Ninth stop, Ceuta: What is a border?

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Today was a big day – crossing the Straits of Gibraltar was one of the most important moments on our journey. Just an hours’ boat trip separates Algeciras on the European continent from the Spanish enclave Ceuta on the African side but it implied so many emotions.

Going south we bought our (extremely expensive) tickets in a little office just outside Torremolinos. Karin also did an interview with the Spanish woman who sold them. She had grown up in Morocco and had been working on the boats that connect Europe and Africa. She spoke about those who are trying to go in the opposite direction than we are, about the small fishing boats from which people were frequently rescued by the commercial boats where she used to be working. About the migrants boarded; some of them dead, some of them small children or pregnant women, people in such conditions that they were hardly conscious. She told us the same stories about the beaches of Tarifa where a friend of hers worked with an organization helping the newly arrived to get decent conditions in the detention camps. “Everybody is seeking better living conditions. It is the smugglers who dupe people, telling lies about what they will meet at their arrival in Europe. Spain is in crisis and even for Spanish people life is tough”.

On the boat we continued chatting with people. Karin interviewed a man who came from a region where a lot of African migrants are working in agriculture. He said that African migrants could come and work but he believed that once unemployed they should be deported. When hearing about our trip, his friend said “So now you’re going to Africa… you’re throwing yourselves into the mouth of the lion”. That has never been our feeling though… we are heading towards a place which is the home country of two of us and the place to which the other two of us have been travelling and living for ten years!  Malang started talking to another man who had been living in Ceuta for a long period of time. He told us that 10-15 African migrants are found at the beaches of Ceuta. Every day.

Unfortunately there was no open deck on the boat so the view could hardly be filmed or photographed at all. It was all quite confusing when we left the harbor of Algeciras – there were pieces of land in all direction but one did not really know what was situated on which continent. We were all trying to imagine what could be Africa. Seen to the duration of the boat trip, we first imagined it would be Gibraltar, a little islet behind a white hill.

Ceuta was a strange place. The exclave was a gift by the Portuguese king to Spain in the 16th century. Someone in Ceuta said that in that time the inhabitants had the possibility of choosing to which country they wanted to belong. “So we have already made up our minds on that issue”. Another person found it no more that Spain would have an exclave in Morocco than the way the Spanish borders on the peninsula were drawn. “All borders are fictitious anyway” he said. Out of the interviews Karin did, the Ceutans all believed that Ceuta was a very tolerant place with centuries of experience of living with people from different religions, origins and traditions. On the African migrants living in custody outside the town people said that “There is nothing strange about seeking for a better life. Moroccans also do what they can to get to Europe. But there is a border and they cross it without permission so it is normal that they are kept there until they are sent back”. They all stressed that the African migrants in Ceuta do absolutely no harm and are generally very nice.

We then went up to this place where the migrants are kept – 600 in a place for 300 we were told. It was a very odd feeling going there. We all felt bad, knowing that we were on a very pleasant trip from Europe to Africa whereas these people were actually risking their life to move in the opposite direction. We knew that we would probably not be able to enter without permission – but approaching it we were not sure that we wanted to do so either. When we arrived at the fences of 5-6 meters and saw the Subsaharian African migrants moving in and out from it with their cards , we all felt extremely uncomfortable. Maher just wanted to leave and we all had difficulties in explaining to the guards why we had actually come there: to play for the migrants? Wouldn’t that be an insult? WE could anyhow do no more than seeing the place from the closely guarded entrance. No pictures allowed of course. This is not a place to be seen on the map; still it is like a nation in its own with special passes for the migrants who wanted to go in and out from it. While going down the hill again, we met some of the migrants. They all looked very tired but were interested in meeting us. They told us that they are allowed to go out of the custody for some time every day, but only with their special pass and that they have to be back at certain hours. We spoke to the migrants from Sierra Leone, Nigeria and a third country. All men in the age of 20-35 as all those we saw in the custody. Some of them were kept in the place since seven months, without any idea of when they would go out, either to be sent back to their home countries or with papers to Europe (the first option far more probable). “It is all a question of God’s will” one of them said. We gave them the Sousou and Maher’s album “Adouna” (“The world”) and they were very happy about it and said they would have loved to hear them play in the custody. They didn’t feel well treated by the local population but it was somewhat difficult to tell if it was related to racism or to the feeling of being kept as a detainee without the same rights and conditions as the rest of the Ceutian population. Just for having crossed a border. Like we are doing during this trip. But with different passports.

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