The first person who told me about Ceuta was from Cameroon, I will call him Samuel (that is not his real name). Samuel fled Cameroon because of the persecution he suffered due to his sexuality (homosexuality is illegal in Cameroon and punishable by death). I was the immigration lawyer who represented him in his asylum claim. I had never heard of the enclave cities and when Samuel first told me about the Spanish town in Morrocco surrounded by a 20 foot high fence, topped with barbed wire, video cameras and noise and movement sensors, I was nonplussed. Samuel recounted his numerous attempts to scale this fence, often in the middle of the night, so that he could reach a safe country and claim asylum. Once he fell and broke his ankle, he spent weeks recovering only to try, and fail, again. Another time he actually made it, his feet briefly touched Spanish soil before he was beaten, bundled into the back of a police car and driven back to Morrocco (this practice has been dubbed “hot deportations”). In the end Samuel gave up trying to reach Spain, he spent more than a year in Morrocco (a country where you can also be imprisoned for being gay). He was however, one of the few fortunate enough to find another route to Europe and was eventually granted refugee status in the UK.
It was because of Samuel that I wanted to visit Ceuta and to see for myself what the conditions were like. We set off from Mertil in the north of Morrocco, having taken the Algeciras – Tangier ferry the day before. Immediately before Ceuta is Fnideq, a small Moroccan seaside town. Wide boulevards are lined with tea parlours, icecream shops and patisseries. On the promenade there are popcorn sellers and fairground rides, there is a miniture race track presumably intended for children, though we spot two women in burkas speeding around on little electric motorbikes. Wisened old men in pointed Djellabas stand around smoking and drinking coffee. There is a laid back air. As we leave the town the road clings to the Mediterranean coast, then it turns the corner and in the distance we can see a mass of barbed wire jutting out into the sea. The first fences of fortress Europe.
When we reach the border there are dozens of people milling around. Men stand in groups, talking, smoking and the atmosphere is tense. We take the vehicle entrance, to either side the are caged walkways for people on foot. Barbed wire sits atop of more barbed wire. After crossing the border we drive for a few minutes and reach central Ceuta (the enclave is just 18.5km square). There is a pretty marina filled with sailing boats, we pass bars and cafe’s and the pastel yellow cathedral of Santa Maria de la asunction, the main high street is lined with fashion stores, it feels worlds away from Morrocco and from the border we have just left.
We drive out of the town centre along a coast road, following the sat nav’s directions for CETI, the Centre for the Temporary Residence of Immigration, where those migrants who are lucky enough to make it to Ceuta are housed. The houses and shops fall away, we pass derelict buildings and still the road keeps on going. Around 6 kilometres from the town we start to see young guys walking together and huddled in groups on the beach. The sat nav directs us up a steep and winding hill and into a densly forested area, we are convinced that we must have gone wrong until we turn a corner and see a wire fence and security guards. We decide to go no further we drive back down to the beach. From the road the centre is completely invisible, hidden by the trees, something I can’t help feeling is deliberate.
On the beach I approach two young men and introduce myself. Omar is 25 and from Senegal, he has a round boyish face and is quick to smile. His friend Musa (above right) is from Guinea, in contrast to Omar’s lightheartedness there is a weariness to him. It is strange to think he is almost the same age as me; he seems immeasurably older. They tell me that they live in the centre for migrants and that they are waiting to go to mainland Spain (migrants require the permission of the National Police to travel to the peninsulla, Human Rights Watch has reported that this often takes up to a year). I ask how long they have been waiting and they tell me 19 months. It seems such an extraordinarily long time at first I think I have misunderstood them and so Omar uses his finger to draw the number in the sand. I ask them how much longer they think they will have to wait, ‘who knows, maybe 2 or 3 more months’ Omar says, ‘lots of people are waiting a long time.’ I ask them what they do during the day, ‘nothing’ says Omar ‘there is nothing for us to do here.’ I note that I did not see anyone who looked to be from the centre in the town, I do not ask but I have read that many residents stay away from central Ceuta due to the fear of people’s reactions.
We are then joined by Ramadan (above left), who is 17 years old and also from Guinea. He has been in Ceuta for one month, he tells me he wants to go to the UK and is keen to practice his English and we talk for a while. Omar says he also wants to to come to the UK, Musa to France, it seems that no one wants to stay in Spain. I wish them all good luck on their journey and leave.
As I am leaving I meet another group of boys, the eldest does not seem more than 16 and his friends look considerably younger. I ask the eldest boy how long he has been at the centre, 2 years he says. And your friends? 5 months. I would like to talk to him some more but he looks at me suspiciously, ‘I need go go back’ he says, ‘its getting cold.’ I think of a 2018 Council of Europe report I read before visiting Ceuta, the report criticised the massive overcrowding in the centre and the conditions for unaccompanied minors which “expose [children] to sexual abuse, violence and human trafficking.”
As we leave Ceuta I think back to a moment in my conversation with Omar. I had just told him about our trip and he began talking animatedly about the countries we would go through, some of which he had already crossed then he trailed off looked at me sadly, ‘you can travel to Senegal very easily, but for me to travel to the UK is very difficult,’ he paused as if thinking about it, ‘the difference is paper.’ I thought about the way it had taken me 15 minutes to reach Ceuta and how Samuel had spent months attempting the same journey and had ultimately failed, I thought about Omar and Musa who had waited almost 2 years for the 2 hour ferry crossing I had taken the day before and the enormous unfairness of it all, when the difference really is just paper.