Border Stories: Ceuta

I’ve spent the last week or so in and around Ceuta, one of Spain’s two autonomous enclaves in North Africa. Ceuta’s border is also Europe’s most southern frontier. As such, it is a major destination for migrants from Africa and Asia. If they can get into Ceuta, they are in Europe without risking a deadly sea crossing.

The border fence around Ceuta is remarkable: two tall fences seperated by a road for border patrol vehicles. Huge coils of barbed wire and electronic sensors. From a distance, and I was only permitted to see it from a distance, the fence has an unexpected beauty. It emerges from a thick forest and juts out into the sea in an elegant curve. It reminds me of the silver filigree in Morocco’s jewellery souqs. Like a fine bracelet for some fantastic bride.

This beauty is lost, I am sure, on the men who try to scale the fence. I met one of them in Plaza los Reyes, a polished square in Ceuta’s shopping district. His name is Jeffery James and he is from the Sudan, and when I met him he was begging for coins. I sat with him for a while and he told me about trying over twenty times to climb the fence. He had been beaten by soldiers, had his flesh torn by barbed wire, and deported to the no man’s land between Algeria and Morocco many times, but always made his way back to the fence.

He was lucky the last time. He wore thick jeans and tied cloth around his hands. And he put on three jackets; each time he was snagged by the wire he shed a layer and carried on. Five men attempted the climb that night, but only three made it over before the Moroccan guards caught them. When Jeffrey reached the other side he was taken in to custody by the Spanish soldiers. They didn’t believe he made it over the wire, but Jeffrey showed them his jackets still hooked in the barbs.

Jeffrey was brought to an immigrant holding centre called CETI where he will be housed and fed while his immigration application is being considered. There are over 400 migrants in CETI. They come from all over Asia and Africa, and each waits for the opportunity to reach mainland Spain: ‘The Peninsula,’ they call it. CETI is a safe place, but not a happy one. Nobody wants to be here, jobless, living among strangers, and fed food that they hate. The centre might be a thousand miles closer to Europe than where they began, but it is only a tiny step forward and by no means a certain one. Every month hopeful migrants are deported, usually in the middle of the night.

Five weeks ago, the 72 Indians in the centre got word that they were marked for deportation. Some had been at CETI for almost two years and had absolutely nothing to return to in India. So they decided to flee. Now the young men live in makeshift camps in the hills around CETI, and just behind the local SPCA. They have built tents out of plastic tarps and scrap wood, and fashioned stoves out of broken bricks they’ve found. They prepare curries from donated food, and grill fresh chapatis on a griddle made from the hood of an abandoned car. Some of the men ‘work’ outside the big duty-free supermarkets near the port, directing shoppers to parking spots and helping them with their groceries for whatever coins they might spare. And in the afternoons, they play cricket with a tennis ball and a bat they carved from a plank. The penned dogs howl from their kennels, as if they can sense a ball is being thrown nearby.

Mostly, though, the men wait for someone, somewhere, to care enough about their plight to help them. They harbour no illusions. They have come so far. Some crossed the Sahara to get here. Some were stuffed into the trunks of cars. One man spent three months blindfolded on a ship. Now mainland Europe is mockingly close; you can see Spain from the hills. But without papers, without officials working for them, they are as far away from that shore as they have ever been. They all know this.

I spent a few days with the Indians, listening to their stories and trying to play cricket. The men treated me as if I was a guest in their home back in India. They made me beautiful chai with shards of real ginger and spices they pounded fresh. I ate warm chapatis and hot curries. They asked me if I’ve ever been to Surrey, British Columbia, and whether it was true that there were so many Indians in Canada the street signs are in both English and Punjabi. They laugh often and joke constantly. Their bright spirits made my heart hurt.

At the end of my first visit, one man, Rocky, walked me to the edge of the camp. I asked him if there was anything I could bring them the next time I came. ‘We don’t need anything,’ he said. ‘Just pray for us.’