Migration Station ; for Sub-Saharan Immigrants, the Spanish Enclave of Ceuta Is a Gateway of Hope for a Better Life

Article excerpt

Alain slept on a concrete floor in an abandoned car dealership, its broken windows covered in thick grime. Last winter, he and hundreds of other sub-Saharan Africans lit open fires to cook and keep warm, waiting for their asylum cases to be heard in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the tip of North Africa.

Most immigrants, like Alain, heard of Ceuta years ago, in faraway towns in Nigeria and Cameroon. Like thousands before them, they set off on foot or hitched rides northward, slipping through Algeria and Morocco on their way to the European Union's southernmost outpost.

This tiny patch of Europe - cordoned off from Morocco by two towering barbed-wire fences - offers little work or opportunity. But its proximity to impoverished and war-torn nations makes it a staging post for immigrants - most of them economic migrants, even though many apply for political asylum - before they steal across the sea to a better life in Europe.

All over Europe, immigrants flood in illegally, in cargo holds, under trucks, and packed into small boats. The EU estimates that 500,000 immigrants entered illegally in 2001, as agriculture, construction, and home-care industries beckoned cheap labor from abroad. Yet their arrival coincides with a swell in anti-immigrant sentiment across a wide political spectrum.

Ceuta - spread over seven square miles - is a microcosm of Europe's migration pressures. From one side of the peninsula to the other, the enclave's challenges are palpable: undocumented immigrants spilling onto streets, residents griping, politicians scrambling for solutions.

"Ceuta is a living laboratory of the globalization process," says Jose Maria Campos, a lawyer and long-time civic leader in the community. "Before, the migration flow was exclusively from Morocco. Now immigrants from all over the world pass through.... But we do not have the capacity to assimilate the ever-increasing flow of people."

This port town of 70,000 has been a Spanish military base since 1580, and coveted for the hand it gave in controlling both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar. But its neighbors in North Africa view it as occupied territory - an imperial anachronism. Spaniards respond that Ceuta, and the enclave of Melilla, to the east, are inherently Spanish, since both existed before Morocco became a country.

As the relationship between Morocco and Spain has deteriorated over the past decade, Morocco has refused to cooperate on many border issues. It has rejected all non-Moroccan immigrants who try to use the country as a stepping stone to Europe. And tensions have increased in Ceuta and Melilla, as sub-Saharan Africans and other migrants have used Morocco to illegally slip into both enclaves, in the hopes of eventually reaching mainland Spain and the rest of Europe.

Alain, who does not want his last name used as he waits for his asylum case to be heard, once worked in a bottle factory in Cameroon. But his family was starving, he says. He left one night on a journey that would take him through Nigeria, Mali, Algeria, and Morocco, doing odd jobs in each place to get to the next.

He camped out on the Moroccan side of the border, where mud streets are strewn with litter and homes are missing roofs or doors. Then one rainy evening a year and a half after leaving Cameroon, he made it over the parallel fences that separate Africa from Europe. He shows a scar along his forearm from the barbed wire, as proof of his feat.

To the social workers who provide him with food every day, he says he believes God will help and that he will receive papers soon. Over a cup of coffee in private, he talks about Plan B. If his asylum case is rejected, he will appeal - a lengthy process that will allow him to travel to mainland Spain and get "lost" among thousands of other undocumented immigrants.

Economic migrants like Alain have little hope of receiving political asylum. …