Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Swimming to Europe by Way of Cueta (Sebta), Morocco

Here is an article from Radio Netherlands Africa about people from Sub-Saharan Africa seeking refuge in Cueta/Sebta as a step towards reaching Europe.


Swimming Towards the Future
Published on : 27 December 2011 - 2:51pm | By RNW Africa Desk

The refugee camp in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Morocco, has been facing severe overcrowding during the last couple of weeks. Again. Africans have found yet another way to get in – by swimming around the border fence. Large numbers of people make the attempt at the same time to reduce the chances of being caught.

By Lex Rietman

Dusk is falling at Ceuta refugee camp. The sun is setting early on this winter day, but there is just enough light to enjoy the view over this fortified Spanish city on Morocco’s northern coast. The town is spread out below us, with the Strait of Gibraltar to the left. On the other side of the water, the last rays of sunshine bathe the rock of Gibraltar in a golden glow. That’s where the prosperity of Europe begins – a corny Hollywood movie couldn’t have done it better.

Crisis or no crisis, Europe still embodies the hopes and dreams of millions of Africans. For the residents of the Temporary Immigrant Housing Centre (CETI) – the official name of this compound on the mountain just outside town – only half the dream has come true. After all, Ceuta is Europe but then again, it isn’t. Across the water, on the Spanish mainland, is where the Schengen area begins. There, you are free to travel, with no internal border controls. But reaching Ceuta is nevertheless a big step towards realizing the dream.

Reinforced border

In recent years, Ceuta has been turned into an almost impregnable fortress. Six years ago, hundreds of Africans managed to force their way into the city from Morocco. The European Union has responded by spending millions of euros on border reinforcement. What is more, for a few years Morocco has been actively cooperating in the fight against illegal immigration. In return, Rabat has negotiated favourable trade conditions with the EU.

All these measures, however, don’t discourage the African refugees. Ibrahim Traore, a 21-year-old Cameroonian, has been in Ceuta for two weeks now. “Around 100 of us jumped into the sea on the Moroccan side – 78 of us made it,” he says. “I was very lucky, because I managed to get here after only three months of waiting in Morocco. On the other side of the border hundreds, maybe thousands of people like me are hiding in the mountains, waiting for a chance. Some have been waiting years.” Anyone unfortunate enough to be caught by the Moroccan police is deported to Mauritania, 3,000 kilometres to the south.

Speed record
“Four months and eleven days.” With astonishing accuracy, 26-year-old Cédric from Chad tells us how long he has been in Ceuta. He must have set some kind of speed record, because he left his village “on 12 March 2011”. Cédric also arrived in the Spanish enclave across the sea, but not by swimming. With six other people, he bought a Zodiac dinghy and they managed to reach the Ceuta coast. When asked whether he is doing alright in the refugee centre, he says: “Yes, I’ve got nothing to complain about, though I do get bored occasionally.”

CETI isn’t a normal refugee centre. The centres on the Spanish mainland are detention centres under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry. The poor facilities and harsh treatment of immigrants regularly prompt sharp criticism by humanitarian organisations.

Sense of dignity

But like Melilla, the other Spanish enclave in Morocco, Ceuta has an open refugee centre. Residents receive an ID card and are free to go wherever they want within the enclave. Director Carlos Bengoetchea stresses the psychological importance of this approach: “It gives them a sense of dignity and of being legally protected,” he says. “Finally they have become a person again, often after years of travelling without documents, at the mercy of corrupt policemen.”

In the centre, refugees can take computer, language and cooking lessons, and it has a small, but much-used gym. The original gym was bigger, but is now being used as a dorm, out of necessity. Today, the centre is home to 700 refugees, 200 more than it was officially built to house.

Even so, there’s a relaxed atmosphere in the compound. “The question is for how long,” says Carlos Bengoetchea. “We’ll have to wait and see what Prime Minister Rajoy’s new right-wing government decides to do with the centre. Judging from his party’s tough stance on immigrants, it doesn’t look good.”

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