Wednesday

26th Jun 2019

Interview

EU preparing 'concentration camps' for migrants in Africa

  • Martinez: "I could face charges of human trafficking" (Photo: EUobserver)

Europe and Morocco are increasing the suffering of migrants, including children, on the EU's only land border with Africa, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Tangiers has said.

EU plans to build asylum centres in Morocco would create "concentration camps for people who have no rights," Santiago Agrelo Martinez also told EUobserver.

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  • Martinez' church provided "holy sanctuary" from Moroccan police (Photo: EUobserver)

The cleric, whose church has helped migrants in Tangiers, on Morocco's Mediterranean Sea coast, for the past 11 years, said more people had come there after Italy and Libya cracked down on sea crossings.

Moroccan people used to help them and police used to leave them alone, but in June Moroccan authorities began punishing assistance, rounding up migrants, and deporting them, Martinez said.

People came from all over Africa fleeing poverty, conflict, and political repression, as well as "social violence", such as arranged marriages, he said.

They "abandon their homes and follow routes filled by death, by suffering, humiliations, violations of every sort," he noted.

But when they arrived at the EU gate in Africa, they were now forced into hiding in the forests around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and in wasteland near Tangiers airport, he said.

The archbishop, who personally hands out food in the forests, said "they're cold, they fall ill, they're hungry - their situation was already difficult, and now they're being hunted and they face social rejection".

Many of them were lone teenagers or women with infants, he said.

"Last week, I saw a family with babies sleeping in the entrance to the cathedral here. I couldn't bring them in because I would face charges of human trafficking, but I couldn't sleep knowing they were there," he said.

The anti-immigrant wave in EU politics, as in Italy, espoused "a discourse that turned migrants into a threat, a danger," he said.

Spain's left-wing government had made "gestures" that grabbed "headlines" by taking in migrants from the charity boat Aquarius after Italy had rejected them in August, the Spanish churchman noted.

But Spain showed its true colours a few days later when it expelled 116 people who had crossed into Ceuta back to Morocco without giving them a chance to file asylum claims, he said.

It did so on the basis of a 1992 "readmission" agreement with Morocco.

"The Spanish government sent them back, via Spanish territory [Ceuta], without any legal support, without any judge deciding on their cases, ignoring the fundamental rights of these people," Martinez said.

Ceuta: Other EU signs, in no-photo zones, were wrapped in barbed wire (Photo: EUobserver)

Nothing to eat

EUobserver spoke to a handful of migrants who were outside Martinez' cathedral in Tangiers city centre, where police let them be due to the old taboo of "holy sanctuary", the archbishop joked.

"At home, I didn't have enough to eat ... I want to come to Europe to develop my talent as a footballer. I want to be like Cristiano Ronaldo [a Portuguese football star]," Keita, a 16-year old boy from Cote D'Ivoire, told this website.

His friends had bought him a plane ticket to Morocco, but now he needed to save €3,000 to €5,000 to buy an EU visa from corrupt Moroccan officials or to pay smugglers for a boat ride to Spain, he said.

"The [Moroccan] police drive around and when they see blacks, they grab us, beat us, and take us to the Mauritanian border, where we have to beg for money to eat and to make it back [here]," he added.

"They treat us like animals," he said.

Fatima, a 22-year old woman, had walked from Senegal with her three-year old son and six-year old daughter. She gave birth to her third child on the way.

"We had nothing to eat after my husband left us, so I came by foot with my kids. I came by foot even though I was pregnant," she said.

Amina, another 22-year old Senegalese woman, had also walked.

"We suffered a lot on the way because there was very little to eat," she said.

"There's nothing to do in Senegal. There's no way to earn a living. When I get to Europe, I just want to work," she said.

Concrete corridors at Ceuta crossing (Photo: EUobserver)

Fortress EU

The EU border control agency, Frontex, said there were 6,500 irregular crossings into Spain in September and 35,500 in the first three quarters of this year.

That indicates there are thousands of people like Keita, Fatima, and Amina hiding in the forests of Morocco, even if they are invisible on city streets.

If they try to make it to Ceuta, or use roads leading to the sea crossing to Spain, they face Moroccan military police and army checkpoints.

They then face Ceuta's double, six-metre high wire fences, which are fitted with infra-red, motion, and noise detectors.

If they go to Ceuta's main gate, maybe with a dodgy visa, the symbolism of "rejection" is also clear.

The gate itself resembles the crossing from Egypt to Gaza, with hundreds of metres of concrete and wire-cage corridors under video surveillance.

These lead to a sign - a blue disc with 12 gold stars - which marks the EU border and which is wrapped in razor wire.

In the background, on a hill, Ceuta's fortress, which dates back centuries, brings to mind the phrase "Fortress Europe" used by diplomats in the salons of Brussels to describe the EU's closed-door policy.

The Moroccan crackdown on migrants coincided with EU plans to reward African states who stopped people from coming.

The EU is also pushing to create asylum-processing centres in Morocco and Tunisia, but the archbishop denounced this plan in strident terms.

Moroccan traders head home from 'Spain' after a day's work (Photo: EUobserver)

EU slaves?

"These are concentration camps for people who have no rights," he said.

EU politicians treated Africans as if they were "subhuman or second-class" people who were there to serve Europe's economy, he said.

"We treat them like slaves ... If we want them, we take them from their homes and countries to work on our [agricultural] land, but if we don't need them, even though they're hungry, we enclose them in camps," he said.

Most ordinary Europeans were kind enough to help people in need, the archbishop said, but populist politicians, such as Italy's new leaders, were "pitting us against each other" by appealing to "selfishness and fear" and were "weakening European society".

"They're sniffing around for where to get votes," he said.

The EU needed a "new project" to welcome people in large numbers, but lacked the "inner strength" to do it, he added.

Pope Francis, who belongs to the same Franciscan monastic order as Martinez, and with whom he had spoken on the subject, shared his views, Martinez said, but he said many Vatican officials, cardinals, and bishops also thought African migrants should be sent home.

"The future of Europe, and even more so the future of the [Roman Catholic] church, will depend on what we do with migration," he said.

"There is a crisis, but it's not the migrants who are causing it, it's European society," he said.

"To say that migrants are undermining the European project isn't correct. It's not the migrants who are doing this, it's Europe itself," he said.

EU looks at Morocco and Tunisia to offload migrants

EU member states and the European Commission are pressing ahead with plans to possibly use Morocco and Tunisia as countries to offload asylum seekers and migrants - part of larger bid to create a so-called "safe third country" list.

EU ready to shore up Morocco migrant funding

The European Commission says it is ready to boost spending in Morocco when it comes to stop migrant hopefuls from reaching Spain by boat. The money follows demands for help from Madrid as irregular arrival numbers spike in Spain.

Frontex transparency dispute goes to EU court

The General Court of the European Union in Luxembourg will next month hold a public hearing on the refusal by Frontex, the EU's border agency, to release documents concerning its border control and surveillance operation known as Triton.

EU mute on new Italian decree to fine NGO boats

In 2013, the European Commission declared ships that help migrants in distress would not face sanctions. Now - six years later - Italy's government endorses a decree to impose fines up to €50,000 for rescue boats docking in Italian ports.

Decision on migrant-returns hits parliament logjam

Home affairs ministers are set to endorse reforms for tougher EU return laws to send unwanted migrants home. But an absent lead MEP on the file and a wary EU parliament means their agreement may not amount to much.

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