The lost children of Ceuta and the "warehouses of shame"

Young migrants arriving in Ceuta, 19 May 2021
Young migrants arriving in Ceuta, 19 May 2021

Hundreds of minors are stranded in the Spanish enclave. They can neither return to Morocco nor travel on to Europe. Many are hiding out of mistrust of the police. Karin Janker reports from Madrid

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Karin Janker

They wanted to go to Europe to have a future, but now they are stuck in a situation with no way out. Hundreds of children are stranded in the Spanish exclave of Ceuta, unable for the moment to continue on to Europe or back to Morocco. The local authorities are overwhelmed with their accommodation.

While most of the adult migrants have already been sent back to Morocco in the past few days, such expedited deportation is not allowed in the case of unaccompanied minors. Even for adults it is at the very least controversial. Thus, almost 1,000 children and youths are now in limbo, their subsequent fate completely unclear, writes the online newspaper El Español.

Neither the Spanish government nor aid organisations working on the ground, such as the Red Cross, can currently say when a comprehensive solution will be found for these children and young people, and what that might be. The young people arrived early last week along with thousands of other migrants who took the opportunity of Morocco's open border towards Ceuta to reach Spanish soil. They swam across a strip of Mediterranean Sea and climbed onto the beach on the other side of the multiple fortified border fence with nothing but the clothes they wore on their bodies.

A Spanish Guardia Civil diver rescues a baby from the water on 18 May 2021 (photo: Guardia Civil/AP Photo/picture alliance)
Mit diesem Bild wurde Taucher Juan Francisco Valle über Nacht zum Helden. Die Menschen, die nach Ceuta geschwommen sind, hofften auf eine noch so winzige Chance. Doch kaum jemand von ihnen wird Europa jemals betreten. Nach Kritik aus Spanien an der Instrumentalisierung der Migranten hat Marokko angekündigt, sich stärker um die Rücknahme unbegleiteter marokkanischer Kinder zu bemühen, die sich ohne Papiere in der EU aufhalten.

A cynical game

Observers interpreted the opening of the border as an attempt by Morocco to put pressure on Spain because of the simmering conflict over the territory of Western Sahara. The children, some of whom had apparently followed false messages on the Internet, are now the victims of this brand of politics. For them, there are two options, at least in the medium term: either they can be sent back to their families - but some conditions have to be met for this - or the city of Ceuta continues to be responsible for their accommodation and care. The Spanish and Moroccan authorities are currently working hard to send all those children back to their families who want to return.

There is no time to lose, as the conditions in which the children have been housed in Ceuta are poor, according to observers. "The reception centres in Ceuta are completely overloaded, which is why the children were initially housed in buildings not suited for the purpose," says Catalina Perazzo from the aid organisation Save the Children, which is on site with five helpers. In the first days, photos circulated of old warehouses where children and young people were sleeping on iron shelves. They had to defecate on the bare floor in between, aid workers on site told the newspaper El País. In the meantime, cots have apparently been set up, and neighbours have donated discarded clothes, blankets and food.

Many are hiding for fear of the police

Ceuta's authorities have already received thousands of calls from worried parents looking for their children. The local newspaper Faro de Ceuta publishes on its website photos of missing children sent to it by their families so that the people of Ceuta will help in the search for the children. If children and parents are found by the authorities, family reunification can be initiated, says Perazzo of Save the Children. But in hundreds of cases, months could pass before this succeeds, during which the children would have to be cared for in Ceuta.


And not all of the minors who arrived have reported to the Spanish authorities. Many are hiding out of fear of the police or also because of conditions in the reception camps, says Perazzo, and prefer to sleep on the streets. Recent pictures from Ceuta, a city of 84 000 inhabitants, show small groups of young people who have set up camp in parks or in the hills in the city. They sleep on torn cardboard boxes and eat what neighbours or aid organisations give them.

Some of the young people have probably decided to find a way to reach mainland Europe after all. Bilal, 15, told El País that he had told his parents he was in a reception camp so they would not worry. "My mother wants me to come back, but my father says I should stay so I can have a better life one day."

The Spanish state is not allowed to deport the unaccompanied minors. "Those who cannot be sent back to their families have to be taken in by Spain or Europe," Perazzo said.

So far, however, the Spanish regions have only agreed to take in 200 children and young people who had already been accommodated in Ceuta. These will now be distributed among the individual regions. This should at least create space in the reception camps, where conditions are somewhat better than in those halls that the Spanish press has already described as "warehouses of shame".

Karin Janker

© Sueddeutsche Zeitung/ 2021