CEUTA, Spain — For most migrants from Africa, the last stage of their trip to Europe involves some sort of perilous sea crossing. At the border in Ceuta, there is just a fence.
Ceuta (pronounced say-YOU-tah) is one of the two Spanish communities on the north coast of what otherwise would be Morocco, the only places where Europe has land borders with Africa. The other enclave is Melilla, farther east along the same coast.
Here, all that separates Europe from migrants is a double fence, 20 feet high and topped with barbed wire, stretching the four miles across the peninsula and dividing tiny Ceuta from Morocco — plus 1,100 Spanish federal police and Guardia Civil officers, a paramilitary police force.
In the week ending Aug. 12, according to the International Organization for Migration, 1,419 migrants reached Spain, compared with 359 to Italy and 527 to Greece.
But the sea crossing to Spain, through the narrow straits of Gibraltar, is more dangerous than other passages, because of strong currents where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic.
Through June, 294 migrants drowned in the western Mediterranean, compared with 224 in all of 2017 in that area.
That has made trying to breach Ceuta’s heavily guarded fence an increasingly attractive proposition, a way to enter Spain without crossing the water. On any given day, young migrant men can be seen prowling on the Moroccan side, looking for an opportunity.
Some swim around the fences where they go down into the sea. Others take short, illicit boat trips to Ceuta from Morocco. But mostly they run and climb the fence, or use bolt-cutters to cut holes in it, and they are quickly spotted by motion detectors and guards in observation towers and usually beaten back by policemen using sticks and fists.
Salif, 20, from Cameroon, said he tried 10 times to cross the fence in the past year, until he finally made it over on his 11th effort.
As often happens, successful tries are made by what locals call “mobbing,” when hundreds of migrants surge over the fence in a large group. Salif’s group came on June 6, when 400 young men began climbing the fence at sunrise.
Two were seriously injured on the barbed wire, and hospitalized in Ceuta. Eight, including Salif, managed to get over, and were then allowed to stay in a reception center in Ceuta, awaiting transfer to the mainland.
There, they can apply for asylum, a process that can take many months or even years. Most will be turned down, and the deportation process is slow and difficult.
While people often do get hurt trying to pierce the fence, deaths are rare.
“All of Africa is here,” said Salif, ticking off migrants he has met from Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal — and even some from Bangladesh and Pakistan.
And they keep coming.
“Trying to stop migrants coming from Africa with a fence alone is as fanciful as the little Dutch boy who saves his country by putting his finger in a leaking dike,” said Leonard Doyle, the spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
Still, some do seek other ways to bypass the fence.
Jalou Ayer, 24, a migrant from Conakry, Guinea, said he had tried the fence eight times, until he finally paid a trafficker to take him around it in an inflatable dinghy.
Ceuta’s lone detention center, designed for short-term stays, already had 800 residents, 200 more than its capacity, migrants living there in July said. Many of those residents reported stays of more than six months.
That was before the latest “mobbing” incident on July 26, when 800 migrants stormed the fence and attacked police officers on the other side, injuring 15 of them. Six hundred managed to reach Ceuta and were allowed to stay, including 16 who were hospitalized with injuries in the melee, according to a statement from Spain’s Guardia Civil.
Another migrant center for minors has 90 residents, although it was designed for 60, several residents said. Most of them are teenage boys trying to sneak onto ferryboats to the mainland, where they hope to join family members or create a case for family reunification. European laws make it difficult to deport minors.
Detention policies in Ceuta are not strict, and the migrants can come and go from the centers as they want, and are often seen roaming the city, although they are not allowed to work.
“Some of us are here eight months, even a year,” said Francisco, 20, from Senegal. Like other migrants, he declined to give his full name for fear it would endanger his asylum application. “People are nice to us here, but there’s nothing to do but wait.”
The single land crossing to Ceuta from Morocco is heavily congested with travelers entering legally, and with many Moroccan traders taking advantage of the Spanish enclave’s semi-duty-free status.
As soon as visitors enter, the contrast with Morocco is striking. Streets are scrupulously tidy, with cleaning vehicles plying seemingly around the clock. Gardens and public parks are well-tended and watered.
Morocco has long demanded custody of Ceuta and Melilla, but Spain has refused, saying they were part of Spain for centuries before Morocco was even a state.
“We are in Europe, not in Africa,” said Jacob Hachuel, the spokesman for the city. “But we have a border that has the biggest socio-economic differences between the two sides of any border in the world.”
Despite the violence used to prevent efforts to cross the border, once inside Ceuta migrants find an easygoing climate. Some 40 to 50 percent of the 84,000 residents are Muslims of Moroccan origin; most of the rest are Spanish Christians. There are also minorities of Jews and Hindus in the seven-square-mile area.
The Jewish community is the oldest one in Spain, having escaped the 1492 expulsion of Jews from the rest of the country. “It’s a mix of cultures, and we are used to having the other in our midst,” said Mr. Hachuel, who is Jewish.
Anna Villaban, a government employee, said Ceuta’s residents were proud of their city, which recently was host to three festivals, commemorating Ramadan for Muslims, Holi for Hindus and a local saint, San Antonio, for Christians.
“Where else would you see that?” she asked.
Most of the migrants who arrive in Ceuta do not, however, want to stay here, but hope to get permission to travel to the Spanish mainland, where they hope to find jobs or cross the open borders to elsewhere in Europe. Often, that permission takes months to come.
As a result, many of those who have made it to Ceuta soon make another effort at escape, to mainland Spain.
Assad Nowdi, 16, a Moroccan who has been here three months, said he goes to the center for migrant minors for meals and occasionally a good night’s sleep, but usually he sleeps in the cracks among the giant blocks of stone piled up to make a jetty near the port.
At night, he said, he and his friends often try to swim for a ferryboat headed onward to Europe. “We will keep trying,” he said. “Eventually we’ll get there.”
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