African immigrants seek ‘promised land’ in Spanish enclaves
September 30, 2005
MELILLA, Spain – The stairway to heaven for desperate Africans is a long, crooked and arduous one that culminates in a rickety, homemade ladder propped against a fence topped with razor wire.Behind them is the poverty and corruption of some of the world’s poorest countries. Luring them to risk their lives are two tiny outposts of Europe perched on the tip of Morocco, a country so close to Spain that on a clear day it can be seen across the Strait of Gibraltar.”For us, it is like the promised land,” said Abraham Pintum, a 20-year-old from the Central African Republic who was among an estimated 300 would-be immigrants scampering up ladders and hurling themselves into Spain this week, getting their first, cherished taste of Europe.They were the lucky ones in a drama that saw more than 1,000 people rush border crossings in Melilla and Ceuta, another enclave further west on Morocco’s coast, seeking a foothold for a better life, even though what awaits them almost certainly is one without work or residency papers.Five Africans died in a frenzied human avalanche that surged into Ceuta before dawn Thursday. Spanish Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso said Friday that two bodies found on Spanish soil had bullet wounds, but he did not say who fired the shots. Three other bodies were found on the Moroccan side of the barrier.Despite his uncertain future, Pintum expressed elation at finally making it onto European soil.Using a borrowed cell phone – coveted like gold at the holding facility housing the arrivals – he telephoned his 17-year-old brother Job, who started dancing upon hearing that Pintum’s five-month journey to Melilla had finally ended.”He said he had seen on the news that a wave of Africans made it into Melilla. I told him I was part of it,” Pintum said.Amid their joy and relief, the travelers also have added another complicated twist to ties between two neighbors with a long history of gripes, including fishing rights in Moroccan waters, Spanish-bound drug trafficking, illegal immigration and the very status of Melilla and Ceuta.A cartoon in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo depicted Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and King Mohammed VI playing a tense game of pingpong, with the ball going over a fence like the ones around the enclaves.Morocco claims sovereignty over both, but Spain says the cities were Spanish even before Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956.The two countries came close to military conflict in July 2002 when Morocco stationed a small group of soldiers on a disputed, uninhabited island near Melilla.Spain dispatched warships and soldiers, ejected the Moroccans and only pulled back when the United States brokered an accord under which the two sides agreed to revert to the status quo of rival claims to a rock boasting nothing more than wild parsley and goats.In interviews at the holding facilities, no immigrant would support suggestions in Spain that Morocco instigated the human avalanches to make life difficult for the Madrid government and increase pressure over the sovereignty dispute.Pintum described the exodus Tuesday as a sort of chain reaction – groups formed roughly according to nationality would make their break, word would pass through the grapevine and then other clusters would make their dash, using ladders fashioned from thick sticks held together with strips of cloth or bicycle inner-tubes.At one section of the border, Spanish police have hundreds of the discarded getaway tools piled 20 feet high.So far this year, about 12,000 people have been turned back or caught at Melilla’s borders – down from 55,000 in 2004 – but the number of attempted mass crossings is up dramatically, from seven last year to about 25 this year, Interior Ministry and local officials said.Spain is witnessing “a change in the way in which sub-Saharan emigres try to get into the city, not an increase,” said Jose Fernandez Chacon, the ministry’s top official in Melilla.Melilla and Ceuta are relatively new destinations for Africans seeking to reach the bounty of Europe.The traditional conduit for sub-Saharans and North Africans is a treacherous crossing to Spain from the Moroccan coast in an overcrowded boat. Thousands attempt the voyage each year. Most are caught but hundreds die.Spain faces a dilemma because many of this week’s arrivals are from destitute countries that have not signed fast-track repatriation accords allowing Madrid to send them home.At Melilla, where the holding facility has existed for years but now features 10 military-style camps to handle the overflow, men arrive with little more than the shirt on their back. They spend the days kicking a soccer ball in a dusty lot, washing clothes in buckets and shaving each other’s heads.”This is it. This is all I own,” said Amadou Gano, a 23-year-old from Guinea Conakry, tugging at a gray T-shirt and pointing to filthy jeans and cheap plastic sandals.Eyong Thomas, 28, of Cameroon, said he earned the equivalent of $12 a month working on a cacao farm and had to support a wife and twin 5-year-old girl.”Life was so hard there. There is so much misery,” he said. “I could not make enough money to help my family.”It took Thomas 18 months to reach Morocco after a trip that took him through Nigeria, Niger and Algeria. He worked where he could, washing cars or digging latrines.Poverty at home is such a driving force that Africans try to reach Spain even if the best they can hope for is a minimum-wage job – about $600 a month – with no work or residency papers, said Antonio Argandona Ramiz, deputy dean at the IESE Business School in Barcelona.”In Spain they may not be able to aspire to much but they will still be a lot better off than where they came from,” he said.—Associated Press reporter Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.