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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK
Attacking Europe's border fences
BBC News Online's Joseph Winter is tracing the route of an African migrant, Mamadou Saliou "Billy" Diallo, who made it to Italy after a dangerous journey across the Sahara. Here, in the third of five articles, he visits Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, where he meets men desperate to cross the last barriers to Europe.

On a clear day, you can see the Spanish mainland from Tangier, just 25km away across the Straits of Gibraltar.

Moussa Sakho
Moussa - waiting in the forest for the right time to 'attack the fence'
This simple fact of geography amazed Billy when he arrived here, four years ago. Seeing Europe for the first time, he stood speechless staring across the Mediterranean Sea for about half an hour.

Because the sea journey is so short, Tangier has become a major staging post for the thousands of Africans trying to get to Europe.

Migrants used to block book whole hotels in the cramped Medina area, near the port.

"I learnt English from all the Nigerians who stayed here," says Yassin Assoufi, manager of the Pension Touahine.

He still uses some typically Nigerian phrases, such as "I go chop now" (I'm going to eat now).

But in the past year, the Spanish, Moroccan and Nigerian authorities have taken action against the illegal immigrants.

Billy's journey started in Dakar, Senegal, and ended more than five months later in Brescia, Italy. Joseph Winter has been tracing his route.

Hundreds have been sent back to Nigeria or taken to the desolate area near the Algerian border.

Those with black faces are now regularly stopped by police - even taxi drivers ask for identity cards before carrying those from south of the Sahara.

One taxi driver said that if he was caught carrying an illegal immigrant, he would be sent to prison for five years.

And yet the people-smuggling networks remain, just deeper underground.

Mountain 'ghetto'

Northern Morocco has long been the source of much of Europe's cannabis and some of the criminal gangs have merely diversified their business.

People smugglers charge 1,000 euros per person for the short sea crossing to Spain in an inflatable raft - but most migrants wait until summer when they chances of survival are better if the boat capsizes.

Men collecting water

Others, like Billy, try to make it to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, 50km overland to the east.

They hide in mountain camps near the border, living rough in shelters made from plastic sheeting and branches.

The ones I met were too worried about being found by the police to take me to the camp itself - "the ghetto" - but I could see a few patches of blue plastic glinting in the sunlight across the green wooded mountain valley, along with wafts of smoke rising from their fires.

When the wind blew in the right direction, I could also hear the sound of distant singing and chattering.

Hygiene problems

Near the pipe where they get water supplies, I met migrants from across West Africa: Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria.

2004, Jan-March: 113 sub-Saharan Africa, 16 Algeria
2003: 1203 from sub-Saharan Africa, 468 from Algeria
2002: 236 sub-Saharan Africa, 1399, Algeria
2001: 321 sub-Saharan Africa, 1969, Algeria
2000 and 1999: about 10,000 a year

Source: Spanish government
Each nationality apparently has its own separate section of the camp but they say their common goal - one Nigerian called it the "promised land" of Europe - unites them despite their diverse origins.

I was even told that the "ghetto" had its own laws - thieves for example are punished by being tied up to a tree.

Although there is some water, my nose soon told me that this was used for drinking, not washing.

Some had spent several months living rough and the stench was at times difficult to bear.

I did not mention it, but they readily admitted that there was a lack of hygiene. Moussa Sakho from Mali pulled up his T-shirt to show me the flea bites that covered his body.

Attacking the fence

Every night, the migrants go on "the attack" - trying to cross the twin barbed-wire fences, just a few kilometres away, which separate Morocco and Ceuta.

Boubacar Drame
Boubacar Drame is waiting for the summer to cross the sea
Those without any money fashion ladders out of tree branches.

In Ceuta, I met one man who said he had managed to cross in this way.

But mostly, they are caught by the Spanish police and chased back, sometimes with a thorough beating or a lungful of teargas.

Moussa and others showed me the scars on their hands and the rips in their clothes from trying to "attack" the fence.

Iddy Kaoungou, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told me that four of his friends had drowned trying to swim around the fence to Ceuta.

"Even if you know how to swim, the sea there is very dangerous," he said.

Moussa Sakho's flea bites
Moussa Sakho from Mali shows the flea bites that cover his body
But for those with money for the Moroccan people smugglers, there is a price list: 800 euros for getting around the border to Ceuta in an inflatable raft, 600 euros for digging a tunnel or 500 euros for cutting a hole in the fences.

"If we are caught cutting the fence ourselves, we are sent to prison, instead of just being thrown back into the woods," Boubacar Drame from Senegal explained.

For Europeans, crossing from Morocco to Ceuta means just a five minute walk in the sun - the Spanish immigration officer didn't even ask to open my passport once I had flashed the cover at him.


When Billy made it to Ceuta in 2000, some 10,000 Africans were reaching the enclave every year.

I am frustrated that I am not allowed to work now that I have finally reached Europe... That is what I have come all this way to do
Nigerian migrant in Ceuta
The fences were reinforced in 2001 and since then the number of Africans reaching Ceuta has dropped to a few hundred a year, but the enclave's streets are still full of migrants.

About 95% of them claim political asylum once they reach Spanish territory, knowing that otherwise they will be put on the next plane back home.

They wile away the months it takes to process their requests by hanging around the city centre, phoning their family, friends and lawyers and exercising on the beach.

One man from Nigeria said that they were given three square meals a day and clean and comfortable beds, so they were better off than back home, let alone during the hazardous journey most of them undertook to reach Ceuta.

"But I am frustrated that I am not allowed to work now that I have finally reached Europe," he said.

"That is what I have come all this way to do and I am ready to start."

But it is not that straightforward.

Hardest journey

The Spanish authorities know that most are economic migrants, rather than people fleeing persecution or warfare, whom they are obliged to accept under international law.

Just 8% of asylum requests are accepted and the rest are deported, a Spanish government spokesman in Ceuta told me.

Billy, from relatively stable Guinea, was extremely fortunate that the authorities believed his story that he came from war-torn Rwanda and allowed him to stay.

Only a small percentage of those who set out on the great trek to Europe make it - Billy left his 14 companions behind in either Algeria or Morocco.

After risking their lives to cross the Sahara desert and around the formidable frontier defences, most of those that reach Ceuta are then put on a plane back home.

That must be the hardest journey of all.

Your comments:

It makes me sick to see the hazardous route Africans are forced to take in order to get food on the table for their family members. And our leaders just keep talking with no matching action to save the situation. For those who have not left their home countries, I wish you to know beforehand, that there are no jobs in Europe or America. The suffering is not worth the kind of job you will receive at the end. Those of us outside are longing to go back because one's country remains the only place he/she can have prospects and rest of mind.
Chuma Onyekuru, Houston, Texas

To an average African, it is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire
Paulo Kimalyo, Kampala

The catch word is survival. To an average African, it is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The situation at home, with no regular job is already too bad and this forces many of us to try our luck overseas to make ends meet. Let the developed world abolish subsidies to its farmers, at the same time African governments should invest more in agriculture which employs over 70% of the masses. Increase in farm gate prices for produce will attract people back to the farms which will cut down on economic migrants. Acts like AGOA should be encouraged and if they are set up with no hidden agenda, then Europe will have fewer beggars on its door step.
Paulo Kimalyo, Kampala, Uganda

It seems to me that the economic migration problem requires a practical solution. I don't speak for governments or leaders etc. but on a personal level my husband and I intend to invest in Africa. We hope that this will spur others to follow suit putting away prejudices in order to bring about a practical solution to the problem.
Mary Bepono, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

It is sad that able-bodied young men leave their native land every year in search of the so-called greener pasture in Europe and at the end find themselves in a tight situation. However, to stem the tide, the EU should increase expatriate quotas to those countries whose citizens are known to be following the illegal route to reach Europe. I believe once this is done, it could to a certain degree minimise the hardship and indeed the deaths of many immigrants who make it a life or death affair to reach the promise land.
Amadu, Nigeria

If one has such determination to go to another country at any cost. It is just enough to stay home and do good business. Home is better. No visas. No racism. No job restriction.
Georges Manfouo, Uganda/Cameroon

Clearly and without exception these migrants are economic rather than political. The story is an entirely convincing argument for the abolition of the present concept and status of asylum by the European states.
H J Osbourne, Lancashire, England

Everybody, Eastern European or African deserves the right to work for a decent living as a human being. Why doesn't Western Europe introduce the quota system of immigration, such as in America, to Africans? Or are we just interested in skin colour similar to our own. A better world order must be all inclusive and not conditional to the possession of a certain skin colour or oil, to attract our attention. Such behaviour would always be grounds for resistance and market for recruiting terrorist.
Charles, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I know desperate people will do desperate things. I personally don't believe Africans should lower their value to such standards for the sake of European labour. These young men should stay in their country, and learn some skill and help the continent grow instead of risking their lives for evil Europe.
Gontorwon Kpa, New York, USA

They could channel the funds as grants and other types of development finance to create jobs
Kobby, Ghana/USA

This is an extremely sad state of affairs. Instead of European countries spending hard currency to maintaining and processing asylum seekers - economic or otherwise, they could channel the funds as grants and other types of development finance to create jobs and thus upgrade standards of living in the plundered of Africa. African governments need to be responsible enough to fashion out a comprehensive long term plan to reverse this hazardous trend.
Kobby, Ghana/USA

It makes me sad when young people feel they must leave their homelands. I wonder what about their culture has changed so much in the last generation or two that the youth are leaving Africa in such numbers... Is it the appeal of the First World material wealth? Isn't it ironic that so many here in these wealthy nations would be glad to give it up to live in a simpler way: to be able to grow our own food, work with our hands and to live in harmony with the earth? These are things we have given up┐
Clover Simms, West Virginia, US

Unfortunately, it is economic migrants who are causing problems for genuine asylum seekers. There is a limit to how many migrants Europe can cope with, and with the entry of Eastern Europe to the EC, the number of outsiders Western Europe can absorb will drop. Every extra place taken by an economic migrant means one less for those who really need it. There is also the problem that Spain has very high unemployment and the Spanish would rather a job goes to a Spanish person. Without work they turn to crime. If you go to a tourist area, you will be robbed within 30 minutes. Last time I was in Tenerife, more than half of all the tourists I spoke to had been robbed. I was robbed 30 minutes after arrival, and I had someone attempt to pick my pocket three or four times a night for the duration of my stay. This also works to prejudice people against migrants, it certainly has done with me!
Richard Boesch, Xativa, Spain

If only Europe would do more to help Africa, our youth would not go and die for peanuts. It's a pity that our leaders have private jets while we perish from hunger.
Alex Ume, Lagos, Nigeria

The BBC's Joseph Winter
"African migrants sing to pass the time"


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