Melilla's detention center for undocumented and unaccompanied minors is heavily patrolled. The building, a fading yellow color, is surrounded on all sides by a high fence. At the entrance is a guard in full uniform, gun at his side, who lifts and lowers an automatic door, controlling the passage of cars onto the property.
I approached the guard and was told many variations of "No" — "No, you cannot enter the property," "No, you cannot speak with a detainee through the fence," "No, you cannot speak to the superintendent" — before finally being passed off to another who directed me to the Consejeria de Bienestar Social y Sanidad office in downtown Melilla.
I spent the next six days speaking to various officials, all unwilling to let me enter the detention center under any circumstances, until the last day, when one finally agreed to a brief visitation between Bambino and I on the other side of the fence, under the supervision of a guard.
I hardly recognized his silhouette as he approached — his longer hair adding inches to his already taller frame, but his body shrunken, bones protruding under tattered clothes. Measured, at first, he walked across the parking lot toward me. Then breaking into a run, a familiar smile broke the stoic look on his face, as he fell into me. His face buried in my shoulder, his body shook with tears.
I hadn't seen Bambino since my last visit to his camp on the other side of the EU-Morocco border — and now he'd become one of the success stories — one of the few who had actually survived the grueling feat they call "The Crossing."
The promise of something better
When I get a phone call from the brotherhood in their early morning hours, I've come to expect only one thing — someone has died. Sometimes, the death comes quickly at the hands of a border guard, but more often, it festers for weeks back in the hidden forest camps they call home. A wound from the blunt force of a wooden baton to the head or a hand lacerated by razor wire. Back on the mountainside with little food and no medical care, even a scraped knee from tumbling down a rocky path at night can quickly turn critical.
I can still hear the chief of the Congolese brotherhood — Dikembe, a soft-spoken man of 25 and the eldest among them — instructing his younger "brothers" as they prepared for the final leg of their journey.
Huddled around the fire, not a grain left in the pot of rice they'd shared for their one daily meal, he told them they must band together, if any one of them wants to stand a fighting chance. Using ladders built from tree limbs and shredded T-shirts, they assemble into groups 100, 200, sometimes as many as 300 strong, with the hope that a few among them will be successful in evading the Spanish guards waiting for them on the other side.
Morocco is still home to two colonial-era Spanish enclaves — small patches of land, 7 and 4 square miles in size — making it the only African nation to share a land border with an internally borderless European Union.
Morocco doesn't have any official refugee camps, but it does have a rapidly growing population of refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers who travel thousands of miles from across the African continent every year, in order to reach this final border crossing. Subsisting on what little they can scavenge, they live hidden in the mountains surrounding Ceuta and Melilla. Like Bambino and Dikembe, many have fled their war-torn home countries after losing their parents to war or facing a future of conscription into the local militias that have long terrorized them. Others have fled economic destitution, their long journeys north sustained by the dream of providing a better life for the families they've left behind. If successful in making it into one of Morocco's Spanish enclaves, most plan to apply for asylum, pleading their cases for the right to legally remain in Europe. Yet within the hundreds of hidden camps now scattered throughout the mountains, there is little understanding of how the asylum process works or just how few of them will ever be given the chance to rebuild their lives on European soil, even if they are among the lucky few to survive The Crossing.
Ceuta and Melilla represent the front lines of the EU's fight against African migration, but the Moroccan government's control over foreign media has meant little attention paid to the growing humanitarian crisis there in recent years. Since 2005, the EU has funded the construction of not one, not two, but three 20-foot-high razor-wire fences completely encircling the enclaves, and every inch of them is now under surveillance. Spain's oldest military force, the Guardia Civil, is the one tasked with stopping those attempting to reach Europe. Applying what Spain calls a "push back strategy," international human rights law is eschewed as even documented refugees and asylum-seekers are brutally beaten off the fences. While the injured are often left to return to their camps, others are illicitly dropped in desolate stretches of desert along the Morocco-Algeria border, rather than being properly repatriated to their home countries, as the law demands. More than 25 percent of those "pushed back" are unaccompanied minors.
But the guards are not the only ones who come to the border prepared for their mission. Dikembe and his brothers spend weeks, sometimes months, training for each attempted crossing.