The Cruelist View
Crossing the Border
Darkest night. The only sounds are the rhythmic pounding of waves on rock and their own muffled whispers. It’s sometime in August—the eight travelers can’t say exactly what day. The sun set hours ago, but the ground beneath their feet is still warm. A chilly breeze blows in from the Strait of Gibraltar. On the northernmost tip of Africa, the small town of Belyounech, Morocco, sits on a spit of land that juts out into the ocean, to form a shallow bay. The swath of lights from Ceuta, a Spanish outpost on the African continent, is visible, almost painfully close. Under different circumstances, the travelers could walk to Ceuta from Belyounech easily in an hour or two. But without Spanish visas, the roads are impassable. A small, inflatable boat is the only option.
Nearly eight months after stepping onto the Zodiac raft bound for Ceuta, Philogski, a 25-year-old Nigerian refugee seeking political asylum on the Spanish mainland, remembers the fear sharply.
“I don’t like to talk about it much,” Philogski says as he readjusts his rectangular glasses, pushing them back onto the bridge of his nose. “I was lucky, very lucky.”
Traveling between Belyounech and Ceuta by water is perilous, but it’s the best option for undocumented immigrants hoping to reach Europe from Africa. The rocky coastline running between the edge of Morocco and the northern side of the autonomous Spanish city of Ceuta coupled with violent winds blowing from the North Atlantic make it dangerous to cross the Strait of Gibraltar directly to Europe. Thus, Ceuta has become a popular halfway point. But the border between Ceuta and Morocco is strictly controlled, and miles of well-guarded walls block the land route. For these reasons, many African immigrants choose to cross the bay that connects Morocco and the Spanish outpost in their quest to reach European soil.
Philogski and his companions had the same ambition. Although they knew the dangers that hot August night, they still launched the boat into the bay’s unpredictable waters. Even when they realized the raft had sprung a leak, they decided to continue towards the Spanish shore. “We had to,” he says. “We don’t leave our homes because we want to. It’s a necessity.”
Philogski fled his home in Nigeria’s Kwara State in June 2011 to escape political persecution. “The Boko Haram were targeting my family because my pop is a politician,” he explains. A fundamentalist Islamic group, the Boko Haram opposes all secular government and uses terrorist tactics to push for a Muslim state ruled by Sharia law. The group kidnapped Philogski’s father three times for his role in the non-Muslim government and killed his cousin last year.
“It was a crisis,” Philogski says. “When I lost my cousin, I knew I had to go.”
Philogski and his parents gathered enough money to pay for one spot in a smuggler’s Jeep that would take him through Niger, Mali, and Algeria, before reaching Morocco. His parents and two younger siblings stayed in Nigeria, hoping the father’s place in the public eye would keep them safe.
“I was lucky,” Philogski says of his two-month journey. “Many people take six months, even a year to travel that far.” Would-be immigrants to Europe from sub-Saharan Africa who don’t have enough money to pay for the trip up front must stop and work along the way until they can earn enough for their next leg of their journey, he explains.
The leak in the raft only worsened as the group pressed on towards Ceuta. Their feet were soon completely submerged despite their best efforts to bail the craft with buckets.
“I was very scared,” Philogski quietly admits. His accent is a guttural take on British, the consonants exaggerated. “But if we were caught in Morocco, they would send us home.”
The Moroccan government has also been known to leave undocumented immigrants on the Algerian border, which is surrounded by the Sahara Desert. Either outcome could be a death sentence for Philogski and his companions.
But as the raft began to sink in the middle of the bay, Philogski wondered if he had made the wrong choice. A devout Muslim, he turned to his faith. “I prayed a lot,” he says. “I think it helped.”
Moments before the raft went under the waves, a Spanish Guardia Civil patrol boat spotted the group. “They saved us,” Philogski says simply. He admits he’s not a good swimmer, and the bay’s current is strong—had the boat not rescued the group, he probably would have drowned.
Trapped in Ceuta
The Guardia Civil took Philogski and his companions to Ceuta’s police station, where they were given temporary documents detailing their status as irregular immigrants—those who cross the border without proper documentation.
“Thanks to the Organic Law of 2000, irregular immigration isn’t a crime; it’s an administrative infraction,” says Carlos Bengoechea, the director of Ceuta’s Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes, or Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants (CETI).
Title III of Organic Law 8/2000 states that crossing the border without documentation is punishable by expulsion, but the process takes time. “We can’t send them [undocumented immigrants] to jail. We have to determine their legal situation,” Bengoechea says.
CETI, therefore, has become something of a halfway house for illegal immigrants while they wait for immigration officials to review their cases. The government-run center offers food, shelter, legal help, health care, and vital life skills classes to anyone who chooses to stay. CETI’s fenced-in compound is placed high on a hill in the forest that spans the border between Ceuta and Morocco, overlooking the bay where Philogski was picked up.
Spain’s Law of Asylum, the document that defines who can be granted refuge in Spain, allows non- European Union citizens to apply for asylum if the applicant is at immediate risk of physical harm in his or her native country. Philogski’s story of the Boko Haram systematically persecuting his family in Nigeria creates a compelling case for a refugee visa to enter the Spanish mainland, or what CETI residents call “Big Spain.” But Bengoechea says even for those who enter Ceuta illegally without a good excuse, deportation is fairly rare.
“In a logistic capacity, expulsion is difficult,” Bengoechea says, resting his forearms on his paper-strewn desk. “Sometimes they give us false information about where they’re from. It’s very complicated to determine the truth.”
Even if immigration officials can determine an individual’s nationality, the country of origin must still accept his or her return. “Often, that just doesn’t come to fruition,” Bengoechea says. The most the Spanish government can do is hold irregular immigrants in Centros de Internamiento de Extranjeros (CIE), or Immigrant Detainment Centers, for a maximum of 40 days. “After that, we deport them or…” Bengoechea shrugs and waves his hand, indicating that the government simply lets the immigrants go.
It’s this laissez-faire attitude that makes Ceuta such an attractive jumping off point for anyone on the African continent looking to make a new life in Europe. But many who hope to move to Big Spain don’t realize how difficult it can be for the undocumented to leave Ceuta. Although Ceuta and Melilla, the other Spanish port on the African continent, are technically part of the European Union, they’re excluded from the Schengen Treaty, which allows citizens of certain member nations to travel throughout Europe on one visa. Because Ceuta doesn’t enjoy the same privileges as territories on European soil, the undocumented cannot safely travel on the passenger ferries that cross the Strait of Gibraltar hundreds of times a day, and small boats like Philogski’s ill-fated raft are a high-stakes gamble over the treacherous 20-kilometer stretch of water between Ceuta and the European continent.
As such, CETI and Ceuta have become limbo for many immigrants. The tolerant nature of the Spanish immigration law traps them in a stalemate: immigrants can’t, or won’t, return home, but the excruciatingly slow bureaucratic process of receiving a Spanish visa prevents them from moving forward.
Philogski finds himself stuck in that limbo. Even though his experience with the Boko Haram is textbook political persecution, he’s still having trouble attaining a refugee visa for Spain. “I’m seeking serious political asylum, but a lot of people say lies [to obtain a visa],” he says with a hint of distaste. “It makes a lot of problems with getting papers.”
Without documentation, Philogski can’t legally work in Ceuta, and under-the-table ventures, such as selling packs of tissues to drivers at stoplights, are punishable by fines or deportation. Instead, Philogski must rely on CETI to provide him with everything he needs, from food to legal assistance. The compound’s high fences and drab concrete buildings are depressing, he says, and the community insular. “We call it the tranquilo,” or the calm, he explains. “The city is Europe, but in the tranquilo you still feel as if you’re in Africa.”
Nearly one year into his stay at CETI, Philogski is getting impatient. He says he can’t wait to cross the Strait into Big Spain and leave Ceuta and CETI far behind. “I just want to explore more,” Philogski says wistfully. “I just want to be around other peeps.”
He has friends in the city of Valencia on the east coast of Spain. They have all been deported once already but have managed to make it back into Big Spain on their second try. He hopes to join them soon.
“My lawyer thinks I have a good chance at asylum,” Philogski says. But just in case, Philogski has a back up plan. “It’s called laissez-passer—let him go,” he explains. “It’s a three-month paper. With that, I can go to Big Spain, and then I can try again for asylum from inside.” Or, he admits, just disappear into the system.
But Philogski fears resigning himself to the life of an undocumented immigrant. To take advantage of laissez-passer, he would have to be arrested and held in a Spanish Immigrant Detainment Center (CIE) on the mainland for 40 days. But unlike the relaxed atmosphere of CETI, the eight CIEs are prisons and the immigrants inside are inmates. Life in the detainment centers is infamously rough—a 2009 report by the Spanish Commission for Aid to Refugees found sub-humane living conditions and inmate safety issues in three centers, including reports of torture in the Madrid CIE.
Once Philogski’s stay in the prison was over, receiving asylum or a permanent Spanish visa would be unlikely, which would put his plans for the future at risk. A disk jockey by trade with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Kwara State University, he hopes to someday open his own music studio. “I want to start directing videos,” he says. Philogski also dreams of traveling to the US or UK to earn a master’s degree in history, but without proper documentation, his goals will be much harder to achieve.
For the moment, Philogski is stuck in Ceuta longing for the day he can finally cross the Strait into Big Spain. As of June, he still has not left CETI. “I can’t stay here much longer,” he admits, sounding tired. His quiet optimism has evaporated. “I’m not sure when things will start to happen, but I hope it’s soon.” A thoughtful, rule-abiding man, Philogski wants to follow the proper procedure for entering Spain, but as the weeks drag on he’s finding it harder and harder to wait out the achingly slow bureaucracy.
The Next Step
On an unseasonably warm March day, the stagnant atmosphere of CETI seems amplified. The buildings on the compound’s top level—classrooms, kitchens, examination rooms, and administrative offices—are quiet. The residents (mostly male and almost exclusively African) are below in the living area, lounging around the yard. The green fence that separates the compound from the road is barely visible between the long and low cement barracks. The green asphalt of the empty basketball court in the center of the housing buildings is cracked and sun-faded. Hip-hop blares from a boom box somewhere. A handful of women braid each other’s hair beneath the shade of a eucalyptus tree. Men are huddled around a game of checkers debating strategy. Nothing is happening, but that’s just it—nothing is happening. The nothing is palpable. “The tranquilo,” Philogski explains.
“Most of these guys have been here for a while,” says Marisa, an administrative assistant in the main office who gives tours of CETI. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them aren’t around tomorrow.” From her vantage point on the stairs leading down to the barracks, the North Atlantic is barely visible from behind the treetops. The day is clear, and on the horizon an indistinct shadow looms: the Rock of Gibraltar, marking the edge of the European continent.
“It should be beautiful, but to me it’s the cruelest view,” Marisa sighs. She glances down at the 200 or so people in the yard below and the corner of her expressive mouth twists up in a bitter smile. “We let them see it, but they can’t touch it.”
Marisa, who is new at CETI, struggles with her role working with the residents. “We’re preparing them for a life they aren’t going to find,” she says. “They expect Europe to cure their problems, and we teach them Spanish, teach them to work a computer. We’re telling them, ‘Yes, you will be able to use these skills.’ But when they get to Spain, there’s nothing for them.”
The global financial crisis has hit Spain particularly hard, and opportunities for work are practically nonexistent for new immigrants. Potential newcomers have heard about the worsening conditions, and what was a deluge of hopeful migrants in 2005 and 2006 has slowed to a feeble trickle. In those years, the Ceuta CETI held upwards of 500 people, mostly from sub-Saharan and northern African nations, but also some Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants. Today, the numbers have dropped to around 250 residents—less than half its full capacity.
“Everyone knows there are fewer jobs available [in Spain] now,” Bengoechea says. “So of course numbers have dropped.” Although the influx of new arrivals may have stalled, the aftereffects of the immigration peak in 2006 are clear. According to the International Organization for Migration, in 2010 Spain still had the eighth highest foreign-born population in the world. The Instituto Nacional de Estadística (National Institute of Statistics) estimates there are 5.7 million immigrants living in Spain today and that more than 16 percent are of African origin. There might be fewer people like Philogski crossing the Strait of Gibraltar today, legally or not, but they are hardly unique—almost 1 million people living in Spain have done it before.
For Philogski, Europe means safety and opportunity. “Heaven,” he says, with a slightly self-deprecating smile. “It must sound idealistic, and of course Big Spain won’t be perfect, but things will be better there.” He looks out the window of the small office in CETI’s administrative building. Through the treetops surrounding the compound, the ocean is just visible, faintly sparkling with the reflection of the bright sun. “From there, I can move forward.”