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Last Updated: 11/03/2005
Fortress Europe: Ceuta and Melilla
Kevin John O’Connell

In September the world watched a dramatic spectacle unfolding as thousands of would-be immigrants from all over Africa charged barbed wire fences surrounding the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in a desperate attempt to enter Europe. In several incidents some immigrants were shot dead. In another, they were rounded up, put in trucks, and shipped off and left in the desert with no food, water, or shelter. These events highlight the growing need for the European Union to not only confront the issue of immigrant human rights, but make it a priority.

Late September’s tragic incidents at the borders of Spain’s North African enclaves Ceuta and Melilla have drawn new attention to migration and its political implications. Spain’s only land borders with Morocco are also the only such borders between the European Union (EU) and the African continent. After reviewing the (highly contested) facts of the recent events in Spain and Morocco, we must therefore analyse the wider picture of migration from Africa to Europe.

This wider dimension has led the EU to recognise that events such as those in Ceuta and Melilla call for a comprehensive strategy addressing the 'root causes' of migration, namely poverty and conflict. While a comprehensive approach should be welcomed, the tackling of root causes is by definition a long-term objective; it can be no substitute for the strict upholding of migrants’ human rights and the prevention of further fatalities at Europe’s external borders.

What really happened at the Spanish-Moroccan border?

The nights of 28 and 29 September 2005 saw a mass influx of people into the Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla. Thousands of migrants from various African countries used make-shift ladders to scale the 3 metre-high barbed wire fences that separate the Spanish enclaves from Morocco. Shots were apparently fired by border guards leading to six deaths at the border to Melilla, while five migrants were killed trying to get into Ceuta(1). Both Spain and Morocco deny responsibility for the fatalities.

Spain returned many of the irregular immigrants to Morocco, but after increasing international pressure, Spain put a halt to the deportations(2). Meanwhile Morocco intercepted other would-be migrants and returned those with whose countries of origin Morocco has a readmission agreement, such as Senegal and Mali. Others were bussed to the point where they are presumed to have entered Morocco – the Saharan desert. After fierce protests from NGOs, Médecins sans Frontières and Amnesty International, as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Moroccan authorities brought the Africans back from the Sahara and moved them to the town of Oujda near the border to Algeria(3).

The precise facts surrounding the incidents of late September 2005 are still subject to much controversy. However, it is certainly not the first time that Spain has come under criticism for its handling of irregular immigration from Morocco. In June 2005, Amnesty International published a 102-page report(4) criticising Spain for incidents both at the land borders at Ceuta and Melilla and along the coasts of Andalusia and the Canary Islands. The report highlighted inadequate rescue and reception facilities and above all lamented violations of the right to access the asylum procedure, legal assistance and interpretation. Morocco has similarly come under much criticism for its handling of situations that result from its status as a country of transit.

The wider picture: Morocco as a gateway to Europe

While Morocco itself has a long history of emigration towards Spain, it is now primarily a point of transit for sub-Saharan Africans in search for a better life in Europe. Indeed, since 2003 the number of sub-Saharan Africans transiting through Morocco in the hope of entering Spain has outnumbered Moroccan emigrants to Spain by a proportion of two to one(5). There is extensive academic research documenting Morocco’s evolution from a country of origin to a country of transit (and destination) in terms of migration. Thus a report produced by the Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration (CARIM), under the EU-funded MEDA programme, states that migrants transiting through Morocco originate from 40 different African countries, the largest contingents coming from Mali, Nigeria, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Some migrants even end up settling permanently in Morocco, among them 1,085 as recognised refugees (as of September 2004)(6).

Nevertheless, Europe remains the desired destination for those fleeing conflict and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. EU officials have estimated that around 40,000 African migrants are currently seeking to enter the European Union. For many African countries, emigrant remittances are a significant part of national income. 300 million euros are transferred to Mali each year and 450 million euros to Senegal. At the same time, sub-Saharan Africa is destabilised by the "brain drain" of often highly-qualified people willing to carry out hard manual labour and live in precarious conditions in Europe. Transit countries are particularly adversely affected by migration and the associated phenomena of human trafficking and organised crime.

The EU strategy: a comprehensive approach to migration management

"This awful tragedy is another demonstration of the urgent need to step up our joint efforts to manage migration more effectively," said Franco Frattini, European Commissioner for Freedom, Security and Justice, in response to the events of Ceuta and Melilla(8). Clearly there is a realisation on the part of the European Union that a comprehensive approach to irregular migration must involve co-operation with countries of transit and greater efforts against the root causes of migration in the countries of origin themselves. One measure – already adopted in the EU’s policy towards Russia – involves the simultaneous negotiation of readmission agreements and visa facilitation agreements. Readmission agreements enable the EU to return irregular migrants and thereby restore the credibility of its entry control system; meanwhile visa facilitation allows for easier access of bona fide persons, such as businesspeople, researchers and students, to the EU. To address migratory pressure from Africa and demographic change in Europe, the European Commission will also present a new initiative on legal economic migration before the end of 2005.

A comprehensive approach to migration management also forms a key element of a wider "Strategy on the external dimension of the area of freedom, security and justice" published by the European Commission on 12 October 2005(9). The underlying concept of this strategy is two-fold: firstly to enhance freedom, security and justice within the EU by creating a secure external environment, and secondly to advance the EU’s international objectives by promoting the rule of law, democratic values and sound institutions in other countries. Relating to the migration field, the EU strategy aims to improve transit countries' capacity for migration management and refugee protection, support operational border management capacity and enhance document security. Further, the EU seeks to assist countries of origin through better synergies between emigrant remittances and development aid.

Adherence to human rights will help achieve long-term objectives

As the European Commission’s strategy openly acknowledges, "Instant results cannot be expected; reforming a judicial system or establishing an effective asylum system takes years, not months." Particularly, addressing the economic root causes of migration is likely to take generations and requires the EU to openly confront linkages between policy areas, notably the adverse effects of its Common Agricultural Policy on African economies.

Tackling root causes is no quick fix. In the meantime, there will continue to be strong migratory pressure from Africa to Europe. The EU must ensure that all migrants, whether regular or irregular, are treated humanely. The tragedy of people dying as they attempt to enter a "Fortress Europe" must never repeat itself.

This argument is not a purely humanitarian one. Only an EU that is "whiter than white" on human rights can acts as a moral beacon in the wider world. Europe must lead by example in the treatment of migrants, if it hopes to further its international objectives and promote the rule of law, democratic values and sounds institutions in other parts of the world. If the EU’s conception of freedom, security and justice is to prevail globally, universal human rights must prevail in Europe.

(1) BBC News, "Six killed near Spain’s enclave", 6 October 2005,

(2) BBC News, "Spain reviews migrant deportation", 10 October 2005,

(3) François SOUDAN, "Clandestins - Voyage au bout de la honte", Jeune Afrique / l’intelligent n°2336, 16-22 October 2005,

(4) Amnesty International, Spain. The Southern Border : The State turns its back on the human rights of refugees and migrants., June 2005, AI Index: EUR 41/008/2005,

(5) El Pais, 16 August 2003,

(6) Mohamed MGHARI, "Maroc: dimension démographique des migrations" in Mediterranean Migration - 2005 report,

(7) Philippe PERDRIX, "Impuissance subsaharienne", Jeune Afrique / l’intelligent n°2336, 16-22 October 2005,

(8) European Commission press release, "Commission deplores tragic events in Ceuta and Melilla", 30 September 2005,

(9) European Commission communication, "A Strategy on the External Dimension of the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice", 12 October 2005,

The author, Kevin John O’Connell, holds a Bachelor of Arts in European Studies from King’s College London and a Master of Economic Science in European Economic and Public Affairs, awarded by University College Dublin. His master’s thesis was entitled: "The Common European Asylum System – an institutional balancing act between freedom and security." The author may be contacted at