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Spain's Moroccan enclave: The story behind the photo

Sub-Saharan African migrants face myriad challenges on both sides of the border between Morocco and the Spanish-controlled enclave, Melilla
The image of two golfers playing as migrants scale a fence went viral late last year (IRN/Jose Palazon)

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NADOR, Morocco - Late last year an image went viral. In it two golfers, dressed in white on lush green fairways, appear oblivious as in the background around a dozen migrants try to scale a border fence in an attempt to enter Europe.

The migrants were climbing from the sleepy and conservative coastal north Moroccan town of Nador, trying to enter Melilla, one of two Spanish territories inside the North African country. It shone a light on Morocco’s struggles to manage its migrant population and attempts by Spain to further seal its borders.

In many ways the policies of the two countries could not be more different. While Spain continues to seek ever-tougher measures to turn back those trying to enter the enclave, Morocco has actually sought to open up to migrants – with a year-long drive to regularise migrants ending at the end of December 2014.

According to the latest official national figures, of the 21,000 applications received up until the beginning of November, 8,949 were approved. The final numbers are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

Goodluck, who only gave his first name, came to Nador with the aim of climbing that fence to get into Melilla and claim asylum from the Spanish authorities there. He made a number of attempts between 1999 and 2008, travelling back and forth to his native Nigeria in between.

“I saw many people drowning in the sea, and I got beaten up by the police many times,” he said, pointing to a scar on his leg.

Goodluck said he spent at least 3,000 Euros ($3,530) on smugglers’ fees in the process, before eventually giving up. "You could have started your own business in Morocco with that money," said Hicham Arroud from Association Thissaghnasse pour la Culture et le Développement (ASTICUDE) a local NGO, gently chastising Goodluck.

ASTICUDE, which started out as a cultural and educational organisation, is helping migrants like Goodluck who have given up trying to reach Europe to apply for residency in Morocco through the regularisation process launched by the government in January 2014.

Throughout the year, the government invited certain categories of foreign nationals - including those married to Moroccan citizens, those with employment contracts and those who had resided in the country for more than five years - to apply for residency.

According to Arroud, as of December there had been 295 applications for residency in Nador, of which 44 were accepted. All of these were women; the only man given residency in Nador to date is Mohamed Kouassi, an Ivorian football player.

Goodluck told IRIN he was frustrated not to have received a response to his residency application. "I am tired of begging every day," he said.

Spain bolsters its borders

Nador's proximity to Melilla, just 16 kilometres away, has attracted a sizeable population of Sub-Saharan African migrants. According to the latest estimates from Delegación de Migraciones, an organisation affiliated to a church in Nador providing health care support, there are 859 migrants in the 12 camps around the municipality of Selouane (south of Nador). Of those, 121 are women, 24 are children, and 30 are unaccompanied minors.

There are also five other camps in Gourougou and Farkhana, the forests close to Melilla, though the numbers fluctuate widely due to the recurrent attempts to climb the fence and to reach Spain by boat.

In the 1990s, most of the migrants trying to enter Melilla and Ceuta, a second Spanish enclave, were Moroccans, but now the majority are Sub-Saharan African migrants.

According to Nuria Díaz of the Spanish Commission for Refugees (CEAR), the vast majority are immediately intercepted by border guards and returned to Morocco. “The Spanish government says that when they push back migrants who cross the fence, they’re acting in the framework of a bilateral agreement with Morocco. But this agreement says they must have the opportunity to apply for asylum first. But in reality, people don’t have access,” explained Díaz.

Migrant rights groups have long described the expulsions as unlawful. Authorities on both sides have also been accused of beating up migrants they catch trying to cross the border.

In December 2014 Spain’s lower house of parliament approved an amendment to the country’s public security bill. It is yet to pass through the upper house, but if it does, Díaz says it will “legalise this practice [of push backs] that we know has been happening systematically since 2005".

Rights groups including CEAR, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are vehemently opposed to the move, arguing that it violates Spain’s obligations under international and EU human rights and refugee law.

According to Amnesty International: “As it stands, the amendment does not detail the procedure for ‘border rejections’ or provide any human rights safeguards.”

“This failure will deprive asylum seekers of access to the asylum procedure in Spain and could result in refoulement [the expulsion of persons who have the right to be recognised as refugees] by exposing migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees to the risk of serious human rights violations in Morocco.”

Giving up on Europe

But not everyone who comes to Nador is trying to cross into Melilla: Many of the men and youths living in the Gourougou and Farkhana forests do make regular attempts to scale the fence, but some migrants want to settle in Morocco itself.

However, due to their irregular status and lack of fixed income, many have no choice but to live in tents and self-made shacks in the forest on the city’s outskirts. It is common to see people begging on the street in and around the city centre.

Victory, who only gave his first name, is from Nigeria, and arrived in Morocco in 2003. He says he left for economic reasons: “My salary as a university professor wasn’t enough to sustain my family, so I had to find another way,” he explained.

The 37-year-old worked as a cook in restaurants in Casablanca and then Rabat before coming to Nador to live rough in the forest in November 2013. “I had no job and no financial assistance so I had no choice but to go live in the forest,” he explained, blaming his irregular status on his difficulties.

The government in Rabat launched its regularisation scheme in response to EU pressure and the increasing number of migrants like Victory deciding to stay in Morocco.

In June 2013, Morocco and the EU signed a so-called “mobility partnership” aimed at harmonising their migration policies. In it, Morocco agrees to resume negotiations on a readmission agreement – a convention obliging one state to accept individuals expelled from the other signatory state.

Morocco had for a long time refused to agree to this clause, but the EU persisted that the mobility partnership could only be signed if Morocco agreed to the readmission agreement.

According to Stéphane Julinet, program manager in charge of migrant rights and advocacy at GADEM, a Rabat-based association, the EU pressures on Morocco are “contradictory”.

“On the one hand the EU is asking Morocco to act as a gendarme, blocking migrants by any means, and on the other hand it requires it to have a pro-human rights legislation in order to justify the EU’s collaboration with Morocco,” he said. “The EU is asking Morocco to do the dirty work while remaining presentable,” he said.

A long way towards integration

In June last year, a national commission for follow-up and recourse was installed. One of its first decisions was to issue a memo asking local authorities to grant residency to all migrant women who could provide an identity document from their home country, regardless of any other criteria.

“Bureau des Etrangers [Foreigners Offices] have applied this memo differently: some have regularised entire families and others only the women,” explained Julinet. He said there were several cases of families in which the woman received a positive answer, while the man didn’t.

Angeline, 37, who only gave her first name, is one of those who have benefitted from this measure. “It didn't take very long to get my card,” she said. “But the people here are still not used to this,” she said, indicating her dark skin. “People call us Ebola,” she added angrily.

She said she fled forced marriage and female genital mutilation in her home country of Côte d'Ivoire where she worked as a school teacher until 2012, and came to Morocco to start a new life.

IRIN met her in Segangan municipality, south of Nador, looking for a cleaning job in a shop or restaurant, the private French lessons she had been giving having dried up. Until she finds a new job, she said she has no choice but to continue living in the forest.

The 2014 regularisation, which ended on 31 December, comes as part of broader migration policy reforms that include the drafting of three new laws to deal with people smuggling; with migrants’ rights; and the granting of refugee status to asylum seekers.

There will also be programmes aimed at better integrating migrants, by giving them access to education, professional training and counselling.

The Commission Nationale deSuivi et de Recours (National Monitoring and Appeals Committee), which is leading the regularisation commission is due to meet in early January to assess the campaign and establish new decisions regarding appeals.