Moroccan and sub-Saharan African migrants regularly attempt to swim to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from neighboring Moroccan ports. But a crossing even a hundred meters from the shore is risky. Four people drowned in March 2021.
On March 30, a dozen men were spotted running on the beach in Melilla. All migrants, they swam here at night, probably from the nearby port of Beni Ansar, in Morocco.
According to the Twitter account of the citizen collective Adelante Melilla, they were spotted and escorted by the police to the only reception center for migrants in Melilla, the Ceti.
For several years, migrants from West Africa, sub-Saharan Africa or Morocco have been trying to enter Melilla and Ceuta, the two Spanish enclaves on Moroccan soil, to seek asylum or in the hope of a better life.
Attempts to cross the barbed wire fences are frequent. Every week, dozens of migrants launch "assaults" - or "charges" - against these barbed-wire walls, which are several meters high.
'Deceptive ocean current'
Less is said, however, about those who try to swim to Melilla and Ceuta from the neighboring Moroccan ports. It is true, for example, that Melilla is only a hundred meters from the port of Beni Ansar: a breakwater sinking into the sea for several dozen meters separates the two areas, making the crossing a little longer but feasible for would-be migrants.
However, the risks of swimming across remain high. "Yes, there are tragedies, because swimming in the Melilla area is dangerous. The water is cold and there are deceptive sea currents," Mohammed Ben Issa, a member of the Observatory of Human Rights in Morocco, told InfoMigrants. "Migrants think that swimming is the fastest way but, above all, it is very dangerous."
In a 2014 article in Le Figaro, a Cameroonian migrant described how swimming across was not easy. "Unless you are a very good swimmer, it is better to have a life jacket. You leave at night, you swim in the dark, then you come back to shore."
Swimming crossings on the rise since the coronavirus pandemic
In recent weeks, four people have died in the waters of Melilla, their bodies later washed up on the beaches of the enclave. The most recent tragedy occurred on March 2, 2021, when a migrant from sub-Saharan Africa died.
A witness who heard screams in the sea raised the alarm. That evening, two other people were pulled alive from the water. That same week, bodies were found on the beaches of Melilla, in Los Cárabos and Horcas Coloradas, among others.
According to Ali Zoubeidi, a professor at Hassan I University and a specialist in immigration, swimming crossings have multiplied with the coronavirus pandemic. "Before, many migrants wanting to enter Ceuta and Melilla hid in trailers, trucks, and cars heading there. But with the epidemic and the closure of land borders, would-be migrants have sought new ways to enter the enclaves, such as swimming."
Climbing the triple barbed wire fences has also become more and more complicated. "Spanish and Moroccan controls have intensified around the roads, around the land area, around the fences," Zoubeidi explained. And climbing the barbed wire often leads to serious injuries: there are falls, blows from the Spanish police. Some migrants therefore prefer to head out to sea, bypassing the wire jetty to try to reach the beaches of Melilla.
Buying fins in the hope of going faster
"The process is generally the same for all migrants: they try to enter the [Moroccan] port of Beni Ansar early in the morning, at dawn, so as not to be seen. It's not easy, the port is quite well-guarded. Those who arrive there hide all day, and they start swimming around 1 or 2 am," said Zoubeidi. "The candidates for swimming usually buy wetsuits and fins in the nearby markets. They hope to be less cold and go faster."
"Those who swim across are also those who cannot pay smugglers to cross the Mediterranean in a zodiac or jet ski. Swimming costs nothing," said Ben Issa, of the Observatory for Human Rights.
According to Ben Issa, the number of swims attempted between Moroccan beaches and Spanish enclaves is difficult to quantify: successful migrants are often not recorded. According to him, several hundred migrants have tried to swim to the Spanish enclaves since September 2020.