Sunday 29. November 2020
#171 - May 2014


The fence of shame


The death of fifteen young men when trying to reach the coast of Ceuta opens once more the debate on human rights and migration.

Although shocking images are repeated frequently, this does not diminish their impact. They show both the raw passion of people desperate to leave poverty behind and the fruitless efforts to prevent them from escaping it.


On 6th February one of the most disgraceful events of the last months took place on the shores of Ceuta —reminiscent of the tragedy of Lampedusa in September 2013. During the early morning, a group of about a hundred young Africans decided to attempt the short swim between the Moroccan coast and the beach of Ceuta (a few hundred metres) in order to reach Spanish territory. In a regrettable move, Spanish security forces, firing rubber bullets, tried to discourage the young men in their endeavour —the result of which was the death of 15 young people, with dozens wounded.


The sense of chaos grew during the following weeks. Whilst the police seemed paralysed and evidently shocked by the results of their own disproportionate action, hundreds of young Africans attempted to cross the border in successive and unrelenting waves, trying to jump the fence that separates the city of Ceuta from Morocco. Some reached their objective, further increasing the overcrowding in detention centres. As if the deaths of those attempting to swim across the border was not dramatic enough, or the chilling scenes of dozens of young people climbing over fences, we must not overlook the overcrowded detention centres being stretched to crisis point.


Ceuta and Melilla are two Spanish enclaves in the North of Africa, the remains of a colonial past. These cities have become a hotspot for an influx of migrants from the sub-Saharan Africa, looking for an opportunity to get into Europe. The Spanish authorities have tried to prevent the passage of tens of thousands who have made arduous journeys—sometimes even lasting many years.


Like Malta or Lampedusa, Ceuta and Melilla share the honour of being the end of the road for many. The response of the Spanish government after the incident that killed 15 young Africans and lead in the following weeks to successive assaults on the fence line was to raise the height of the fence and to place a system of blades that would deter new attempts. They have not achieved any of these desired effects.


The European Commission responded promptly via the EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström who demanded clarification from the Spanish government of events, in addition to requesting a study of measures in place to avoid similar situations in the future. Unfortunately, the Commission and the Spanish government entered into a game of mutual blame Ping-Pong. Spain could only develop further measures if EU financial support was granted. As often happens, the member states try to dilute their responsibility by appealing to a greater commitment from the European Union.


For the Church this is a very sensitive issue. Indeed for many years the Catholic Church has been one of the strongest voices in support of this vulnerable population of migrants, who are subjected to all kinds of abuse after years of travelling through Africa and the Maghreb region only to be confronted by a wall.


Sometimes the wall is physical (police confrontation) and sometimes the wall is legislative (criminalisation of the legitimate expectations of those seeking a better life, free from poverty). The Catholic Bishop of Tangiers (Morocco), Mons. Santiago Agrelo, expressed himself in strong terms: “I guess that the Spanish Government cannot act unilaterally, separate from European directives, but that does not excuse it from their responsibilities in this matter. If it is true that the law must be respected, it is also true that laws are mutable, and that governments have a voice to ask that these laws be changed. That voice can become an outcry when it is understood that the laws are violating inalienable rights of individuals. The Spanish government is mute and as such is responsible jointly with the European Commission, for the suffering of thousands of people and for the deaths in the southern borders of Europe of tens of thousands of young Africans”.


Mons. Agrelo added a request to consider the question from the correct perspective, giving primacy to human rights: “It amazes me that voices are not raised in the European Parliament, demanding a change of priority. This is an essential step in order to change the response. It is not civilized and is in fact improper for Europe to keep on asking about the non-permeability of our borders when we don’t ask ourselves about the safety of migrants, about the causes of their suffering, or about what we can do in order to get them out of the hell that we have helped them to get into”.


Migration is certainly not an easy subject, but we must not lose sight of the importance of considering the human rights of migrants and the protection of the most vulnerable, even when we have legitimate concerns about security.


José Ignacio Garcia


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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.