By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
Most refugees trying to get to Europe from Africa make a perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to either Italy or the Greek islands. Few people realize that the European Union actually includes two tiny land borders with Africa.
They are the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, both at the northern tip of Morocco, on the Mediterranean itself. Ceuta, in fact, sits just 14 kilometres across the sea from Gibraltar, a British enclave on the Spanish side.
With 85,000 and 78,000 inhabitants, respectively, they are the last surviving relics of the once vast Spanish empire. The only two remaining European territories in mainland Africa as well, together they cover about 35 square kilometres.
As an integral part of Spain, they have also been part of the territory of the European Union since 1986, when Spain was admitted to the EU. As such, they have become a magnet for sub-Saharan migrants willing to cross deserts and endure perilous conditions in search of a better life.
The two cities are now perceived by many Europeans as part of the external threats the continent faces, and so they present a problem not just for Spain, but between the entire EU and Morocco.
The borders of the enclaves have been increasingly reinforced by high fences, armed border guards, and sophisticated electronic detection systems.
The two enclaves have a very long and contested history. Melilla was occupied in 1497 as the first in a string of strongholds along the North African coast by Isabel and Ferdinand, the Spanish monarchs who unified Spain itself.
Ceuta, initially conquered by Portugal, passed to Spain in 1580.
Morocco signed a border treaty with Spain in the 19th century, when it was still an independent county, but never recognized Spanish sovereignty over the land.
Even during the period between 1912 and 1956, when Spain governed northern Morocco as a protectorate, the two enclaves kept their status apart from the rest of Spanish territory.
When Morocco regained its independence in 1956, Ceuta and Melilla became part of a re-politicized border zone between two sovereign states.
They remain claimed by Morocco, while successive Spanish governments have defended the “Spanishness” of the territories for historical, geopolitical and symbolic reasons.
They argue that the enclaves belonged to Spain and formed an integral part of Spanish identity long before the emergence of the Moroccan state.
In 1991, Spain acceded to the Schengen Agreement, which removes internal border controls within the EU. This led to intensified Spanish border control, including, after 1998, the construction of the fences.
But Morocco complicated Spain’s decision by insisting that no Spanish construction machinery operate on Moroccan soil. As a result, even Spanish authorities concede that the fences stand within what Spain considers to be its territory.
The Spanish government has argued that reaching or even crossing the fences is not enough to claim asylum. Instead, Madrid has recently argued that the migrants must cross what it calls an “operational border”-- set wherever the last line of police security stands.
So migrants who manage to scale all three fences around Melilla, for example, struggle to understand why they are sent back to Morocco just as they thought they had reached safety in Spain.
Human rights groups and the EU have strongly criticized Spain for what they consider violations of both Spanish and international law, including beatings of migrants and summary expulsions with no due process.
But refugees remain undeterred. On Jan 1, New Year’s Day, about 1,100 migrants tried to storm the border with Ceuta. They knew that during the festivities, Spanish border surveillance would be low.
Another 600 tried to breach it on Feb. 20, three days after hundreds of others used wire cutters and other implements to storm the barrier. The authorities are now considering using drones to further strengthen security.