Europe's Deadly Borders An Inside Look at EU's Shameful Immigration Policy
Part 2: Spain-Morocco
On the night before his dash across the border, Claude Eog has a brief, dreamless sleep. The wind blows across his tent of torn plastic and he is awakened at midnight by noise in the camp on Mount Gourougou. Refugees from Mali, Somalia and Guinea are warming their hands over a fire. Eog puts on his worn jeans and pulls a shirt over his emaciated body. He can see Europe's lights sparkling in the valley below, in Melilla.
At about the same time, Lieutenant Antonio Rivera sits down at a computer in the Centro Operativo Complejo in Melilla, the control center of the Spanish Guardia Civil. Fluorescent light shines from the ceiling. Rivera and his colleagues are reviewing the images recorded by surveillance cameras on their monitors.
There are less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) separating police officer Rivera, 56, the father of two children, and Eog, 22, a half-orphan from Central Africa, and yet the two men are worlds apart. The land border between Africa and Europe runs through Melilla, a Spanish enclave on Moroccan soil.
On Mt. Gourougou in northern Morocco, Claude Eog and the other refugees are discussing their strategy. Hundreds of them, as he later related, plan to leave the mountain, under cover of darkness, hoping to reach the fence without being discovered by Moroccan soldiers.
Eog worked as a mechanic in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. He fled when rebels murdered his father last summer, he says. Traffickers brought him to Morocco, and in November he boarded a minibus headed for Gourougou.
'Life in the Camp Is Hell'
The Moroccan government estimates that there are between 25,000 and 40,000 undocumented migrants living in the country and that about 1,000 men and a handful of women are hiding in the forests on Mt. Gourougou, where they built makeshift camps. There, they wait for an opportunity to get over the border to Europe, sometimes for years. The refugees have formed groups based on their countries of origin, with Nigerians, Cameroonians and Malians sticking together, as do those from other countries in Africa.
A group of men are squatting around a cooking pot at around noon on a summer day. In the forests of Mt. Gourougou, people eat the food scraps they find in the garbage of local residents, although on some days they find nothing. Empty bottles, cans and other debris litter the ground. The air smells like burned plastic. "Life in the camp is hell," says 14-year-old Mohammed, who fled from Guinea.
The immigrants sleep under tarps and cedar trees, little protection when temperatures drop below freezing in winter. The sick and the injured sit propped up against trees. Local security forces raid the camp almost every week, burning down the refugees' tents and beating anyone who doesn't manage to get away, aid organizations in the area claim. The military also captured Eog several times and he claims that the soldiers beat him with wooden sticks, and spat and urinated on him. "They torture us like dogs," he says.
Many times, Eog thought about giving up and heading back home. But the Central African Republic, where he is from, has disintegrated and is terrorized by warlords and militias. Observers liken the conditions in the country with those in Rwanda at the time of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi ethnic group. Staying in Morocco isn't an option, either. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have almost no prospects of finding work or housing in the country, partially due to discrimination because of their skin color. "We want to live a decent life," says Eog.
The EU does not sanction violence by Moroccan soldiers. Still, it treats the Moroccan-Spanish border zone as a test site for the future of immigration control, delegating its defenses against immigrants to neighboring countries. In the context of the MEDA program alone, Europe paid Morocco 68 million to protect the border between 2007 and 2010. Frontex coordinated joint operations between Spanish and Moroccan security forces.
In a report, the organization Human Rights Watch sharply criticizes Spanish and Moroccan border guards in Melilla for using "excessive violence" against refugees, claiming that even pregnant woman and children are beaten and abused. Last year the aid organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) terminated its program in Morocco in protest against "institutionalized violence" against migrants. Between 2010 and 2012, MSF treated 10,500 sick or wounded refugees, some who had become victims of the border guards. "We found men with broken arms and noses. One man had been beaten so badly that he had a triple skull fracture and a brain hemorrhage," says a doctor.
Despite accounts like this, the EU has expanded its involvement with Morocco and it is currently negotiating an agreement under which people who have reached EU countries illegally through Morocco can also be deported back to the country. In Libya, German police officers are training militia members to become border guards under the auspices of the European EUBAM mission, despite reports by Human Rights Watch of torture in Libyan refugee internment camps.
Residents of Melilla are tired of talking about refugees. Tourists sunbathe on the beach and young women drink beer in the bars while retirees play golf next to the detention center.
Some migrants pay traffickers 3,000 to take them from Morocco to Spain by boat. But Eog used up his money traveling to Morocco, so his only option is to climb the fence. In his first three attempts, the razor wire sliced into his arms and legs. Moroccan soldiers apprehended him on the African side of the fence, he says, and then they beat him and took him to Algeria, far away from the EU border.
He returned, and this time, on March 17, Eog managed to approach the border fence unnoticed and he hid in bushes until darkness fell. At around midnight, Lieutenant Rivera noticed movements by large groups of people on his surveillance monitor. He later learned that there were 800 people on the move that night, one of the largest numbers ever. Eog was one of the first to run at the fence. Blinded by the floodlights, he hooked his fingers into the small mesh openings of the fence. His arms and legs ached. But they were no patrols on the path in front of him, and he knew that he would make it to Europe this time.
Two months later, Eog is leaning against the wall of the refugee center in Melilla, his hands are scarred. He says that 120 migrants made it to Europe on the night of March 17. They were drunk with joy as they walked through the streets of Melilla, shouting: "Freedom! Freedom!"
Now Eog is housed in a camp but he hopes to be transferred to the Spanish mainland. He wants to continue on to Germany, where he wants to work as a mechanic.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Rivera is trying to figure out what went wrong on the night that Eog climbed the fence. He drives through Melilla in a Guardia Civil SUV. The pressure at the border has grown steadily in recent years, he says. More refugees scaled the fence in the first few months of 2014 than in the entire previous year. "We can deter individual migrants, but we are powerless against large groups," he says.
Even the Guardia Civil labor union protested against the sharp razor wire used in the Melilla fence, saying that its officers could no longer bear to look at the heavily injured refugees and were questioning the purpose of their work. The Spanish government has announced its intention to spend additional millions on the border barrier, including installing a fence with smaller mesh openings to make it more difficult to climb.
Rising refugee figures always elicit the same reaction from Europe: more deterrence. In the next seven years, the EU plans to invest another 2.8 billion in a new internal security fund. And then there are the expenditures of individual member states and research funds to develop new border technology, which will include, for example, robots carrying surveillance cameras to repel refugees.
Individual routes are blocked temporarily. For instance, in the course of Operation Hera, Frontex was able to reduce the number of illegal border crossings between the West African coast and the Canary Islands from almost 32,000 in 2006 to only 250 in 2013. Nevertheless, the total number of refugees reaching Europe hasn't declined, because immigrants are simply choosing other, often more dangerous routes instead.