A Syrian adolescent walks along the wall of Melilla’s citadel in July 2015. (Laura Kasinof)

The safest route to Europe is to Africa

Several thousand Syrian refugees have made their way to Spain’s enclave in Morocco. But many don’t realize that once they reach Spain they can’t leave.


MELILLA, Spain

At the base of Melilla’s medieval citadel stands a young Francisco Franco. The last remaining public statue of Spain’s fascist dictator watches over the port on this small chunk of rock, a vestige of colonialism, Spain in Africa, where existence is defined by who is allowed into Europe and who is not welcome.

Melilla, along with the much smaller Ceuta, is one of two permanently inhabited Spanish enclaves in Morocco. The chunk of land, around a fifth the size of Manhattan, is surrounded by a fence and guarded with cameras and border police. Inside the fence there is an airport, Spanish tapas bars and a number of chain clothing stores (much shopping in Melilla is tax-free). Melilla may be in Morocco, but visiting the enclave has all the trappings of traditional Spanish culture, one in which free tapas come with a glass of wine and old men takes shots of mystery liquor with their morning coffee.

Near the port that Franco proudly guards, people swim across an invisible border, starting in Morocco and praying to end in Spain. These people are most often Moroccans, Algerians or from West African nations. Sometimes police intercept them and send them back to Morocco, and sometimes they drown on the way. A photo of African migrants sitting on the infamous border fence overlooking Melilla’s golf course went viral in 2014.

What has been less reported is that Melilla is also a way into Europe for Syrians. Most refugees cross the Mediterranean from Libya or Turkey to Italy or Greece. A much smaller number, only a few thousand, enter via Melilla. Instead of a harrowing boat ride to the European continent, Syrian refugees who enter via Melilla are put on a large, safe ferry to the Spanish mainland.

Melilla may be the safer option, but that safety comes with a price. For one, it’s expensive. The handful of Syrians I spoke with in Melilla told me they paid around $7,000 per person, while crossing via the Mediterranean is often in the lower thousands of dollars for Syrians. To cross into Europe via Melilla, Syrians often fly to Algeria from Beirut and then are smuggled into Morocco because that border is closed to everyone and has been since 1994. Then they are smuggled out of Morocco at the border crossing with Melilla in the Moroccan city of Beni Ansar. Syrian refugees enter a variety of ways: with purchased Moroccan passports, concealed in car trunks or by bribing Moroccan border guards.

Each border requires a significant amount of cash. The tricky part is that Morocco doesn’t let Syrians out of Morocco at its border with Melilla, but once they cross the 300 meters to reach the Spanish border, Spain allows Syrians to declare asylum and enter Spanish territory. Human rights activists have cited this to me as proof that Spain incentivizes Morocco to do its dirty work with regards to refugees and migrants. They claim that if this weren’t the case, and Morocco allowed Syrians to freely leave, hundreds of Syrians would be declaring asylum in Melilla every day.

Yet there’s another price for choosing the safer route. Few refugees want to stay in Spain because the country has few jobs for them. From the half dozen or so families I spoke with in Melilla, Syrians who entered there were trying to reunite with family members already living in Germany, Belgium or Scandinavian countries. But when they enter Melilla, they’re automatically registered for asylum in Spain, which means they have to live there. This differs from Greece, where in 2015 refugees were waved northward without registering.

Do Syrians who enter the E.U. in Melilla know that catch? From what I gathered, they either did not know they must remain in Spain, or they were simply hoping there would be a way around the Dublin Regulation, which requires refugees to apply for asylum in the first country they enter. (After all, Germany had previously announced it would no longer adhere to the Dublin Regulation for Syrians, though that turned out to be a temporary change.) What the asylum seekers know is that Melilla is Europe, they can get there safely, and so they take that path.

I recently spent time with a Syrian mother and two children who were deported back to Spain from Germany, and their immediate family there, because they entered the E.U. in Melilla. They said other Syrians in their temporary shelter in Madrid were also stuck there for the same reasons. UNHCR, the Red Cross and other human rights groups have highlighted the plight of separated refugee families, stressing that their cases need to be prioritized — processing their asylum and possibly moving them to a third country where their families are living. But complex bureaucracy and a lack of political will across the E.U. has put any progress on hold.

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