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New report on border violence, pushbacks and containment in Ceuta and Melilla

Date 6 August, 2021
Category Special Report

This new report contains in-depth analysis of the unfolding situation at the borders of Spain’s enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, analysing the continuties and shifts in border violence witnessed since May this year. Written by Disinfaux Collective, No Name Kitchen and Solidary Wheels, and published by the Border Violence Monitoring Network, the report is based on first-hand testimony from people-on-the-move, on-field observational research, as well as photographic and video documentation.

Considering the impacts of recent border violence during May 2021, and placing this within a context of historic pushbacks and rights violations from the Spanish enclaves to Morocco, this publication analyses the situation in Ceuta and Melilla, looking at continuities and expansions in state repression against people-on-the-move. The report looks at the context of the enclaves as transit sites, analysing developments around the fence, maritime crossings and local border mobility. Combining first hand accounts from people subject to violent expulsions, as well as an overview of the actors and surveillance technologies involved, the border architecture of the enclaves is highlighted as a tool of deterrence and abuse.

The publication primarily focuses on the events from May onwards, when thousands of sub-Saharan Africans and people from neighbouring Moroccan towns crossed into Ceuta and Melilla via land and sea. Looking at the way Spanish and Moroccan authorities dealt with this large scale transit revealed existent patterns in collective expulsion and police brutality.

For those who evaded pushback, the arrival conditions (whether in reception facilities or sleeping rough) represented a further extension of border violence within the interior of the enclaves. The report looks at how this precarious situation became a staging ground for further illegal removals to Morocco, as well as violent urban policing and raids against documented and undocumented persons. Viewing this repressive dynamic in tandem with the deployment of additional authorities from the Spanish peninsula, as well as a new joint mission with Frontex in the Port of Ceuta, the report explores the wider implications of these events within the securitisation of the EU external border.

History of the border

Ceuta and Melilla are small enclaves on the North coast of Morocco which are administered by the Madrid government as official Spanish territories. Their presence within the Spanish administration is inherently connected to European colonial history as Melilla was conquered by the Spanish and Ceuta was conquered by the Portugese and then passed into the control of Spain following a treaty between the two states in the 17th Century. Both are harbour (port) cities which face out onto the Mediterenean, in Ceuta’s case directly onto the Strait of Gibraltar where it meets the Atlantic Ocean; thus bearing strategic interest to Europe for centuries. Ceuta and Melilla remain the only EU territories on the African mainland, and as such their past and present have been sculpted by colonial settlement and bordering.Today the enclaves are still a contentious point within Spain and Morocco’s bilateral relationship; however, Spain’s current governance of Ceuta and Melilla is rarely contested internally, although such tensions do contribute to racialized discourse and anti-immigration rhetoric.  

As border cities on the African continent that separate Spain from Morocco, EU and non-EU space, and divide Spain internally between its Peninsula (Schengen) and enclaves (non-Schengen), they have always been host to movement and the associated impacts of bordering. On a local level, as entire cities geographically cut by fences they pose as unique and ruptured locations, as well as consistent hotspots in the history of transit from Morocco to Spain, Africa to continental Europe. Whilst we witness what is predominantly a broader public silence from European authorities regarding these territories it’s important to highlight that the EU has been the primary funder of border advancement (in terms of technology, infrastructure, and people on the ground) since the end of the 1990s; connoting a silence that exists only in the public realm.  

Historically, the population that has attempted to reach the enclaves have mostly been sub-Saharan African men, from minors to adults, highlighting the connection of the ports to wider transit routes across Africa. However, since the beginning of COVID-19 and hence the unprecedented closing of the land border between the two enclaves and Morocco, many attempts to enter Ceuta by these treacherous means for the purpose of migrating to Spain, and Europe more broadly, have begun to be led by Moroccan citizens themselves who, before the pandemic, used to enter the Spanish territories on a daily basis and relied on the economic relationship, particularly regarding trade and domestic labour. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Moroccan citizens residing in the neighboring provinces – Tetouan and Nador – were exempt from visas to enter Ceuta and Melilla respectively and Moroccan tourism was one of the main sources of wealth for the two autonomous cities. This overlay of local and regional transit displays not only the shifting impacts of the pandemic, but also the way bordering in the enclaves demarcates through a range of means, including: race, nationality, class and legal status.

The land border that circumscribes Ceuta is approximately 8km long, beginning in Tarajal beach on the East side and ending in the town of Benzú –Belyounech in Morocco –on the West side; similarly, the land border of Melilla is 11km long. The enclaves are enclosed by multiple high security fences, and attempting to jump these barriers or swimming into the territories from the neighbouring towns of Morocco are the most common ways of arriving to Ceuta and Melilla. If done from the West sea side of the border, the entrance to Ceuta can also be accessed via the breakwater. As well as arrival points, the enclaves also represent transit spaces, with people boarding commercial ferries from the two harbours in the hope of reaching the Spanish mainland in a process referred to by people-on-the-move as “risky”. An increasing number of people have also been attempting to cross to Ceuta and the Spanish mainland by swimming or kayaking, especially from the neighbouring Moroccan coastline, following the cessation of transit across the land border due to the pandemic. In recent times, higher numbers of crossings were witnessed on days with bad weather, as under such conditions it is less likely to be caught by police forces. Regardless of which territorial waters people-on-the-move are located in, authorities intercept and return them to Ceuta or Melilla. However, this tactic has resulted in numerous documented fatalities and disappearances at sea, which remains a stark reminder of the precarity of these routes across the EU external border.

Border Architecture

The fences that surround Melilla and Ceuta are a visual symbol of the border violence enforced from the enclaves, coupled with the open sea which protects the Northern borders. This geography has created a crude dilema for people seeking safe passage to Spanish territory which balances both the risks of drowning and scaling dangerously high barbed wire barriers. Sections which are frequented for border crossings are currently built 20 feet in height, with plans to increase them to 33 feet in future. Plans have also been in place to increase the total height by 30% since 2020, and to replace the razor wire which has led to severe injuries and fatalities for people-on-the-move. Serious questions remain as to how higher fences can improve safety, when a large proportion of injuries are caused by people falling during these precarious crossings.

Taking the example of Ceuta, crossings from Moroccan into Spanish territory are hampered by  three different fences: 

  1. Approximately two-meter fence completely covered in barb-wire. Controlled by the Moroccan Kingdom, it separates Morocco from the irregular neutral area between the countries.
  2. Ten-meter fence. It separates the neutral area from the first Spanish fence. It is controlled by Spanish Guardia Civil and is currently under construction: the inverted combs are being substituted and hence the fence is made taller with fixed tubes. After this fence it is officially Spanish territory.
  3. Ten-meter fence. Parallel to the previous fence, It creates an enclosed space between both fences where Guardia Civil agents often patrol, preventing people from coming down and automatically pushing them back through specialised doors in the fence if they successfully do so. 

Border Assets

Furthermore, the border zones in both Melilla and Ceuta are highly securitised and constantly under development, installed with various technologies such as motion activated sensors, CCTV cameras, and facial recognition detectors. Most of this technology is EU funded and incurs huge amounts of investment; from the beginning of construction (1993 Ceuta, 1996 Melilla) up until 2012 a total of 133.6 million euros had been spent on the border, followed by further investment such as the 32.7 million euro ‘strengthening and modernisation’ plan as begun in 2019. This huge amount of investment draws attention to the increasing risk and difficulty being produced in regards to crossing the border, as well as the neo-liberal interests at play in the region.


  • Fifteen drones tendered via ICMPD
  • Ships with radars to detect boats and dinghies
  • Twin-engine aircraft equipped with technology for surveillance missions
  • Two military satellites

  • 14 new state of the art CCTV cameras
  • Facial recognition cameras
  • 4×4 vehicles
  • Thermal cameras with positioner and night vision scopes
  • Nautical telecommunications equipment
*Just some of the assets deployed by national authorities at the borders of Ceuta and Melilla (Source:20bits)

Border Actors

The borders are controlled by Moroccan and Spanish security bodies both at land and sea, including several guardhouses on both ends of the fences. The Guardia Civil is the national security body in charge of the surveillance of Spanish sections of the EU border, and it cooperates with a range of other agencies in application of border controls. The convergence of terrestrial and maritime forces, along with an armoury of surveillance technology and physical barriers, gives a clear insight into the securitised nature of the enclaves.

  • Guardia Civil: One of the two national Spanish security troops. Of military nature, they function under the remit of the Ministry of Interior and Defense. They are the police body with the highest number of agents in Spain and with the most diverse remit in policing. In Ceuta and Melilla they are in charge of controlling the land border as well as the sea border, Gibraltar strait waters and general surveillance in the city. There are also Guardia Civil agents inside both ports.
  • Cuerpo Nacional de Policía (CNP- Policía Nacional): One of the two national Spanish security troops. Of civil nature, the CNP is responsible to the Ministry of Interior and is the main body for police surveillance in all determined Spanish cities. They are additionally in charge of immigration matters such as residence permits. Fighting ‘illegal immigration’ and controlling entry and exit from Spanish territory also fall under their scope. In Ceuta they are in charge of general surveillance of the city and inside the Port they are involved in the joint operation with FRONTEX. Since the events of May, they have been observed patrolling in riot police vans.
  • Policía Portuaria: Special administrative police body which depends on the autonomous community. Among other basic competences, their areas of focus are in Ceuta, it’s surroundings and the inside of the Port.
  • Policía Local: Police body of civil nature, its dispositions are dictated by the autonomous community. In Ceuta they are in charge of general surveillance of the city and in Naves del Tarajal, where both minors and adults are being ‘hosted’ by SAMU Foundation and the Red Cross respectively.
  • Spanish Army: National military body with air, naval and land components. Deployed with tanks to the enclaves during the events of May.
  • FRONTEX – European Border and Coast Guard Agency, operating under operation “JO MINERVA 2021”  in Ceuta.
  • Moroccan Border Police: Division of the Sûreté Nationale (National Police in Morocco) responsible for border security and immigration matters.
  • Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie: Body with civil policing, administrative and military scope. The force was deployed in May at sections of the border fence, particularly by the breakwater where the border fence meets the open sea.
  • Royal Moroccan Navy: Branch of the national military conducting naval and coast guard operations. Engaged in surveillance and enforcement in the Mediteranean and Strait of Gibraltar, including the return of transit groups to the coast.

License to differentiate

Similar to other European border zones, testimonies from people-on-the-move illustrate that attempts to enter Ceuta and Melilla are systematically constrained and controlled by pushbacks. Testimony from those who have arrived narrate that they made multiple attempts to enter Ceuta or Melilla before success due to interception by security forces.

Even though these regions are internationally agreed to be Spanish, thus part of the European Union, people-on-the-move are treated differently within the enclaves, creating a greater legal pretext for forced removals, and the subsequent violence connected to these processes. A particular case that was taken to the ECtHR (2020) regarding the deaths of 14 people at the hands of the Guardia Civil effectively legitimised ‘devoluciones en caliente’ (pushbacks) from the enclaves. Whilst this ruling was made in 2020, the Spanish Government had already sought to build legal grounds for pushbacks through the application of the highly questionable ‘Organic Law 4/2015 of 30 March 2015 on the Protection of Citizen Security.’ 

National and international legitimisation of violent bordering practices, alongside increased spending on security infrastructure, form the backdrop to which bodies of governance continue to prioritise “border protection” over mobility and human life.  Yet it is important to note that asylum seekers do have the right to claim international protection under European law within these territories. With this considered, no pushback can be completed (legally speaking), and removals from the enclaves cannot be executed without respecting and assessing each individual’s claim; this includes people recognised as Morrocan due to the fact they are entitled to claim asylum on grounds such as political or sexual orientation, as these factors result in persecution in Morocco.

However, monitoring teams constantly witness authorities ignoring these rights, with interceptions resulting in illegal and often violent returns. According to collected testimonies, the interception of transit attempting to jump the first fence in Moroccan territory often entails the forced displacement to the Southern border of Morocco, at the feet of Sahara desert. A specific testimony also mentions how a group of sub-saharan african people who had been pushed-back after the May entrances were chain pushed-back to Mauritania.

I know of people who were brought to Mauritania. They were apprehended here, in Benyounes. Moroccan police put them on a bus all the way to Mauritania. 

E. 19 from Cameroon

This example echoes other processes of chain-pushbacks and lateral returns observed across the EU external border between Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, and at the tri-border between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Alongside this weaponisation of geography, on other occasions, people-on-the-move also report long periods of incarceration in Moroccan prisons. The European Union finances Moroccan police forces role in the maintaining of these borders, as the testimony of two Cameroonian men collected on the 26th of June by No Name Kitchen volunteers outlined: 

(B) I was sent to prison in Tetuan for trying to cross the border. 

(E) In Morocco, they catch you near the border and they put you in prison.

(B) Four months. That’s illegal. Me, I did not do anything. In Morocco there are no human rights. They do not respect human beings. 

Another testimony collected by Disinfaux Collective illustrates the returns that take place in the waters between both continents, usually near the Strait of Gibraltar, and also people’s experiences of violence at the hands of Moroccan officers:

(S) The Moroccan coast guard managed to find us and caught us before we reached the Spanish international waters. They took us back to Morocco and we were imprisoned for 48 hours and then we were released…I came back after two days to try to enter again, but this time not through the border fence, but across the sea swimming anthe police arrested me before I reached Melilla and detained me and three of my young friends.’

(S) I tried to enter through the border fence, but the Moroccan police caught me and beat me.

Successive years of evidence around pushbacks and state violence (on both sides of the border) provide an insight into the enclaves and their geographic role in EU border violence. Combining recent testimony with the legal and political manoeuvres around ‘devoluciones en caliente’, the context in Melilla and Ceuta brings forth continuities with other sites of border violence, such as in the Balkans. But the enclaves also present ruptures and deviations, acting as testing grounds for the Spanish state to embed novel legal grounds for expulsion.

This blogpost is based on excerpts from the full report which can be found here. If you’re interested to read more on the topic, look out for the upcoming article which covers the events of May 2021 in depth, and looks at the ongoing situation of internal violence in the enclaves, continued pushbacks and developments such as the FRONTEX deployment in the Port of Ceuta.

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