Boys as young as 10 are homeless in Melilla, some of which have been for months or even years. Photo: Javi West
Unaccompanied underage boys as young as 10 live in the streets of Melilla without proper care, waiting for the chance to get to Europe.
Abdellah, a 14-year-old from Fez, has been in Melilla for five months and says that he has tried to smuggle into the ships that go to the mainland at least a hundred times. His friend Abdel explains that the way to do this is by jumping a couple of high fences with dangerous barbed wire and then descending a five meter wall with a string.
“Then you have to find a lorry to hide in,” he says “and if this works out you get into one of the ships”. On top of that, they have to avoid being detected by the Spanish police and their dogs. He calls it “riski” and it is what most minors that live in the streets do at night. “Every night when a ferry leaves the city, which excludes Fridays and Sundays,” says Abdel.
One cannot walk through Melilla without seeing the unaccompanied minors from Morocco. They are known as menas, their acronym in Spanish. There is a centre for them right next to the border called “La Purísima” where allegedly, they are treated badly. The centre is also overcrowded. It could originally only house 180 children and although some reforms have been made, it now has around 500 children living in it. The city’s authorities admit that it is overpopulated.
Abdellah was there for a short period of time, but he left because he was sharing the bed with three other people on the floor and says he had been bullied by the older kids in the centre.
Jose Palazón, an activist from Prodein (Association in Favour of Children’s Rights) explains that the centre, originally the Spanish military’s barracks, does not meet the requirements for such a facility. It is not connected to the city’s sewer system and it only has a cesspit. “The military abandoned it 15 years ago because it was insalubrious and it had rats and there were fewer than a hundred soldiers living there. Now the cesspit is full and faecal waters are overflowing.”
Most of the youngsters living in the streets are not from the Rif area where Melilla is. They are from other cities in Morocco, and only speak darija, the Arabic dialect spoken in the Maghreb, and not the local Tamazight or Riffian Berber.
For this reason, many of them argue that the Riffian minors get better treatment at the centre than the Arabs from the interior, most of who are from the city of Fez, but also from Rabat and Casablanca.
Another reason for them to leave the centre is that they can attempt to get to Europe basically everyday by living in the streets. “If they stay at the centre,” Palazón says, “they get a bag with their clothes on their very 18th birthday and they tell them to leave without any legal documents.”
Only a handful get a residence permit and they feel that most of them are Riffians, so to avoid being expelled from the city once they come of age, they prefer being homeless and try to get to Europe as soon as possible.
The journey to Europe
Many of the minors decided to leave their families for Europe because the people around them had done so. Getting inside Melilla is just a step towards the continent for them, and not an objective.
They are driven to Europe by the tales of their friends who they think are living better than they ever could be in Melilla. Abdellah has friends in Sweden, France, England and in the Spanish mainland as well. He remembers seeing pictures of them in Europe when he was in Fez and deciding to do the same. He still talks to them and “all of them are better than in Melilla” he says. His friend Ossama does not even mention the countries, in his words, “they [his friends] are all over Europe.”
Ossama is also from Fez, but he always tells people that he is from Casablanca, because they are fed up with the children from Fez. “If I tell them I’m from Fez, the police hit me” he says. According to NGO Harraga’s 2016 report, the minors “face police violence on a day to day basis”. Abdellah and Ossama mention that they have been hit with batons by the police when trying to do riski at the port.
Neither of them miss Fez and they both feel there is nothing to do there, but they still miss their family. One of their friends has a phone with a Moroccan SIM card and whenever they want to call their parents they go to one of the areas in Melilla where there is Moroccan signal. Abdellah’s family wants him to go back but he’s set to get to Europe because he is “already half way.”
Unlike the Sub-Saharan migrants who have historically either jumped the fence or arrived by rafts, most of the kids have come in through the border. “It’s not difficult” says Abdel, a friend of theirs, “if you are an Arab you just have to befriend the guards and they will eventually let you in.” Others cross hiding with more people.
In Melilla, many beg or try to do some small jobs. Abdel offers to park people’s cars in front of a club in the city and he doesn’t always get paid. “I sometimes get a euro or two and sometimes they don’t give me anything, and I say, ‘well at least they thanked me’”. He does not like to beg because he doesn’t feel good but many of his friends, especially the youngest, don’t share his concerns.
Every night, helpers from Prodein give the children some food and drinks near the port. Around 40 of them gather around and then many leave and others try to cross the fence at the harbour.
The rhythm of the smuggling has decreased lately according to Palazón. “Before there were nights when 20 would make it into a boat. Now it is around six or seven people a week who make it.”
This does not only have to do with the city’s efforts to guard the port closely, which has also happened in the past year, but also with many other factors. “When the good weather comes there will be much more” Palazón says, “it is very difficult to know how many there are at any given time because the number fluctuates a lot. Right now there could be between 30 and a 100,” he adds.
Outsiders in North Africa
According to Palazón, most of the city’s inhabitants see them as a nuisance because they face a moral dilemma every time they see them. He blames it on the politicians of the city, who have exploited this caricature of the youngsters, arguing that they are not from there and therefore they shouldn’t be taken care of by the city.
He also argues that by Spanish law, no child can be illegal and that the city of Melilla is acting illegally by not taking proper care of the underage homeless. “If an underage boy has a foot in Spain and he is unaccompanied, the regional government is responsible for his custody. Not doing so is illegal,” he adds.
Many Melillans criticise the minors because they notice that the city is emptier during Ramadan. Some of the children leave to Morocco to visit their families. According to Palazón, this is all part of the criminalisation of the children and it is normal for the children to want to visit their families. “In some cases these children have been made to believe that they have behaved badly and that they have been abandoned for that reason. So when they make it to Melilla they feel triumphant and they want to go back and prove to their families that they are men and that they made it”. Many of them do not ever see their families again but he thinks that criticising the children for what is a natural reaction is unfair.
The minors face abuse not only from the authorities but also from the Muslim population, which makes up more than 50 percent of the population of the city. “They are not especially seen with more sympathy by [the Muslims]” says Palazón. Abdel goes even further and says that “there’s nothing wrong with the payos (the term that gypsies use for white people), it’s the Muslims who abuse us.”
Ossama has three different scars on his face to vouch for this. Some 25 year old men beat him and his friends up in front of a club for no apparent reason other than their condition of being a homeless Arabs. One of them slashed his face with a knife. “They had probably snorted something,” Ossama says.
He had no problem when he went to the hospital, but the activist Palazón argues that many times different doctors and nurses refuse to treat them based on false grounds and even denying an X-Ray that had been approved by a doctor at the emergency room.
“Once, a worker at the hospital told me that they couldn’t treat one of the children because he was ‘illegal,” says the head of Prodein. The Spanish law, however, states that any minor in Spain has the right to receive hospital care “in the same conditions as the Spanish”. He adds that there are various complaints at the moment. “The ombudsman has accepted my last three complaints that have come to me”.
The living conditions
The children live in very poor conditions. Abdellah sleeps in a cardboard recycling bin which he shares with another friend of his. Others live in abandoned houses, under bridges or under trees in the fields near to the border. They do not have access to water and they beg for a small sip if they see anyone walking around with a bottle.
They beg for food and they search for it in rubbish bins as well. As most do not have access to showers and they only own the clothes they wear. Harraga’s report says that many have skin fungal infections which are not dangerous but are very unpleasant. This may be increased during the winter time as when their clothes get wet they often do not have a way of drying them for days.
The authorities of Melilla
Juan José Imbroda, the Mayor-President of Melilla from the conservative People’s Party, asked the citizens last February not to give any food or blankets to the homeless minors in hopes of forcing them to return to the centres again, even though he admitted they were overcrowded.
Daniel Ventura, the Minister of Social Welfare from the same party who is in charge of the affairs related to the homeless minors, declined to meet the parents of Soufiane, a 17-year-old that died days after his leg was amputated because he had fallen under a lorry while he was trying to get into a ship. He stated that “if his family knew that he was living in Melilla, then they should have come and taken him in the first place”. He also called the dead minor a “drug addict,” which prompted representatives from the opposition to call for his resignation.
Many of the children sniff glue, Palazón admits. “What the Minister doesn’t understand is that a kid who is in the streets takes drugs to stand the cold, the hunger and being despised by the rest”. He thinks that it shouldn’t be said in a pejorative way and that “in any case they are victims and they should be even more protected. It is a consequence of living in the street.”
Harraga’s report mentions that they buy it for €2 and that they usually pour it in plastic bags which they then pass around and put their faces in to inhale. Abdel mentions cases of sexual abuse among the minors and even rape. “Sniffing glue is very dangerous, people change their behaviour… everything changes.”