They’re between fourteen and eighteen years old—baby-faced, with big smiles, despite their difficult situation. Every day, dozens of Moroccan children try to climb the huge walls of the Port of Ceuta, dreaming of boarding the ferries that cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe.
On a foggy, cold February morning, only the sound of the waves breaking on the concrete blocks below disturbed the pier’s calm. Ayman and Rachid, both seventeen years old, and their small group of friends from Martil in northern Morocco walked slowly past the string of factories that line the harbor. They’d arrived forty-five days before at this tiny speck of Spanish territory on African soil. The city of Ceuta, Spanish since 1580, has been claimed by Morocco since independence from Spain in 1956. (Because northern Morocco was under a Spanish protectorate between 1912 and 1956, many northern Moroccans are Spanish-speaking.) Every day, hundreds of Moroccan workers from northern cities cross the border without a visa to work in Ceuta. Like thousands of other children from Morocco, Ayman, Rachid, and their friends merged with these daily workers at the border and decided to risk everything for the “great crossing,” choosing to leave their families, their cities, and their friends in search of what they call “la vida tranquila.”
“Europe would be a chance for us to work, a chance to study, a chance to learn a new language, in Spain or France, for example,” Rachid told me. “In Morocco, there is nothing, nothing! No work, no money, no future. That’s why we want to go.” Rachid advanced toward the barbed wire-topped fence, followed by Ayman. On the pier, the fences are no longer monitored by officers of the Guardia Civil, who have been replaced by security cameras, though police still patrol inside the port.
Ayman rolled up his sleeves, rubbed his hands and started climbing the six-and-a-half-foot wall (other parts of the wall are triple this height). On the other side, ferries, the sea: Europe. Not a day goes by without these children injuring their hands on the razor-wire of the high fences. Many of them enter the port two to four times a day. Inside the port, if the police chase them, they’ll leave and choose another time to try to hitch a ride under a truck, clinging to the underbelly, or between the trailers of trucks, that will take them aboard the boats. Many adult migrants attempt to board the ferries, too, but it’s more difficult for them to hide under the trucks. The authorities of the small city of Ceuta, only seven square miles, are overwhelmed. The Red Cross and other NGOs offer support, but it barely makes a dent as Moroccan minors continue to arrive in droves.
The number of minors seeking to emigrate from Ceuta has risen from 800 in 2017 to more than 3,300 in 2018, according to the Spanish news agency Europa Press. Over recent weeks, the president of Ceuta, Juan Vivas, has begun a bitter struggle with the central government in Madrid. Ceuta, like Spain’s other North African outpost, Melilla, is considered an “autonomous city,” with its own assembly, government, and president. His government wants to include in a new child protection law a measure that would permit the city to expel the children back to Morocco. According to Europa Press, this proposal would apply to not only the minors from the neighboring country with Ceuta and Melilla—that is, Morocco—but also those from other countries that access both autonomous cities through Morocco as a transit country.
In Europe, though, expelling children is contrary to the laws governing their protection. In June 2018, after an agreement between Paris and Rabat, Moroccan police were called to Paris by French authorities to help identify some children who had ended their long journey in the district of Goutte d’Or. A source in the French government told 20minutes that this mission aims, with support from the French police and justice system, to identify and return young Moroccans to Morocco, if it is established that this would be in the best interest of the child. Meanwhile, in October 2018, forty-two “fake minors” were identified by Moroccan authorities in Paris and six were deported to Morocco.
A few days ago, on Instagram, Salah, a friend of Ayman and Rachid, announced that he had successfully crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and arrived on the continent. In Ceuta, his friends are still waiting to cross the Mediterranean, their hands further ravaged by razor wire each day.