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Over the fence

Kim Bryan reports on the struggles of sub-Saharan Africans attempting to migrate to Spain

June 1, 2014
4 min read

Kim Bryan works for the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales.

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The only land borders that Europe and Africa share – where northern Morocco touches the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla – are each surrounded by a seven-metre anti-climb fence. It is topped with razor wire; monitored by high-tech cameras; policed by dogs, helicopters, patrols. Due to EU border policies, tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans who have arrived in northern Morocco are trapped there, unable to return home because of poverty or persecution, and unable to cross.

On 6 February, a group of migrants tried to swim round the fence. They were met with rubber bullets and tear gas. Spanish police boats were driven over people, and there were reports of police pushing people who were already gasping for breath under the water. Officially 15 people died that day, but migrants who were there put the death toll much higher. A Spanish NGO, Caminando Fronteras, has recorded witness accounts of the police throwing dead bodies back into the sea.

On 4 March, 1,500 people attempted to storm the fence to enter Ceuta. The police repelled the attack with tear gas and batons. In the absence of a popular outcry, there has been no independent investigation into the police violence. Instead, calls to fortify the border have been greeted with approval.

‘When [westerners] want to travel, no matter if they are rich or poor, they can go wherever they want. But when we want to travel, they put up boundaries for us,’ writes one person who shared a story on the new blogging project, Sexion Doundou (, set up by migrants in northern Morocco.

The project’s title evokes a broad idea of ‘life’ in the Wolof language. Don King writes on the blog, ‘You either survive or you die. For now we are surviving, but we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Sexion Doundou is something we created between us, to bring unity and solidarity . . . We are all struggling to make life better.’

After long journeys, many sub-Saharan Africans reach the city of Tangier but make it no further. Instead they’re dumped by Moroccan police across the desert border of Algeria, where they face long walks without food or water. The practice of deporting people without considering their individual cases, to a country where their safety is not guaranteed, is in breach of the 1951 Geneva Convention.

There are also reportedly more than 4,000 people living in forests and mountains near the Moroccan border with Spain, waiting for an opportunity to cross. They face daily brutality from police, who raid the camps, burning food and blankets, beating people and subjecting them to racial abuse. Those who reach the Spanish enclaves are corralled into immigration centres, where they face long waits, either for the stamp that allows them to continue or for deportation.

NGOs and activists on the ground say the authorities appear to be acting with impunity. Allegations have been made of the police simply opening doors in the fence and pushing people back through to the Moroccan side. This is unlawful; once people have touched Spanish soil, they have the right to a due asylum process, which includes a translator.

The EU is now paying Morocco tens of millions of euros per year to keep immigrants from entering its territory. Despite calls for transparency, the EU will not say exactly how much or where the money is spent. The consolidation of fortress Europe has led to tragic and unnecessary deaths. The number of migrants is only expected to increase as climate change, poverty and war force people to uproot themselves.

No Borders Morocco has been operating in Tangier and around the border since 2012. By maintaining a permanent presence of people with European citizenship, activists aim to support migrants and show solidarity. They help to build permanent structures, create safe spaces for women migrants, provide English lessons, and use contacts, networks and resources to raise awareness. People can get involved in a variety of ways, and there is currently a call out for visual and audio recording devices so that migrants can publish their stories.

For further information, or to donate, visit or email

Kim Bryan works for the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales.