The Children of Beni-Anzar

To many young people from the impoverished north of Morocco, their homeland offers little that makes life worth living, while the Spanish enclave of Melilla seems like the gateway to paradise. Steffen Leidel reports

​​In Melilla, prominent guests are few and far between; and when they do appear, they usually stay at the Hotel Melilla Puerto. At the end of January, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero stopped off there. He was the first Spanish prime minister in 25 years to visit this tiny Spanish enclave, which is also claimed by Morocco.

Big cars draw up in front of the imposing hotel building, and 19-year-old Abdul directs the drivers to the nearest free parking space. It's 9 pm, and it'll be another hour or so before his shift ends. Every evening he earns around five euros this way. In the daytime, he tells us, "it's Mohammed's turn" – and there's only enough work for one man at a time here.

Nearly ten years ago, Abdul left his home, his mother and his six siblings to come to Melilla. He had grown up in one of Morocco's poorest regions, the area around the town of Nador, just a few kilometres from the Spanish enclave: "I couldn't go to school; I always had to work, six days a week, fetching and carrying things." Melilla began to look like salvation, so Abdul left his mother in order to seek his fortune here. The ticket to happiness was the "papele" – the papers that would legitimise his status.

Yet he still hasn't acquired the residence permit he longs for, and it's by no means certain that he ever will. Without work, there's no residence permit; without a residence permit, no work. This makes Abdul "illegal". "The hotel staff are very nice", he tells us, "and they don't say anything when I ask the drivers for a few cents."

Life in the dustbin

Abdul José Palazón is director of the aid organisation Prodein, and it's thanks to him that Abdul doesn't have to live on the street. The reception centres run by the town of Melilla are open only to young people under the age of 18. Abdul now lives in an apartment owned by an acquaintance of Palazón, who says that things have improved considerably for young people in recent years.

He remembers the way it used to be: "When I formed this organisation with some friends at the end of the 90s, most of the kids were sleeping on the street and sniffing glue. Directly across the road from me, a boy used to sleep in a dustbin." Now, most of these youngsters at least have a roof over their heads and a school to go to.

Nonetheless, says Palazón, this is only one side of the coin: "The police often treat the kids quite brutally. In many cases, they are simply dropped off at the Moroccan border and abandoned to their fate."

There have also been persistent reports of mistreatment at one of the reception centres: "La Purísima", located on the edge of the enclave, right beside the border fence and an old army barracks. Here, around 160 young people are accommodated in several large huts. From outside, everything looks impeccably neat and tidy.

DW-WORLD.DE made several applications to the municipal authorities for permission to inspect this "children's home". Again and again, we were turned down; indeed, no one was prepared even to offer a statement about the numerous accusations of mistreatment. The Council of Europe recently issued a reprimand, admonishing Spain to offer better protection to underage asylum seekers.

Blows to the legs and head

Some of these young people are willing to talk to us. Not far from La Purísima is a junkyard, where an old construction-workers' hut serves the boys as a meeting-place. Old blankets and carpets now make it quite a cosy and comfortable place to hang out. Tea is served. One of the boys has a puffed-up eye, and he points to several bruises on his shin: "I was hit by one of the attendants, who locked me in a room for several days". All of our interview partners prefer to remain anonymous, so afraid are they of the attendant "S.": "He terrorises us. He smashes plates on the floor just to give us a fright."

Despite this bullying, none of the boys wants to go back to Morocco, for their memories of home are more traumatic than their current sufferings. One of them, known as "the Chinese", spent a long time living on the street, right at the Beni-Anzar checkpoint: "I hate my home country, there's no justice there. On that side of the border, the little kids are sleeping on pieces of cardboard, the girls get raped by grown men, and everybody sniffs glue. It's bad."

On the border between rich and poor

Every day, 30,000 people and 5,000 vehicles pass through the checkpoint at Beni-Anzar. In the midst of this chaos stand the policemen in their Rambo sunglasses, blowing their whistles and gesticulating wildly as they supervise and control the crowds.

On the Spanish side, just behind the border fence, is a gigantic market. Here, the unwanted cast-offs of European prosperity become desirable property: scraps of fabric, plastic bottles, broken-down electrical goods. It's mainly women who "shop" here, tying their purchases into huge bundles before hurrying back across the border.

Palazón describes what's happening: "They do this up to five times a day. Their 'patron' is waiting on the other side of the fence; he gives them five cents a bundle, then sells the stuff at a profit."

Most of these women are from the nearby Moroccan town of Nador, and many of them have sons and daughters living in Melilla. Palazón explains: "They smuggle their kids across the border because they want them to have a better life. But an increasing number of young people are coming here of their own accord, some of them from very far away."

Unlike their black African counterparts, the Moroccan youths never attempt to scale the barbed-wire fence that separates them from Melilla. Instead, they exploit the crush and chaos at the border in order to slip past the guards. Others sneak under lorries and cling to the chassis. Still others choose the most dangerous route of all: the sea.

In the southern part of the enclave, only 200 metres separate the Moroccan and Spanish ports. An officer of the Spanish military police, the Guardia Civil, describes what he has experienced: "Even in winter, they jump into the ice-cold water and try to swim across. We've had to pull more than one of them out of the sea, half-frozen to death."

The government of the enclave of Melilla now wants to help with the building of reception centres in Morocco. Palazón, however, is sceptical about this plan: "It's fine if the 'homes' are intended to accommodate the street kids in Morocco, but it would be terrible if these buildings were to be used for young deportees. They will just keep trying to reach Spain, even if it means risking their lives in the process."

Steffen Leidel

© DW-WORLD.DE/ 2006

Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan

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