THE ragged Moroccan town of Binionis lies in the shadows of ‘Jebel Musa’ mountain, known as the ‘Dead Woman’, just a stone’s throw from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and the freedom of Europe.
From here in the small, ramshackle settlement, nestled safely in the curves of the Dead Woman’s waistline, I can track the migrants’ hazardous journey in one sweeping view, from mountain peak down to the border and the rocky shores below.
Camps are scattered around the mountain’s slopes, built by migrants fleeing their home countries, all of whom are willing to risk death to get onto European soil.
Naser Kayas is a 26-year-old Moroccan who has lived in the shadows of Jebel Musa his whole life.
He tells me that just a month ago the slopes where we stand were buzzing with the daily trials of life on a mountain – hoarding firewood, scavenging food – but after a large-scale attempt on the border the makeshift tents lie dormant, waiting for a fresh intake.
The previous inhabitants have vanished. The lucky ones into Ceuta, the others – the vast majority – have retreated further into the Moroccan Rif mountains to try again another day.
Nobody knows exactly where they have gone, or when they will come back. Like a great deal of the migrants’ plight, the facts are shrouded in mystery.
It is this lack of official statistics – and research – that makes this issue of such importance.
What is certain though, is that this scene is being repeated across the mountains that frame the twin Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, where a ‘human avalanche’ of an estimated 40,000 African migrants waits.
In the past few months alone thousands of migrants from across Africa have bottlenecked at the enclaves, as the only two land borders with Europe.
But as a peninsula, Ceuta’s expansive shoreline offers another, more viable, way in. Many of the migrants who make it into Ceuta swim, or come by boat. But this route is fraught with danger.
In the dead of night, strong currents and a viciously rocky coastline have claimed hundreds (even possibly thousands) of lives in the last 20 years. At least 14 people drowned in February, trying to swim from Morocco to Ceuta at the El Tarajal beach.
In what sparked a huge political scandal, survivors blamed the deaths on the border guards, who allegedly fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the sea to deter the swimmers. An investigation is on-going.
Just days later, driven by the news that Spanish police had been banned from using rubber bullets and rumours that the border fences would soon be reinforced, another 700 sub-Saharans attempted the crossing on land.
This cycle of attempted mass invasions in both enclaves continues to this day. Security around the border is understandably tight. And just to take an unpermitted photo I had to climb a steep hill to a point looking down on the high metal fences, to avoid the three police cars waiting below.
But making it across the border and into the Spanish enclave is not the end of the migrant’s journey.
Once in Ceuta, assuming they make it across the barbed wire of the viciously guarded border, there is no option but to hand themselves over to the police.
European law prevents asylum-seekers being expelled from Spain before they have been officially documented, so the migrants are taken to the so-called Centre for the Temporary Stay of Immigrants (CETI), in an industrial area of the unusual enclave.
Intent on finding out what happens when the immigrants finally make it across the border, I spent weeks approaching officials at the centre via emails and phone calls.
First they insisted it was impossible to visit and pointed me towards the Ministry of Employment and Social Security in Madrid to get permission, shielding themselves with bureaucracy.
However after trying to call a number of times and speaking to unhelpful press officers I realised I needed to simply go and try on the ground. So last week I took a boat over to Ceuta from Algeciras to see the situation for myself.
After climbing the steep hill to the CETI in the burning African heat, I told the waiting security guards that I had an appointment to visit and permission from Madrid.
Surprisingly they let me in and sent me to the main office, where I was met by a friendly guard who gave me an unexpected and unprecedented overview into the government-run centre. The people who have come to Spain seeking freedom are trapped here – alarmingly – for as long as two years.
They are waiting for the arrival of papers confirming their asylum that will finally give them access to mainland Spain. I am told there are currently 560 people living in the cramped centre – which opened in March 2000, and was only ever meant to house 512 – although it feels like a lot more.
The guard confirmed that this number can often rise, as by law they have to accommodate all those that arrive. “Sometimes we just have to jam in extra beds. It’s needs must,” he said.
I was able to get him to confirm that it can take up to two years to process the migrants’ applications and that during this time they sit in stultifying boredom, unable to work or study.
But he explained that they got three meals a day, blankets and a bed, and have access to legal aid (there are two lawyers based at the centre) and good medical care.
However, the guard soon clammed up when I asked about how much it all cost and who was paying for it. Ultimately, of course, the Spanish taxpayers.
I was soon asked to leave, but not before I could get a glimpse of dormitory-style rooms, which reveal that every available space is taken up with people and beds. The residents spill out into the concrete corridors outside the rooms just to get some space to breathe.
Nabil Saidi, a 62-year-old artist from Algeria is typical of the centre’s residents. Leaving his wife and five sons in his home country, Nabil has been at the CETI for three months now and has no idea how much longer he will stay behind the high metal fences.
Standing in the courtyard, he keeps touching his head, saying that even now he can’t get used to having short hair.
He tells me it used to be long – past his shoulders – but he had to shave it off to look more like the stranger’s photo in the fake passport that got him across the border into Ceuta, for which he had to pay more than €500.
Nabil fled to Spain after suffering constant persecution at the hands of the police in Algeria, where artists and intellectuals represent a free-thinking that isn’t welcome.
He is also a Berber – a member of the native culture brutally suppressed when the Arabic influence took over Algeria.
Now Nabil grins toothlessly as he proudly shows me his nomadic art gallery, photos stored on his phone until he can find somewhere more permanent. The videos and photos bring home the reality that this man left a life and family to come here.
He disappears back into the dark recesses of his room and brings back a postcard of his hotel, the family-run business that he had to abandon. To break up the suffocating boredom he goes to the beach to collect small stones, which he grinds up to make different coloured sand to use in his art.
When his friend, Fouzi Kennouche, a 25-year-old who arrived from Algeria six months ago, calls him the ‘Algerian Picasso’ a flash of pride gives me another glimpse of his pink gums. Fouzi is shy telling me about his life before coming here, but says that he is desperate to get to Germany and find a job, so he can send money home to support his elderly parents.
Although he and Nabil only speak French, a 26-year-old Syrian economics student – who insists I call him ‘Mohammad Ali’ – makes an eager translator.
Desperate to finish his studies in Spain, Mohammad understands the need to have their stories told. He reads whatever newspapers he can get a hold of, and knows that their need is going unnoticed by the rest of Europe.
“Help us,” he says, very matter of fact. “People need to know that we are here. We’re trapped here waiting for papers that, as far as we know, could never arrive. We are told we might have to wait for up to two years. That is just not fair.”
But it’s not just men suffering in the cramped, difficult conditions. Women and families live here too. I was shocked to see children peering out at me from behind dormitory doors and kicking stones aimlessly around the yard.
Ceuta residents are also quick to demand that the Spanish government takes greater responsibility for the droves of people arriving in its enclaves. They certainly seem to have a point. Ceuta is literally being used as a dumping ground for migrants, apparently not wanted in the rest of Europe.
When his papers arrive and he is allowed to leave the CETI, Nabil tells me he hopes to live in Spain permanently, where he wouldn’t be beaten in the street just for being an artist.
“I love this country,” he says warmly. “I love its people and its culture. I want to see Barcelona before I die.”
Recent weeks have witnessed a surge of attempted crossings making it harder and harder for Brussels and the rest of the EU to continue ignoring the Mediterranean countries’ plight.
But political discussions of the migrants’ troubles are gathering pace. Just two weeks ago Foreign Affairs ministers from the seven Mediterranean countries met in Alicante to discuss the ‘burning issue’ of immigration.
Spain, Greece, France, Italy, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta are bearing the brunt of the massive influx of African migrants and are, understandably, demanding more financial help from the rest of the EU.
They insist that this mass influx of immigrants is not just Spain’s problem, but Europe’s.
They are most certainly right.