The Spanish exclave of Ceuta has become synonymous with a colonial system that no longer offers its residents any prospects: unemployment and lack of prospects, inflation, high crime rates. As Spain and the EU continue to seal themselves off and border fences become a brutal reality, a generation is growing up there with nothing to lose.
Ceuta, the Spanish exclave on Moroccan territory: a discounter branch right at the port, as in many European cities. Moroccan street children, who can earn good money here, help pack the groceries and carry the bags to the customers’ cars. Again and again their gaze wanders to the harbor and the opposite shore. There is Europe, just an hour’s boat ride away.
Young people living on the streets of Ceuta are separated only by a fence from the pier where ferries across the Strait of Gibraltar leave. The sea here seems calm, gentle waves lapping the jetty at the pier for ferries to Europe. But appearances are deceptive: Last summer, 80 young Moroccans tried to flee North Africa on this route in one month, although more than 40 have drowned in the past year. Just a few days ago another young person died, he was only 17 years old.
The economic situation of the 84,000 inhabitants is becoming increasingly precarious. The exclave is one of the poorest autonomous regions in Spain. One of the largest social hotspots in the whole country is located near the Christmassy-decorated shopping mile with branches of well-known fashion chains.
Ceuta is Africa’s stepping stone to Europe. In the detention center, around 300 migrants from countries like Guinea and Sudan are just waiting for the authorities to take them to the mainland, where they can then do whatever they want. The boys at the discount store also dream of this. They are too impatient to wait in one of the shelters for minors, which currently house 230 young Moroccans.
Two mighty fences were supposed to protect the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco from migrants. The situation there keeps getting worse. When in June last year hundreds of people, mainly from Sudan, tried to climb the fence to Melilla. At least 23 people died and dozens are still missing. The Spanish Amnesty International director saw a “crime against humanity”; Amnesty Secretary General spoke of “massive killings, enforced disappearances, torture, pushbacks and racism”. According to the UNHCR, more than 2,900 people made it to Ceuta and Melilla in 2022. Morocco closed the border with Spain in March 2020 because of the corona pandemic. But suddenly the Moroccan officials stopped their work. They let everyone pass and even encouraged residents of neighboring towns to go to Ceuta. Even school children are said to have been taken to the fence. Police officers reportedly said football stars Ronaldo and Messi were waiting for them on the Spanish side. More than 8,000 Moroccans rushed and swam across. For days they wandered the streets, slept in the parks.
The Vice President of the EU Commission, Margaritis Schinas, reacted to the catastrophe on Spanish radio with strong words: Europe would not be “intimidated” by anyone and would “not be a victim of such tactics”. He was referring to the thousands of migrants who swam from Morocco to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. With such statements, the EU shows a sad irony. Because it is the EU itself that – especially since the large migration movements of 2015 – has outsourced control of the Union’s external borders to other countries.
At the time, the Moroccan government wanted to put pressure on Spain in the dispute over Western Sahara. But most of the people who came over didn’t care about politics. They just wanted to get away. The adults soon almost all returned. But nearly a thousand minors stayed. It was more than a year before the last of them boarded ferries to mainland Spain. Ceuta was hopelessly overwhelmed.
A lot of citizen commitment wants to help the underage stranded people in particular, who otherwise have no orientation, nothing to eat or drink. But sometimes all they can do is post the face of a drowned person on social media. They accompany the dead on their last journey to the Islamic cemetery of Ceuta. “It hurts very much. I have to convince mothers that their child is dead. They often don’t want to admit it for weeks,” says one employee.
Since May 2021, members of an initiative have already attended 37 funerals at the mosque’s cemetery. They record a short video for the relatives showing the last ablution and the burial. Then the corpse, wrapped in a white sheet, disappears into one of the graves. From the cemetery you can see the sea where the young Moroccans died. They grew up just a few kilometers away. Now, in the Ceuta cemetery, most of them don’t even have a name.
The crisis in Ceuta started long before the Ukraine war and inflation. The great strength of the small town used to be its neighborhood. Ceuta and the second Spanish enclave of Melilla are the only places where Europe and Africa meet directly. This not only attracts those who want to make the leap to the promised continent from there. The proximity was a very good deal for both sides, which created many jobs. But then came the locked borders. Only a few months ago, after more than two years, Morocco opened the door a little again.
Today, all Moroccans need an expensive Schengen visa or proof of an employment contract to come to Ceuta. In the past, residents of the neighboring Moroccan region of Tetuan could travel to the Spanish exclave, work and shop there without an entry permit. They were allowed to take as much with them from Ceuta as they could carry or fit in their car. This was lucrative because the city is exempt from Spanish VAT. Up to 30,000 Moroccans came every day, which corresponds to more than a third of the population. Thousands stayed all day and worked as domestic help, construction workers, taxi drivers or prostitutes. Most just shopped and returned quickly.
If there was one image that characterized these many years, it was the caravan of heavily laden women who carried a large part of the goods on their backs across the border every day, on which Moroccan border officials levied no customs duties, because Morocco does not recognize the Spanish rule over the city. Spanish businessmen made good money from the “atypical” trade, as smuggling was euphemistically called. They turned over hundreds of millions of euros every year, and the exclave benefited from import duties.
Even before the pandemic, Morocco and Spain were trying to steer this exchange into more regulated channels. Now everything is coming together and hitting a lot of people hard. The situation on both sides of the border is now dramatic. Around a quarter of the shops and businesses in Ceuta have closed, and unemployment has risen to as much as 40 percent at times.
Morocco has no interest in having to take care of more unemployed young people who might stay in the country. There are already many of them in Morocco: Years ago, the country issued residence permits for migrants in large numbers – but that was long gone, and now the government is increasingly deporting people. The situation in Morocco is not like that in Europe, where many are slowly realizing that they have an interest in migrants coming. “Moroccan society must first train its own people and get them a living,” says the employee of an aid organization. Because Morocco itself is a country with a predominantly younger population that the labor market can hardly absorb. Youth unemployment is high. That’s why many young Moroccans want to get away – if they can, with a visa and a plane, if they have to, by boat across the Mediterranean or to the Spanish enclaves.
More than half of Ceuta’s residents are Muslims, most of them from Morocco. However, Spain does not want to give up its exclaves under any circumstances and is willing to pay a lot for it. Civil servants working there receive an allowance of almost a third of their salary compared to the mainland. You can afford the fancy restaurants, if you need something quick there is the also subsidized helicopter shuttle over to Algeciras or Málaga.
In the city, worlds collide like nowhere else. If you want to understand the small Spanish headland in Africa, you have to drive a few minutes along the seashore. You quickly feel like you are in a village in Morocco, where most of the residents come from. One quarter rises up on the steep slope above the martial border fence. The brightly painted houses are thrown together along the narrow, winding streets. The families simply built one floor after the next for children and grandchildren.
Wild rubbish dumps stretch out below the houses. After dark, even the police only venture into the narrow streets in emergencies. The district is considered the most dangerous in Spain and also ranks sadly among the top in the rest of Europe. More than 80 percent of the young residents are unemployed, and most have not completed school. Since the economy collapsed and the drug trade moved to Tangier, there is hardly anything to do, even for day laborers. Almost 10,000 people live in the district, which has more mosques than schools, and 99 percent are Muslims. Three people have died in more than a dozen shootings this year. The young gangs fight each other with knives and semi-automatic weapons. The fear of being hit by a ricochet is part of everyday life. In October a man was shot dead in a house on Main Street.
Politicians don’t show up here. In the center of Ceuta, the town hall is brightly lit, but there are no street lamps in the problem area. “People feel forgotten and abandoned. Millions flow to Ceuta from Madrid and the EU, but nothing reaches us. We’ve been begging for a police station for years,” says one resident. It annoys him when the media demonizes his neighborhood, because a lot could be changed. “Poverty and hopelessness are the breeding ground for terrorism and even more so for crime. Anyone who doesn’t make it out of here is easy prey for them,” he says.
Europe is reacting with isolation, and more and more human rights activists are accusing the EU of double standards: while war refugees from Ukraine are willingly taken in, others in need of help are turned away at the external borders, sometimes with brutal measures. “Tragically, far too many are still dying at sea in search of protection,” the UN refugee agency said in an appeal to the EU. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) complained: “Rejections and abuse at land borders continue and many people seeking protection are not allowed to enter Europe.”
In the whole debate about Ceuta, the EU Commission always likes to refer to its migration pact presented in autumn 2020. An important building block of the proposal is to work more closely with neighboring countries to prevent illegal entry into the EU. So Ceuta could be a harbinger of what is to come.
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