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IMMIGRATION

FOCUS: What will Spain’s Ceuta enclave do about its ‘lost boy’ migrants

Days after up to 10,000 people surged across the Moroccan border into Spain's Ceuta enclave, many hundreds are still here, mostly minors, posing a quandary for the tiny territory.

FOCUS: What will Spain's Ceuta enclave do about its 'lost boy' migrants
Moroccan migrants help an African who has got into trouble attempting to swim to Ceuta on Wednesday. Photo: Fadel Senna/ AFP

We can’t yet say how many people entered Ceuta — we estimate between 8,000 and 10,000, and it seems 6,600 have returned to Morocco,” Mabel Deu, one of the city’s deputy leaders, told reporters on Friday.

Most of the migrants swam, but some came in inflatable boats, with Spanish government officials saying 1,500 of them were under 18. That figure has not been confirmed by the city.

“We don’t know how many minors came in,” Deu said. By Friday, Ceuta had 438 children and teenagers in its care at two ocations and was preparing a third, she said, acknowledging there were still “a good few hundred people wandering around the city”.

Those at the centres are registered, fed and clothed and given a place to stay after being tested for Covid-19. But many others are sleeping rough in parks or doorways, penniless and hungry.

Some came alone, while others crossed the border with friends or older siblings. Most are boys, either teenagers or in their early 20s.

“They told us they came to visit or that they were coming to see a football match with Ronaldo,” Deu said, accusing the Moroccan authorities of “manipulative tricks” to encourage the huge wave of arrivals.

‘We can’t cope’

Earlier this week, Ceuta officials admitted they were completely overwhelmed, appealing for a show of solidarity from Spain’s 17 regions.

“We cannot cope, there are too many children,” Carlos Rontome, another of the city’s deputy leaders, told Spanish national radio. “We are the frontier, we’re the breakwater, but we have limited capacities. We’re a small city of 19 square kilometres (seven square miles)… so it’s very difficult to absorb all these people. The only solution is to distribute them among the other regions.”

This week, Spain’s regions agreed to take in 200 unaccompanied minors who were already in Ceuta to free up space for the new arrivals.

“The problem cannot fall on (Ceuta’s) shoulders alone… The whole country must tackle the problem while taking into account the best interests of the
minor,” said Social Justice Minister Ione Belarra.

Save the Children said the proposal could ensure the youngsters were better cared for. “We believe that this measure could serve to alleviate the immediate pressure on Ceuta’s protection system while offering better care to these children,” Carmela del Moral, the NGO’s head of child policies, told AFP.

READ ALSO:

  1. Seventy more migrants cross border fence into Spain’s Melilla enclave
  2. 6,000 migrants swim across to Spain’s Ceuta in record crossing
  3. What happens to the thousands of undocumented migrants after they arrive in Spain?

‘I dream of being a cleaner’

NGOs say they’ve been overwhelmed by the scale of need in Ceuta. “If we continue at this pace, it’s impossible: no NGO, nor the Spanish state nor any European state could cope with this amount of people,” said Abdesalam Mohammed Hussein, head of local NGO Alas Protectoras.

“We provide food and warm clothes, but we can’t reach everyone because there are just too many.”

An Arabic speaker, he says some youngsters said they went to the centres but found they “were full”, while others didn’t even know where they were.

Many say their parents have no idea where they are. “My mum must be very worried by now, because I was the only person earning so we could eat,” 16-year-old Omar Luriaghri told AFP.

But he can’t call her because she doesn’t have a phone. “Frankly my dream is to work here as a cleaner,” he said.

Hotline for lost children

For now, Ceuta is focusing on tracing the parents. On Thursday, it opened a hotline for worried families which was swamped with “more than 4,400 calls” in the first 24 hours.

“Our teams are working morning, noon and night to find the families and ensure the child’s immediate return, because that’s what the parents and the
children want,” Deu said. “Many have been crying and wanting to go home since the first day.”

For some on the streets, desperation is taking hold, with Spanish police on Friday having to revive a young Moroccan who tried to hang himself with a
metal cable along the promenade.

“Sending children back is not legal and must not be tolerated,” said Ricardo Ibarra, head of the Children’s Platform, which groups 67 child rights NGOs, raising concerns about possible pushbacks — informal cross-border expulsions without due process.

But an interior ministry spokesman insisted all returns were being carried out “through legally-established channels” and said they did not have a breakdown of returnees by age group.

Social rights lawyer Albert Pares Casanova said each minor’s case must be examined individually “to see whether it’s best to return them to their families or (for them to) stay in Spain”.

It is Spain’s government “that ultimately decides whether they have to return or can stay here,” he told AFP.

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POLITICS

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.

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