The images of sub-Saharan Africans trying to enter Spain is nothing new. Nor is the rhetoric of "avalanches", "assaults", "waves" and "saturation". Death is not new either. According to several NGOs, thousands of people have died trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar in the last few years. Nor is police brutality - almost 25 per cent of those treated by Medecins Sans Frontieres in the region between April 2003 and August 2005 had injuries directly related to police violence. But the situation in recent weeks shows that the situation of immigrants on the southern borders of Europe seems to be more desperate than ever.
Spain, Morocco and human rights
For years, the Spanish and European authorities have been putting pressure on the Moroccan state to control its own borders and put an end to the encampments where thousands of sub-Saharans desperate to cross the fence or get on a patera (boat to cross the Strait) are concentrated. In the last few months, the Moroccan police force has increased its harassment of the encampments. This, according to CEAR, one of the Spanish organisations working with refugees, is what has led to the current situation and the mass crossings.
The immediate reaction of the Spanish government to this situation was to send the army to Ceuta and Melilla and demand that Morocco enforced a bilateral agreement signed in 1992 by which Morocco is to accept the repatriation of all immigrants coming into Spain from their territory. Needless to say, as MSF reminds us, this treaty is contrary to all international agreements regarding human rights.
Faced with the pressure, Morocco accepted the "repatriated" immigrants and agreed to send them by bus to the Algerian border, where they would be sent back to their countries of origin. Problem solved. The European leaders were happy with Morocco's response and hoped the story would die away.
Mobile phones expose the truth
However, a few days later some NGOs started receiving desperate phone calls from those same immigrants who were supposed to be on their way to the Algerian border. In those phone calls, they talked about being in a bus for days without food or water; others called from the middle of the desert, where they were abandoned by the Moroccan authorities. On 7 October, MSF found the first contingent of 500 sub-Saharan Africans abandoned near El Aouina-Souatar, in a desert area to the south of Morocco, with no access to food, water or medical attention. Other NGOs reported they were following buses which were not going where they were supposed to, and the Polisario Front, in Western Sahara, reported they had found at least 40 sub-Saharans in their territory. In the end, the pressure from the NGOs and other international bodies forced the Moroccan authorities to take responsibility for the abandoned immigrants and start a true process of repatriation.
It is difficult to imagine how this will be done, however, since only Mali and Senegal have agreements with Morocco to accept returned migrants, and most sub-Saharans get rid of their passports as soon as they approach Europe to avoid being deported. With the number of people waiting on Moroccan soil to cross over to Europe estimated at 30.000, even after the events of the last few weeks, it seems clear that this issue is here to stay.