On a beach in Málaga the other day I asked a Senegalese handbag seller if the collapse of Spain’s economy, whose effect on business has made life increasingly difficult for the many African hawkers who work the sands of the Costa del Sol, had prompted him to consider returning to his native land. ‘No,’ he replied without hesitation. ‘Things are bad in Europe, but they are much worse in Africa. Unless you’re related to a government minister you can’t make a living there. People say Africa is improving, and there is a lot of money there, but only those in power see any of it. Everybody else is still poor.’
Bafflingly, the number of sub-Saharan Africans trying to breach Spain’s defences has mushroomed in the past few months. According to El País the number of migrants amassing at the border between Morocco and the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla has quadrupled this year from a rolling average of about 250 to 1,000. Only last week a group of 450 stormed the six-metre high fence that separates them from the country of their dreams; sixty made it through, and are now beginning the long struggle to find themselves a place in a rapidly shrinking economy.
Those who fail to make it over the fence either flee to the wooded hills overlooking the border or are arrested and taken in coaches to eastern Morocco, from where they begin again the gruelling slog towards Europe. Life in the border forests is hard. The Moroccan police, says El País, have stepped up their searches, rounding up hundreds of hopeful young migrants in recent weeks. Those who slip through the net, fearful of capture and the beatings that accompany every arrest, ‘no longer go down to the market in Beni Enzar at the end of the day to scavenge for scraps of food among the rubbish. Nor do they dare go to Farhana to beg for money and food, or to the springs for water…Survival has become very difficult.’
Spanish and Moroccan officials are perplexed by the sudden increase in numbers. Among the former are some who attribute it to deliberate laxity by the Moroccans, who they suspect of allowing more migrants to gather at the border in order to extract funds or some other political concessions from the Spanish government. Others ascribe the increase to the unrest in the Ivory Coast and Mali, and it appears that a large proportion of those camping out in the forests are from those two unstable nations and from impoverished Niger and Burkina Faso, which are struggling to deal with the fallout from their neighbours’ troubles.
Whatever the reasons, and despite the economic turmoil in Europe, the desperation of those who reach the border shows no signs of abating. ‘Even if it takes ten years and I have to live in this forest for those ten years,’ one Ivorian told El País, ‘I will make it into Melilla.’ A young Burkinabe, meanwhile, who has so far spent eight months sleeping under the trees and living on what he can find in rubbish bins, was equally vehement: ‘You say that Spain’s in crisis? That Europe’s in crisis? Africa’s worse than in crisis; it’s dead. My grandfather was poor. My father was poor. My mother was poor. I am poor. Whatever the crisis in Spain, I can’t imagine it can be any worse than what’s happening in my country.’