In June 1998 the Spanish government began constructing several 12-foot high fences to halt African immigrants from illegally entering Europe by way of Spain’s North African enclave territory in Melilla. Running along the ten-kilometer border separating Morocco from Melilla, these fences were scheduled for completion by January 1999. They are to be patrolled by members of the Spanish civil guard and monitored by the latest in surveillance technology: cameras, sensors and armed guards stationed in lookout towers. These rigorous new border controls are required by the European Union’s adoption of stricter measures to regulate the inflow of individuals from non-EU nations. The coasts of southern Spain, as well as those of Spain’s two North African enclave territories (Melilla and Ceuta), have become key transit points into Europe for thousands of illegal migrants from across Africa.

In early December 1998, a young Nigerian woman in her last trimester of pregnancy attempted to enter Spain clandestinely, most probably aboard one of the many patéras (small, overcrowded boats) which transport immigrants across the straits of Gibraltar. Passage on these boats, which are frequently run by individuals involved in trafficking illegal migrants, can cost anywhere between 30,000 to 50,000 pesetas per person (approximately $240-$400). During the past eight years, over 1,000 would-be immigrants have died by drowning in patéra-related accidents. The Nigerian woman was detained by Spanish authorities in Ceuta before she could embark since she lacked the proper documentation. Officials ordered that she be taken to a centro de acogida (shelter) for illegal immigrants. Upon entering her cell the following morning, guards at the shelter were shocked to discover that she had hanged herself rather than face deportation from Spain.

Along with news reports of the frequent capsizing of immigrant-filled patéras before they reach Spain’s southern shores, this recent suicide of a migrant in a detention camp in Ceuta calls attention to Spain’s new geopolitical importance as a zone dividing “north” from “south.” The Spanish zone delimits the boundary between those nations that are members of the European community and those north and sub-Saharan African nations that are not. [1]

Although some migrants have lost their lives, others have managed to reach peninsular Spain. Several reports indicate a steady increase in the number of illegal migrants entering Spain, principally from Morocco, during the past decade. [2]

Several organizations in Spain are attempting to intervene on behalf of new migrants by using a variety of tactics. Some groups seek to influence immigration policy in the peninsula and North Africa by calling public attention to tragedies associated with las patéras. Others focus on denouncing racist actions, while still others provide medical care and legal aid to migrants.

Activities at a Local Center

Take, for example, the Centro de Información y Asesoramiento para el Pueblo Extranjero (Center for Advice for Foreign Groups), or CIAPE, founded in 1993 and located in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, a bedroom community in the greater Barcelona metropolitan area. Santa Coloma has a long history as an immigrant center. Situated in the more industrially developed northern region of Catalonia, this urban neighborhood has received migrants from poorer regions of Spain (Andalusia, Galicia and Extremadura) from the 1940s through the 1960s. Such internal immigration was instrumental in expanding Catalonia’s regional economy. Today, according to CIAPE director Marisol Garrido, the bulk of recent immigration originates not within Spain, but further south, in Morocco.

Garrido runs a program, Nouvinguts (Catalan for “newly arrived”), serving migrants residing in the St. Coloma area. The CIAPE staff also includes a lawyer, Feliciano, himself a migrant from Equatorial Guinea, who provides legal advice to migrants. Maruja, Garrido’s assistant, explained that CIAPE’s primary role is to assist migrants with the legalization of their work and the acquisition of residency permits, and to help them reunite with their families. Funded in large part by Santa Coloma’s city council, headed by Manuela de Madre, CIAPE works in conjunction with other neighborhood organizations such as SOS Racísmo (which denounces racist actions and aids immigrants who suffer from various types of abuses), as well as the Muslim cultural center. The latter operates out of the neighborhood mosque and offers classes in Arabic. Berber, Catalan and Spanish for second-generation immigrant children.

While most Moroccan migrants tend to be married men who initially emigrate alone, CIAPE’s director said that the new immigrant population in Spain is increasingly heterogeneous in age and gender. It includes young unmarried women who emigrate alone as well as “street kids.” According to newspaper accounts in September 1998, some 200 North African “street kids” were living either in abandoned houses or underneath bridges that traverse Les Glories neighborhood in Barcelona. [3]

One afternoon while visiting CIAPE, Maruja introduced me to Drifa, a 19-year old single Moroccan woman. Drifa was born into a family of ten in a small village some 110 kilometers southeast of Casablanca. She entered Spain illegally to earn money to send home to her parents. Her only family contact was an uncle who lives in Santa Coloma. She found her first job in one of the textile sweatshops that form part of Spain’s economía sumergida (underground, informal economy) in St. Coloma. For the past six months she has been employed in domestic service, cleaning the homes of several different families. CIAPE’s legal adviser is helping her to file papers that will eventually enable her to obtain a work permit.

Immigrant Rights: New Demands by NGOs

A common theme of discussion among staff members at diverse NGOs whom I spoke with in 1997 and 1998 was Spanish society’s lack of preparation for the influx of immigrants, both those who are currently arriving as well as those expected to arrive in the near future. [4] Centers like CIAPE are relatively small and understaffed. Some are only able to serve immigrants’ needs for several hours each day. Funding is also needed to provide many staff members with additional training that will prepare them to aid the new, culturally heterogeneous migrant groups.

In spite of governmental inaction, few NGOs are biding their time. Instead, they are critiquing existing immigration policies — those of the Spanish government as well as those of the EU — and are pressing for alternative measures. For example, a press release issued jointly in Madrid by several Spanish NGOs on August 20, 1998 demanded that a new Ministry of Migration be created. Another recent promising development includes the formation of transnational coalitions linking Spanish organizations with a team of Moroccan educators in order to address emerging problems, such as the rise in the number of North African “street kids” in several Spanish cities.

The hope, of course, is that these kinds of initiatives will not only provide in the short run for the material needs of the newcomers, but will also derail any attempts to scapegoat the North African immigrant population and prevent them from becoming the targets of xenophobic attacks in the future. The NGOs are committed to getting Spain and the European Community to sink as much of their resources into immigrant social programs as they do into technologies of immigrant control. The outcome is still uncertain at this point because the battle is just beginning.


[1] The creation of the European Union has triggered new sources of conflict between residents of the Maghreb and migrants from sub-Saharan African countries such as Cameroon, Senegal and Gambia, who often traverse Moroccan territory in order to reach either Melilla or Ceuta. For more information, see Jose Maria De Juana, “Ceuta: Autonomía Africana,” in Cambio, November 18, 1996).
[2] Ibid. See also La Inmigración Extranjera á Barcelona, 1994-1997 (Barcelona: Fundación CIDOB and Ajuntamento de Barcelona, 1997).
[3] See Pere Ríos, “Justicia Cambiara Su Politica con los Niños Magrebies Ilegales,” El País (Catalonian Edition), September 29, 1998; and Suzanne Wales, “Homeless Youth,” Barcelona Metropolitan (November 1998).
[4] This position was reiterated during an interview with Joseba Atxotegui, who directs SAPPIR, a center for immigrants and refugees located in the Poble Sec neighborhood in Barcelona’s inner city.

How to cite this article:

Mary M. Crain "New North African Immigration to Spain," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).

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