Melilla: The story behind the story, part 1


Two weeks ago, a friend and fellow student on assignment from a large Italian newspaper invited me to participate in a project on sub-Saharan migrants trying to cross the Moroccan-Spanish border to Melilla, a town on the African continent belonging to Spain. According to reports by organizations like Human Rights Watch, the New York Times and the BBC, as well as our interviews, migrants suffer terrible conditions as they first traverse multiple countries, often on foot, and then camp out in the mountains near Nador, Morocco, for months or even years, waiting for a chance to cross the three barbed wire fences separating Africa from Europe. European Union standards on asylum seekers require that Member States serving as destinations for migrants allow them to stay on EU soil until asylum applications have been filed and processed. Interviews and NGO testimonials, though, allege that Spain, in violation of EU standards, is sending migrants back to Morocco after they have reached EU soil.

Many people in the international community are becoming involved in this issue. Christian religious organizations from the U.S. and EU countries like France and Germany distribute blankets, clothes and food to migrant camps in Fes, Oujda and the mountains, and European journalism teams are covering aspects of this issue. We decided to spend two weekends in Melilla to do our own research, and were able to gather tips and contacts from religious leaders and a pair of French television journalists in preparation.

For my next posts, I will chronicle our experiences researching and writing this article, as well as more travel-oriented observations about Melilla and its people. First: how we traveled from Ifrane to Melilla, and how we spent our first night.

Gi., Gy. and I set out for Melilla early Saturday morning, intending to find contacts who would take us to the mountain camps during daytime. After renting a car in Azrou, a city near Ifrane, we set out for the auto route accompanied by Berber music, our Moroccan residency cards, numerous notebooks, two cameras (this is important) and bags of old clothes, as the French journalists stressed that we could not show up to the camps empty-handed. We passed through towns dotted with aquamarine and pink houses and mountains decorated by cedar trees and past cow crossing signs and petit taxis that turned from yellow, to green, to red, to blue as we neared the auto route. We sped under bridges supporting people and donkeys and past public service announcements about road safety.

After a few hours of Gi.’s excellent and tireless driving, we finally reached Nador, the Moroccan city bordering Melilla. At the crossing we were checked out thoroughly by Moroccan and Spanish guards, then easily waved through due to our U.S. and EU passports.


(This is a fortress, not the border. By the way.)

Melilla stunned us. The city stands in stark contrast to Nador. Posh European stores like Zara, housed in beautiful old European-style buildings, line streets almost devoid of feral cats and dogs. Plazas, gardens and statues of famous Spaniards are everywhere. Here, pedestrian right of way is respected, though we had to get over our Morocco-conditioned hesitation when crossing streets.


Gi., Gy. and I quickly settled into our hotel. We then ate dinner at a large plaza in the city center, where children and their parents played soccer beneath abstract statues and young men performed Arab and Western guitar music.


I ducked out of our restaurant early to conduct a couple of informal interviews, and was lucky to spend time with Fatima, a woman who lives near Nador but cleans houses in Melilla. Because she spoke Darija I could barely understand what was going on, but she was very patient with me. I think we spoke about husbands and love at one point.

After meeting up with Gi. and Gy. again, we decided to speak to a pair of musicians. And that, my friends, is how we began making contacts – and saw quite a different side of Melilla. That post on Saturday.

Next Time: A. and H. discuss musical opportunities and employment – or lack thereof — as college graduates in Nador


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