‘I am ready to do anything to reach Europe and provide for my family’

One early morning last week, Adam's fellow migrants managed to climb over the high border fence separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta.

'I am ready to do anything to reach Europe and provide for my family'
Moroccan authorities arrest a migrant on February 18th 2016 after he forced his way through a fence between Morocco and the tiny Spanish enclave of Ceuta. Photo: AFP

Adam, a 17-year-old from Guinea, failed and suffered a dangerous concussion in the process — but he has not given up his dream of reaching European Union territory.

“It was night-time and I was very scared. I was hit on the head as I climbed the fence and lost consciousness,” he said, lying in a hospital bed in the northern town of Tetouan, a blood-soaked bandage on his head.

His shredded clothes still bear the marks of that traumatic night, when hundreds of migrants stormed the border in a final attempt to reach Europe after months, if not years, of travel across Africa.

“I left school and came to Morocco last July, passing through Mali and Algeria,” he said.

He spent several months in a run-down suburb of the capital Rabat before heading for a forest near Ceuta, where he lived in the most basic conditions.

“It was really tough. It was very cold at night and we sometimes went two days without eating anything,” he said. 

An activist from a local group helping migrants arrived to give him some clothes and check on his condition.

“We go to hospitals in the region every day to visit migrants who were injured trying to cross the border,” said Rajae Marsou, a doctor and vice-head of Manos Solidarias (Hands in Solidarity), an NGO based in Tetouan.

“We do medical follow-up and try to accompany them in this difficult period,” she said.

Adam thanked her and asked for a telephone to call his relatives. He said they knew he had made the attempt for his future.

“I am ready to do anything to reach Europe and provide for my family,” he said.

Wounded, undaunted 

Like Adam, dozens of people hoping for a better life were hospitalised in three towns in Morocco's north. Others boarded buses on Friday afternoon in the border town of Fnideq, near a market considered the hub of the sale of contraband products from Ceuta. From there, they headed south, several witnesses said.

Some of the migrants escaped the security forces and hid in the nearby forest of Belyounech.

On the run after yet another attempt to force their way across the frontier, they headed for a small grocery store in the village of El Bioute, a few kilometres from the forest.

Wary of the police, the migrants — mostly in their 20s — move discretely in small groups, often with people from their own countries. A group of eight Cameroonians came to buy provisions in this tiny store with a roof of sheet metal.

“We have a tough life in Morocco, just because we are trying to reach Europe, find a way to Europe, for a better life. Life in Morocco doesn't treat us well,” said Youssouf, 27, as he bought biscuits, cakes and energy drinks.

“Life is not easy. We do not have a house and we cannot work. Fortunately our brothers who have gone to Europe send us money,” said Ismael.

Both from Cameroon, they started their long and gruelling odyssey three years ago, wandering through several Moroccan cities before trying their luck at entering Ceuta.

“We have tried to cross the barrier four or five times,” said Ismael.

A cloud of smoke rose from the nearby forest: the police had just burned the migrants' camp.

“I carry in my body the wounds of my attempts (to cross) and blows by the security forces,” said Aminou, a 22-year-old who wore a black jacket and the jersey of Cameroon's national football team.

“But I will continue to fight to have what I want and help my family,” he said.

At that moment, two officers from the local security force suddenly appeared, running towards the migrants.

“I have to go,” said Aminou, and fled.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.