Everybody wants to build walls these days. Walls across the border with Mexico, walls across the Sahara, walls keeping people out. These engineering marvels are being proposed regularly as a solution to stop people crossing borders; walls haven’t been this popular since the Cold War (though those walls were designed to keep people in and not out).
Do they really work? Migration and asylum are incredibly complex topics, and the appeal of building a wall is that it seems to be a clear, unambiguous solution to a problem. Yet is it really more about appealing to a political base than addressing the root causes of an issue? Do walls and fences even work as deterrents?
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we have launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis is on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
Today, we are looking at Melilla, a Spanish autonomous city in northern Africa. Melilla has a total population of over 86,000 people, including a foreign-born population of over 15%. The territory is separated from Morocco by three barbed-wire-topped fences (the inner fence being over six metres high!), plus a further two fences on the Moroccan side. Has it made a difference in keeping people out?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Rafael, who talks about a “flood of immigrants” jumping the fences from Morocco into Melilla. This seems like an exaggeration. What sort of numbers are we talking about coming into Spain via Melilla, and how does it compare to other migrant routes, such as into Greece or Italy?
To get a response, we spoke to Santiago Saez Moreno, an independent Spanish journalist who has written for DW News and La Marea, among other publications. How would he respond?
First of all, I have to say that I understand that he may be inclined to use words such as ‘flood,’ but I have to strongly advise against that. It’s not only an exaggeration, but it’s also xenophobic: these are people, not water or rocks. These are actually human beings, so ‘flood’ is not right.
I’ve been checking for numbers, and between January and August, there were 2,554 irregularly entering Melilla. While it’s an increase from 2017, it’s around a 40% increase between the same [months] that year, I wouldn’t call that a “flood.” So you get an idea, this is slightly more than sitting in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. So it’s basically like emptying the Bolshoi Theatre into the street. That’s not exactly a flood. It’s about 1% of the people that passes through Heathrow Airport every day, 1%. And this was between January and August, so you can get the idea that this is not really a flood.
Another figure to put that into perspective would be that Spain received – between 2008 and 2017, which are basically the crisis years – 558,467 African migrants. During that same period, 556,508 migrants left the country. So that means that only around 2,000 new African migrants resided in Spain between 2008 and 2017. So I would say that any call to think of this as a “flood” or an “avalanche” or “millions” – as the conservative politicians in this country are saying – well that’s simply not true.
I would also say that irregular migration makes up around 4.5% of the total migration in Spain. The remaining 95.5% are legal migrants arriving in Spain. [Compared to Greece or Italy], there has been an increase of people coming in through Spain because the routes through Italy and Greece have been closed. People just find another route. According to the International Organisation for Migration, around 33,000 migrants made it to Spain irregularly until the 15th of July. Italy has seen around 20,000 arrivals and Greece has seen around 30,000 arrivals. So we’re talking about rather similar numbers. More people are coming through Spain than in previous years, and less are coming through Italy and Greece.
To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Maria Serrano, Senior Campaigner on Migration at Amnesty International. How would she respond to Rafael?
Next up, we had a comment sent in from Jaume, who is worried that migrants trying to cross into Melilla are faced with excessive force to keep them out. Are we overlooking a human rights scandal or is this, again, an exaggeration?
How would journalist Santiago Saez Moreno respond?
I think this is a very good question and I think it hits the nail on the head. It’s not a problem of numbers; it’s not a problem of resources. It is a problem of human rights. The general is: yes, there is a human rights scandal going on at the border. These abuses – because there are abuses – shouldn’t be entirely blamed on Spain. In my experience, Spain bears a part of the responsibility, but the EU does as well because it’s the Frontex institution that has a responsibility. Also, Morocco is to blame. This is not something new – you have been talking to Amnesty and they have probably said the same. Human Rights Watch has also denounced the situation and other local human rights watchdog organisations such as APDHA.
Now, having said this, I think we need to define ‘excessive force.’ While there are cases of aggression from Spanish police on the border, I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a widespread situation. I wouldn’t say that the Spanish police is necessarily aggressive on the border. I think the big problem these people face is more on the Moroccan side, which – anyway – they have deals with the Spanish government, so it’s not that Morocco is ‘very bad’ and Spain is ‘very good.’ They are both equally responsible.
The real violence here is institutional. So, for example, in Melilla in particular black migrants – I mean ‘black’ in the sense of dark-skinned – are not able to access the asylum office at the border. Despite the fact that these asylum offices are actually new, nobody has ever accessed it. This is the real violence and the real human right abuse going on, much more than excessive force. While the excessive force is a problem and should not be dismissed, I think there is a bigger scandal going on at the moment.
Finally, how would Maria Serrano from Amnesty International react?
Can building walls really keep out migrants and refugees? Are migrants trying to cross into Europe faced with excessive force to keep them out? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!