Abraham Younes

Holding Zone


Honey One and Milk One by Lawrence Lemaoana

“On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever
Are precise and alive.” —W.H. Auden

“Every bureaucrat’s desk becomes a border.” —José, aid worker

Only at midnight, when the last of Melilla’s Spanish youth and their parents have left the annual carnival (feria) in the North African enclave, will another group of children enter the fairgrounds. They will do so quietly, emerging from the shadows during calculated, opportune moments, once they have pinpointed a spot to stake out their position. Some will crawl into spaces in the folded Ferris wheel. Others will choose a crevice among the bumper cars. Still others will opt for more dangerous hiding places with greater guarantees of avoiding discovery: the underbellies of 18-wheeler trucks, or the bottom of large storage containers, sandwiched between heavy metal equipment.

The boys are Moroccan, Malian, Syrian, Iraqi. If recent years are any indication, the majority will be discovered by the fairgrounds staff, who will do a thorough last sweep of the premises before sending the equipment off to port. If they get past the carnival crew, the youngsters face the more difficult feat of going unseen and unheard by the Spanish Civil Guard, with their vicious guard dogs and their heartbeat detection monitors engineered to pick up any life that the K9s don’t sniff out. Despite it all, a handful of the boys—whether through luck, dexterity, or more typically, a combination of both—will manage to slip through every barrier, earning them a ride aboard a cargo ship bound for mainland Europe.

For decades, Melilla and its sister city of Ceuta have been a final pit stop for asylum seekers on the road to Europe. They come alone or as families, travel hundreds or thousands of miles, hail from as near as Morocco and Western Sahara or as far as South Africa and Central Asia. Spain has maintained control over the territories since its defeat of the Wattasid Empire in 1497 and has always considered both to be of enormous geopolitical, commercial, and military importance for their location along the African side of the Mediterranean coast and, in Ceuta’s case, the Strait of Gibraltar.

Older residents of the towns recall a time when the borders were porous and largely unguarded, with Moroccan workers crossing over daily for work and the only distinguishable barrier being a short fence no higher than five feet that anyone agile could clear on their first try. It was in 1976, at the dawn of neoliberalism and the militarization of borders that came with it, that Spain constructed the first vallas (fences) that could not be cleared by jumping and placed a regular patrol on the outskirts of the two enclaves to keep a lookout for anyone attempting unauthorized entry.

Today, a much higher, tri-layered security barrier stands on the same turf where the original five-foot-high fence used to be. While the highly athletic and adept among the migrants can attempt a five-mile swim into port at dawn, most migrants find the quick and collective act of charging the fence to be their best bet.

Those who run do so in large groups, usually in the pre-dawn hours, aware that most people in their band will be captured by Spanish or Moroccan forces and transported back across to the Moroccan side. Between the unwilling competitors and EU territory lie three 20-foot-high fences—the first controlled by Morocco, the third by Spain, and the second an interim zone. To set foot on European soil and “become” asylum seekers, migrants must run, typically a distance of over 1,000 feet, then scramble over each fence, all three of which have thick barbed wire at the top. Only after making it over the final fence and setting foot on Spanish soil will they have a legal claim to safe harbor.

Among those who make it, there are those who will report to the government-run asylum centers in Ceuta and Melilla. A lucky few will have their claims successfully processed after months of waiting and be sent to the mainland through official channels—while the great majority will eventually have their claims denied and be required to leave Spain. Then there are the harragas (literally “burning” in Moroccan Darija, a reference to the act of burning documents), street children who never report to the asylum centers, evading the watchful eye of the Spanish state that will force them to return across the border should their claims be denied. Ranging in age from 12 to 25, these boys and young men live, panhandle, and sleep on the streets and public beaches of the city. For them, the annual carnival is a rare opportunity—if not the only one—to obtain what the lucky few with successful asylum claims are able to secure: a one-way ticket to mainland Europe.

The typical features of a successful asylum claim themselves explain why the harragas evade the asylum centers to begin with. As in the United States, a strong claim in the EU typically requires a consistent and compelling narrative of escaping war, persecution, ethnic cleansing, or gender-based violence. Asylees must often prove that they belong to a particular social group that is persecuted due to a visible and inherent trait they cannot control, and for which they will likely face death or serious injury if they return to their country of origin.

The young boys who hide inside Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds, to the contrary, often arrive alone or with boys their age, and almost always recount a story that is far less compelling for asylum officers to present to Spanish officials: stories of extreme poverty, financial desperation, and a dearth of opportunity in their home countries.

Mustafa Abdelkader, a Ceuta resident who helps distribute food and clothes to the boys, told the German broadcast network Deutsche Welle that he often encourages the boys to return to their countries of origin, especially the Moroccans and North Africans. “The mainland, that’s where the real trouble begins,” Mustafa said. “From here, they can go back home at any time. From here, it’s just two kilometers away. But once they’re over there, it’s tough. And by there, I mean in Spain, France, Germany, any European country.”

“We have no work ourselves,” said Sabah, another long-time resident of Ceuta interviewed for the program. She spoke from inside her store, gesturing around at the colorful merchandise. “We get hardly any customers. That’s why I often tell the young men, ‘You really might be better off going home again.’” Like Mustafa, Sabah said this is advice she gives largely to the North Africans, and that she cannot provide the same kind of encouragement to sub-Saharan Africans who have crossed the desert or refugees who come from West Asia.

Asylum seekers who are members of a minority religion or who can show that they are gender or sexual minorities have a higher chance of gaining asylum on those grounds, even if the primary reason they are fleeing their countries is due to poverty or war. It often confounds youth who do attempt to file an asylum claim to learn, for instance, that they will be more likely to succeed on their claim if they can prove that they are a Shi’a Muslim from a Sunni-majority country, or if they are gay or transgender and from a country whose government is actively persecuting LGBT people, than if they can show that their family back home is starving and will not survive the winter without remittances from the eldest son who they sent abroad as their last hope. In the course of conducting ethnographic research on asylum seekers in Melilla, Italian sociologist Luca Queirolo Palmas spoke to a Spanish social worker named José, who summarized his experience processing such claims thus: “Every public sector worker’s desk becomes a border, a device of exclusion.”

And yet, despite the slim odds of success on a formal asylum claim and the extraordinary peril of the journey, thousands of migrants continue to traverse countries and continents to make it to Ceuta and Melilla’s border zone each year.

* * *

For Melilla’s 80,000 inhabitants, the Spanish military’s annual Operación Feriante sweep on the last night of the carnival is a tense subject that exposes the divisions of the city’s various communities. Among longtime residents of the city, there are European Spanish civilians, Spanish soldiers and their families, Moroccans who have become permanently settled Spanish nationals, Moroccan transit workers who cross into and out of the territories daily performing low-wage service work, and smaller communities of Sephardic Jews and Sindhi Hindus that have existed in Melilla for centuries. Each of these groups has its own historical stakes in the migration question, but the influx of asylum seekers in the past decade in particular has helped to unify or at least pacify groups with Spanish nationality who were otherwise previously antagonistic toward one another, i.e., European Spaniards and the naturalized Moroccan and North African population.

The sense of urgency, whether real or manufactured, has made evident the far right’s sizable foothold in the enclave, which grows wider each year. In February 2021, Melilla became the last municipality in all of Spain to remove a public statue of former dictator Francisco Franco. Open xenophobia has proven similarly advantageous to politicians in Ceuta, Spain’s other territorial outpost in North Africa and Melilla’s sister city, located some 400 kilometers to the west and straddling the Strait of Gibraltar. In 2019, Ceuta elected to its single seat in the Spanish parliament a member of Vox, a new far-right party in Spain that has surged in popularity in recent national elections and that takes an explicitly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance in its national platform.

Unlike in Madrid or Barcelona, the migrant “crisis” in Ceuta and Melilla is not new; the same reality has long existed for the two enclaves, its scale magnified in recent years to a degree unprecedented in recent memory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sharp rise in migrant arrivals during the 2010s has turned public discourse about the two cities into an act of political theater on the national stage, with right-wing candidates deftly exploiting the optics of the situation to stoke domestic fears of an Arab and African takeover of Spain.

Operación Feriante is a visually striking manifestation of precisely those fears. From the vantage point of Spanish viewers, swarms of brown and Black children—with no passports and a troublesome, violent identity as lawless street children—can be seen arriving to the southern ports of Algeciras and Tarifa and spreading themselves thin across the Spanish mainland upon arrival. It is no wonder that Vox was able to draw on Donald Trump’s visual imagery and slogan in their campaign to “Make Spain Great Again.”

Though the Spanish military may not themselves admit to it, it seems clear that the operation is successful not only for its ability to stop most youth from crossing but as a broader move to rally support from the mainland for border militarization and justify increased funding for border police on the front lines of “Fortress Europe,” even as Europe maintains its claim on African land (Morocco has claimed both Ceuta and Melilla as its own since its independence and does not recognize Spain’s claim of sovereignty over the territories).

Oxford anthropologist Ruben Andersson has referred to the various actors with a profit-making motive in border politics as “the illegality industry.” A vast, labyrinthine web of supply chain networks that stretch from Hungary to Southern Spain to Mali aid in the production and transportation of concertina wire, 360º motion sensor-equipped security cameras, and other advanced surveillance technology used to tighten the border fence and security apparatus around Ceuta, Melilla, and other southern border zones of Fortress Europe.

To strengthen its ties with governments in the Global South, the EU has also hardwired state-funded business efforts through security initiatives like the Seahorse satellite network. Through Seahorse programs, Spain directly cooperates with African countries located along the most frequented migrant routes, including Senegal, Mauritania, and Morocco, in order to manage security across a far wider swathe of territory than the border zones in northern Morocco. This kind of informal compensation from European governments has grown considerably in West Africa, with Spain and EU countries offering financial incentives in return for security collaboration, including extra pay for border police who employ pre-approved policing tools and can show that they are increasing migration patrols along their borders.

Although these efforts may appear to almost unilaterally benefit Spain and the EU, with only minor financial rewards accumulating for West and North African governments, the extended security networks have had the effect of putting far more diplomatic leverage in the hands of governments who are member-states in the satellite networks. None of the security collaboration can work unless the countries involved on the Global South side of the equation agree to go along with Spain’s plan.

Morocco, in particular, has discovered that by selectively opening and closing its borders, it is able to maintain a considerable pressure on Spain and the EU to conform to its geopolitical demands. Earlier last year, when it came to light that Spain was aiding Sahrawi rebels in Western Sahara in their struggle for independence from the Maghrebi crown, Morocco opened its side of Melilla’s border fence completely, leading a flood of migrants to swim or run over the national dividing line in historic numbers. Morocco’s periodic reminders to Spain are a testament to the power of border countries at the edge of the Global North, who, while harboring relatively little in the way of military strength, hold a tremendous ability to define and shape just how big of a problem border enforcement will become for their European or American neighbors. Clearly, the illegality industry rests on a shakier foundation than initial appearances might suggest, and climate-related political instability is likely to increase that shakiness in coming decades.

* * *

Inside Ceuta and Melilla, shifting demographics over the past several decades have increased anxiety among the European Spanish population. Slow but steady demographic change in the two enclaves has been a constant since the late twentieth century: while in 1986, only a third of Melilla and a fifth of Ceuta’s populations were Muslim, respectively; those figures now stand at approximately 50% in both cities.

Most Muslims in the territories were born and raised there without any right to nationality, eventually winning their right to become naturalized Spanish citizens through organized efforts that led to the amendment of the Ley de extranjeria in 2004. But since the amendment itself was backward-looking, with naturalization applying only to those inside the enclave who were already residents before its ratification, non-Europeans who settled in Ceuta or Melilla after 2004 or were born in the territories after that year have found it difficult or impossible to obtain Spanish nationality.

The second-class status experienced by non-Europeans is not limited to immigration. School children born and raised in Ceuta and Melilla have famously protested in the streets for their right to attend class. Cross-border female workers who reside in the neighboring Moroccan provinces of Nador and Tetouan have been prevented from giving birth in Spanish hospitals, even when the delivery itself is extremely premature or otherwise unexpected.

Among these women are porteadoras, women from Moroccan border towns and villages who carry up to 80 kg at a time on their shoulders, legally transporting goods from Spain that will be resold on the Moroccan side. The women’s livelihoods depend on Ceuta and Melilla continuing to enjoy special tax breaks as free ports under Spanish law, an exception that has proven contentious and is at risk of being retracted in the near future.

In addition to the porteadoras, thousands of Moroccans from Nador and Tetouan form the backbone of Ceuta and Melilla’s wage economy, traveling across the border by day with a work permit but being required to return to Morocco in the evening. Most work in the service or construction industries, with a substantial number even helping to construct the barriers and surveillance tech that is used to keep the border areas fortified. Workers whose jobs take them to the center of the city are faced with a more unusual dilemma: the fact that their temporary work permits stop being valid after 7pm. If workers cannot get to the border by that time, they are left “stranded” for the night without a valid visa to exit, and end up sleeping at a friend’s house or in the street until they can make it back across in the morning with their temporary permit.

Cross-border workers undermine the image of “Fortress Europe” that Ceuta and Melilla have come to symbolize, if only because the economy of both cities relies heavily on the limited freedom of movement for Moroccans of Nador and Tetouan to be able to cross the international border every day for work. Still, most work permits have been frozen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with all but the most essential workers being prevented from crossing. Spain’s strict border-crossing measures in Ceuta and Melilla have put in limbo the lives of tens of thousands of people who live in border towns and rely on the permits to travel to and from the enclaves every day.

Spain appears to have taken advantage of COVID the same way that the US did when it closed the U.S.-Mexico border indefinitely. The use of a public health emergency to legally exclude immigrant workers sets a scary precedent for people in regions bordering the Global North, as EU and Western states now have a more established protocol in place for shutting their borders quickly and effectively. In this way, the pandemic demonstrates how health and environmental emergencies can become political tools to justify closed borders and increased restrictions on legal immigration. It is not difficult to imagine, for instance, indefinite closure of Ceuta and Melilla’s ports of entry—or the U.S.-Mexico border, for that matter—due to the “emergency” of climate collapse or some other chronic environmental or public health development that lasts for many years or indefinitely.

* * *

Few images from the 2010s struck as deep a chord around the world as that of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed ashore on a beach near Bodrum, Turkey on the morning of September 2, 2015. Across Europe, alarm bells were sounded, with European politicians forced to make official statements—many for the first time—on the Syrian refugee crisis, reckoning publicly with the human cost of their indifference.

Why did Kurdi’s story resonate so strongly when hundreds of thousands of others’ stories did not? The reason, many argue, is the photograph itself, taken by Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir. The boy, fully clothed yet clearly dead as he lies face-down in the sand, appears to have triggered something deep in enough people that power structures and their figureheads were forced to respond, even if the response was ultimately a superficial one. Something about this image of Kurdi’s body crossed a line—a line other images had not crossed, and beyond which denial or minimization of the bare-naked truth becomes impossible, where the viewer who turns away or remains unmoved is automatically depraved, irredeemable, unhuman.

But in making Kurdi the face of the migrant crisis, EU leaders simultaneously managed to place the great majority of migrants and asylum seekers outside their realm of moral concern. If the symbol of the migrant crisis now lies at the extreme—a dead three-year-old boy who drowned trying to cross the ocean in a perilous sea journey—then grown men who jump 20-foot fences and adolescents who hide inside carnival equipment become far less morally urgent subjects. The most visually dramatic and heartbreaking cases become the refugee stories, while those who manage to scale barbed wire or slip aboard a cargo ship become daring but ultimately unsympathetic stowaways—people who, despite good intentions, have been misled and should return or be returned to their countries of origin.

And yet the vast majority of migration to the Global North does not happen through life-threatening sea journeys in overcrowded lifeboats. It happens on land, at fences, in the underbelly of cars and trucks and storage vehicles. It is lived out in makeshift encampments, in the homes of strangers, on the streets of metropoles like Istanbul and Beirut and at the periphery of border towns like Ceuta and Melilla.

The extremities should not serve as the centerpiece for our collective imagination. There is little benefit to be found in the liberal habit of uplifting the most pitiable cases and casting out all others as uncompelling. To comprehend our migratory future—and to reckon with and begin to organize for what the coming decades have in store—we are better served by focusing on the median, learning and reckoning with the untold number of stories that—though remarkable, illustrative, and dire—never arrive at the most harrowing optics. These stories are nowhere more numerous or varied than in and around holding zones like Ceuta and Melilla, at the proverbial fork in the road just before, in Mustafa’s words, the real trouble begins.

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