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Ceuta - Europe in Africa

The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on Morocco's Mediterranean coast are a geographic anomaly and a throwback to Spain's overseas territorial ambitions dating back to the 16th century. Today, their respective borders have become an anachronistic and often volatile flashpoint for illegal immigration into the European Union from the African continent. Ceuta, the northern of the two, is a mere 30 kilometres from Algeciras on the Spanish coast. Fought over and settled by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines and the Portuguese, the peninsula is of strategic value at the entrance to the Mediterranean and hosts Spanish military and navy installations including the Fuerzas Regulares Indigenas, a volunteer infantry recruited from the two enclaves.

Since 1995 Ceuta has enjoyed autonomous status within the Spanish state with the president of the municipality being answerable directly to the government in Madrid. Architecturally it bears the hallmarks of centuries of settlement with older Andalucian buildings standing next to Art Deco and Art Nouveau creations. Culturally it has a mixed population of Christians, Muslims and Hindus. But while its sea-facing fortifications speak of the historic threat from sea, today's main focus is on the border with Morocco where 10 metre high barbed-wire fences and watch towers tower over the strip of land that divides two worlds - Africa and the European Union.

The fence does have legal crossing points but from March 2020 until May 2022 the entire border was sealed, ostensibly to stop the spread of Covid. The complete halt of all cross-border trade, both legal and illegal, had a huge impact on both sides of the frontier but affected the Moroccan side significantly more. Thousands of informal traders and so-called 'mules', mainly women who carry huge quantities of goods over the border from Spain to Morocco on their backs, lost their livelihoods overnight. The enclaves have been one of the main stress points where African migrants try to enter the European Union illegally. Since 2005 there have been at least seven major breaches of the fence with thousands of migrants surging toward the border and climbing the fence in an attempt to overwhelm Spanish border security. In what is an often prickly relationship between Spain and Morocco, migrant incursions have been used by Morocco as a means to put pressure on Spain in political disputes. Moroccan border personnel have been known to turn a blind eye to border breaches, even assisting migrants in some instances.

The border breaches usually cause serious injuries on both sides and on 24 June 2022 a massive surge of up to 2,000 migrants who tried to climb the fences in Melilla lead to fighting between migrants and both Spanish and Moroccan border forces and the death of at least 23 migrants, some trampled in a stampede, others dying by falling off the fence.

The border remains a highly sensitive flashpoint in Europe's evolving immigration policy that has hobbled from crisis to crisis over the past years. As with the EU's border in the East with Turkey, recurring squabbles between the countries on either side of the frontier post a huge challenge to the EU and its member countries.

Pascal Maitre visited the enclave of Ceuta and documented local life and the tension caused by the border.
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