks every bit the picture-perfect old Spanish town, with its cafes and gracious Spanish avenues lined with sun-splashed yellow buildings.

Valdo and dozens of other Africans who have been trying for six months to cross the border live in a garbage dump a five-minute taxi ride up the mountainside from the Melilla gate. Their only beds are rocks. Blankets are layers of old coats that they wrap around them to ward off the chill. They subsist on food brought by sympathetic local residents and Christian missionaries.

Valdo and the others have tried repeatedly to get past the fence. "We put up with this definitely because we want the chance to go inside," said Valdo, who asked that his last name not be used, speaking in French for the group. "We want to work. Then we'll go back to Cameroon and die there."

"Look at our condition," he added. "We don't eat, or don't eat well. We can hardly sleep. It's because we can't find work at home. . . . We have the hope of going to Europe."

There are fewer than 30 Africans living on the mountainside now, Valdo said. There were many more, until Moroccan security forces launched a recent operation that swept up the ones who did not hide. Valdo said he believes that those who were captured were dumped at the edge of the Sahara, where they probably turned around and returned for another try.

"The big gate is the Sahara desert," said Joan Ignasi Soler of Doctors Without Borders, an aid agency assisting immigrants in Melilla and those who arrive by boat on Spain's southern coast at Tarifa. "From Nigeria or Mali, they go to the south of Algeria, or the south of Morocco. They wait in the mountains. . . . They wait for the chance to jump inside Melilla."

Under an agreement between Morocco and Spain, Moroccans caught entering Melilla illegally are immediately sent back. But sub-Saharan Africans can't be sent back -- Morocco won't take them, because they're not citizens.

Instead, they are fingerprinted and given a formal expulsion order that gives them 15 days to leave the country, in effect a two-week grace period to find work or head for another country in Europe. Many immediately apply for "papers" -- permission to stay as political refugees and work -- and settle in for a lengthy wait for a decision.

Claims of Discrimination

In Melilla, all arriving women and some men are allowed to stay at a special immigrants' center. The others set up makeshift tents along a dry river bed or stay in an abandoned Spanish military bunker on a hillside, waiting for their cases to be heard.

Those at the center get regular meals and can take classes in Spanish. Those outside the center wander the streets of Melilla, some getting by on meals provided by the town mosque, others begging for money outside restaurants and hotels. "We go through the garbage just to find something to eat," said Yusuf Sise, from Mali, wearing a Tommy Hilfiger baseball cap.

The difference in treatment of North Africans, who tend to be Muslims, and the largely Christian immigrants from sub-Saharan countries has led some immigrants to complain.

"There is racism," said Harazi Ould Sidina, a 30-year-old Muslim from Mauritania, who was living at the abandoned army bunker. He had just received his expulsion order. "The people from Mali, Guinea Bissau, they can come today and go [to Europe] next week," he said, alleging that Europe tries to keep out Muslims.

Those without papers often try novel ways to reach the Spanish mainland. Hiding in the trunks of passenger cars on ferries that traverse the Strait of Gibraltar is a favorite ruse.

Up the coast, at the Moroccan city of Tangier, many immigrants attempt the dangerous crossing -- eight nautical miles -- to Tarifa at the Spanish mainland's southernmost tip. Many have died when the motorized rafts that they ride, some of which also smuggle drugs, capsize.

In January, Spain approved a new immigration law aimed at stemming the flow of illegal immigrants, saying job seekers must apply in their home country and produce a return ticket and a valid job offer. But most immigrants ignore it. They work in the "black economy," taking jobs such as harvesting crops. And with its fast-growing economy, low birthrate and aging population, Spain relies on immigrants to meet many of its labor needs.

Not all immigrants are from Africa. A few come from places much farther afield such as Iraq and Kashmir. Last week, there was one Palestinian in the town's records. They are all using Melilla as an entry point. And some have even made the trip here inadvertently.

Abdul Amr Obaid came here from Basra, Iraq, after selling all his land and paying a smuggler $3,000 for a space on a crowded ship. "He said to me I was going to Spain," Obaid said. "But we came here to Melilla."

He arrived with 20 other Iraqis. They and a handful of other Iraqis have been staging periodic hunger strikes and demonstrations in Melilla's town center, demanding better treatment and political asylum.

Obaid, 47, who said he was a physician in Iraq, said he is trying to reunite with his wife and children in Oakland, Calif. "I want to go to my family in U.S.A.," he said. "I leave Iraq because the government is no good. Maybe kill me someday."

Now that he has made it to this isolated corner of Europe, Obaid is not so sure of his decision. This is "Spain, yes. But not Spain. If this is Europe, I will go back to Iraq!"

[ See also:
Laying seige to fortress Europe, The Times (London), Sept. 29, 2005
Expelled migrants 'dumped in the Moroccan desert', Daily Telegraph (London), Oct. 8, 2005 ]

© 2001 The Washington Post Company