Before dawn broke one January morning in Melilla, a Spanish town flanked by the Meditarranean Sea on one side and semi-arid hills on the other, veteran border cop Sergio Marquez heard the call come through the radio: “Fence activation, please verify.”

The automatic sensors on this section of Spain’s border with Morocco, a nearly 7-mile stretch of fortified barriers that separate a tiny speck of European Union territory in North Africa, are far from perfect. The border between the two is a veritable obstacle course for the thousands of migrants who attempt to cross it each year: It’s made up of a trench and four fences, one on the Moroccan side, three on the Spanish side, dotted with motion-activated sensors like the one alerting Marquez that winter morning. In theory, the sensors provide a final line of defense for the Spanish police who monitor the border. But they’re finicky: They’re sometimes triggered by stray dogs; other times, Moroccan forces on the other side inadvertently touch the fence and send their counterparts scrambling. 

The sensors didn’t factor much into Sacko Falikou’s journey across the border to Spain. He was waiting in the cover of the predawn darkness on the Moroccan side of the border, a short dash from the fence. He was just shy of his 18th birthday, and as he strained to see any sign of the Moroccan patrols that guarded Melilla’s border, he was scared. But after leaving Guinea a year and a half earlier amid sectarian tension, he had come this far, and there was no turning back now. 

At around 7:20 a.m., someone somewhere down the line gave a signal to Falikou and a group of 150 people, mostly young men from West Africa, and they started to run. There were only two Moroccan officers patrolling the section that morning, and they fled when they saw 150 people running for the border. 

On the other side, Marquez’s radio crackled again: “We can see them on the camera, patrols proceed.” Screens at the nearby command center would have shown scores of people already approaching the barriers. Even with such formidable structures, Marquez knew, stopping a large group is near impossible without a warning — the police are almost always vastly outnumbered. 

Falikou, already tired from the dash, clambered over the first razor wire fence before dropping into the dirt trench. He scrambled on the other side and past the empty sentry boxes. That’s when he reached Spanish territory and saw close-up the twin 20-foot fences. “When I saw it, I thought, I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” he later told me. “It looked impossible. But I didn’t know I had the strength in me.” 

Falikou and another 86 migrants made it across the border that day. Nine of them required hospital treatment from wounds they sustained while climbing across the series of fences; one police officer had minor injuries. It was the largest fence-crossing in more than two years, and the first since work began on the “humane” overhaul of the border fence in 2019. For the Spanish government, the news was an embarrassment. 

Since Spain officially joined the EU in 1986, tens of thousands of people from as far as Bangladesh, Syria, and Senegal have crossed into the tiny coastal towns of Ceuta and Melilla. Many more have tried. In response, with European funding, Spain has built and rebuilt a series of increasingly imposing border barriers, which, it boasts, are protected by innovative technology to prevent irregular migration. Still, irregular migration has been steady in recent years, though the numbers are a tiny fraction of the total arrivals to Spain as a whole. They command significant media attention: With each mass crossing, images of young men hurdling themselves over the series of fences draw headlines across the EU.

Falikou’s border crossing came as work was due to be completed on a $40 million (33 million euro) overhaul, which Spain’s socialist government claims will not only make the borders more secure and efficient, but also reduce the risk of injury and death to migrants by removing the military-grade razor wire from its barriers and replacing it with sophisticated surveillance technology like long-range thermal imaging cameras, improved motion sensors, and a new fiber-optic communication system. The change, according to Spain’s political leaders, is part of a move towards a new kind of border, one defined by “humane security.” 

But the border’s technological overhaul is the latest in a long list of attempts to make Ceuta and Melilla fortified against the migrants who attempt to cross into the territories. For them, talks of a more humane Spanish border have done little to change the risks they face in pursuit of a better life.

“You can’t cross three barriers without being injured in some way,” said 20-year-old Mahmoud Barry, rolling up a sleeve to show a healing cut, when I asked him about his recent entrance into Melilla. At 16, he left Guinea after political crises and crime made life increasingly difficult there. After several years scratching out a living in Morocco, evading police controls and moving regularly between more than a dozen cities across the country, he and two others quietly climbed the fences a few weeks before we met in March, passing undetected. In addition to razor wire cuts, those who cross the fence frequently sustain fractures in their legs or feet from jumping from the 20-foot fence or bruising on their heads from stones thrown by Moroccan forces.

The hard borders between Spain and its African neighbours took form 30 years ago, as Europe was in the process of sweeping away its own internal borders. Spain signed the Schengen Agreement and introduced visa requirements for Moroccans and other North Africans in the early 90s, which set off a wave of migrant boats regularly crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco to Spain. At the tail end of the decade, just a few years after Europeans began enjoying passport-free travel within the bloc, work finished on what are arguably the EU’s first migration border barriers since the fall of the Berlin wall.

Over the next decades, Spain experimented with policy and technology solutions while many EU nations had yet to grapple with the coming surge of migrants. For its part, Morocco has pursued what is arguably the most progressive migration policy on the African continent. The kingdom launched a regularization program for undocumented people in 2014, and made efforts to reform the immigration and asylum system for the tens of thousands of irregular migrants crossing its borders annually.

Backed by the EU, the changes also served a dual purpose for Morocco: It helped to bolster its relations with both its European neighbours keen to limit onward migration and other African countries seeking better treatment for their citizens, said Iván Martín, an adjunct professor of migration policy at Pompeu Fabra University and former adviser to a European Parliament committee on migration policy. But, “at some point, the EU became more serious about border control and less serious about enlightened migration policies,” Martín said.

The overhaul of the border in Melilla, which began last year and should be completed in the coming months, will combine infrastructure and technology. Razor wire and other harmful defenses will be replaced by anti-climb obstacles, and the barrier itself will be raised from 20 to 33 feet in stretches most targeted by migrants. With these changes, the Spanish government said, the border will remain equally secure even without the presumed deterrent of razor wire. According to Spain’s Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, security and human rights will be “perfectly compatible realities,” thanks to border technology. 

The fence technology is being installed in parallel with a facial recognition system at the official border crossings into both the territories. Before the pandemic forced their closure, the crossings saw tens of thousands of Moroccan day laborers cross daily. Among them, a small but significant number of migrants rent passports to cross into the twin enclaves, where they were then able to request asylum. In 2014, almost half of those who entered the territories irregularly used this method, thereby avoiding a more dangerous crossing over the fence or by sea, according to a report by Amnesty International. The facial recognition system, co-designed by French defense giant Thales, will track in real time all those entering into the city, registering those who overstay and flagging individuals on a watch list. Thales did not respond to questions about the potential use of this technology to track people entering on false passports.

While the removal of razor wire is supported by both police and activists on the ground, these two groups are both unhappy with the updated border, albeit for different reasons. Without the razor wire, and with alternative deterrents still only partially in place, border police are forced to act as “human shields” to stop mass crossings, said Marquez, who runs the local chapter of the AUGC, the largest association representing the Guardia Civil, which is responsible for the security of border areas. 

Omar Naji of the Rabat-based Moroccan Association for Human Rights, one of the largest civil society organisations in the country, questions the sums spent on border reform and the upgrade of surveillance technology, given how few attempts there were to cross the border last year. In 2020, some 1,400 people crossed overland into Ceuta and Melilla, according to official data.  “I think the financial interests behind the overhaul of the barrier are clearly present,” he said. And while Spain has removed razor wire on its side, Morocco has increased physical defenses on the other side of the border to deter migration.

In his two decades working at the border, Marquez has seen countless evolutions and adaptations in border security and attempts to circumvent those measures altogether. When the stocky 45-year-old with close-cropped hair and a disarmingly polite manner joined Spain’s Civil Guard, Marquez never imagined his career would be defined by trying to stop irregular migration. At home, he doesn’t talk about his work, the stress of the chaotic mass border crossings or the toll of pulling bodies out of the sea. 

“Over the years, you become tougher,” he told me. “But it stays with you, you keep that inside of you.” 

Counting the ideas on his fingers, he recalls strategies which either failed or were promised but never implemented, like automatic spotlights or drone surveillance. One installed a system of pipes along the length of the border,  designed to spray migrants with water mixed with a chemical irritant. According to Marquez, a trial revealed that the chemicals would affect police as much as those trying to get in, and the police never used the system after installing it at a considerable cost.

However, some unusual deterrence systems were adopted — at least for a while. In 2006, a series of interconnecting steel wires 2×2 meters in diameter were installed between Spain’s border fences to entangle anyone attempting to cross; they were removed earlier this year.

The debate over Melilla’s  border policing oscillates between banal arguments over working conditions and clear-eyed realism about the intractable forces driving modern immigration. Complaints over leaky cabins, or the hope that just a few more thermal cameras will stop the next mass border crossing, sit uncomfortably alongside the conviction that the delicate balance of border control is always hostage to political imperatives. “Everything is political,” Marquez said, echoing a claim made by many in Ceuta and Melilla that mass border crossings only happen when Morocco allows them to. “When there is a good relationship [between Spain and Morocco], there is cooperation on immmigration,” he said. “When there is a problem, they let a group of 500 through.”

Although the total cost of the construction and policing of the border barriers is difficult to estimate, it is certainly in the hundreds of millions of euros. However, Moroccan cooperation on border policing is even higher: the country  received some 350 million euros since 2014 directly from the EU and Spain.

“Over the years, you become tougher … But it stays with you, you keep that inside of you.” 

Spain’s experiments in border security have also been a boon for business. The country is home to one of the only razor wire manufacturers in Europe, and Spanish corporations have secured major contracts for the design and implementation of an advanced system to detect sea crossings, which later served as the blueprint for the EU’s own system. In 2007, one policy paper argued that Spain’s experiences with  the unique challenges of sea migration in the mid-2000s made the country a “laboratory,” in which domestic industry could “develop new research and development products.”

With each new development, though, migrants entering the city have changed tactics in response. As the barriers became harder to cross, migrants attempted to overwhelm border guards by crossing en masse, using rudimentary step ladders and thick gloves to scale the fence. When anti-climb mesh was added to fences to make them harder to climb, migrants began putting screws in their shoes to help them gain purchase, leading to the installation of an even smaller mesh. Violence has also been employed strategically in some cases. In one mass crossing into Ceuta in 2018, migrants used circular saws and shears to cut the fence, and then tried to deter the police from intervening by hurling plastic bottles of excrement and quick lime, according to the Ministry of Interior

Lorenzo Gabrielli, a border policy researcher at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, said the vicious cycle is only getting worse. “This obsession for control is clearly not working, because despite spending huge sums of money and creating a great deal of violence and many victims over 30 years, the situation remains the same,” he said. Border security, Gabreilli added, promises control, but in practice is never complete, always requiring further modifications and more spending. “It’s a loop with no way out.”

A few weeks after I spoke to Marquez, Spain recorded its largest-ever number of irregular migrant crossings in one day. During a 36-hour period in May, some 8,000 people, including at least 2,000 children and teenagers, took advantage of relaxed border policing in Morocco to swim and paddle in inflatable rafts around the two border fences and onto EU soil. The incident came after Rabat expressed anger at Spain’s decision to allow the leader of a rebel movement in Morocco’s contested Western Sahara region to visit a Spanish hospital. Spain’s defense minister later accused Morocco of “blackmail” over the migrant surge. In other words, the lax border controls were part of a political tit for tat. 

In response, Spain made a show of force on the border. It deployed the army, parking a row of armored vehicles where the beach met the fences surrounding the territories. Footage shows Spanish military forces wielding batons and pushing migrants off a breakwater into the sea below. Nearby, impassive soldiers lined the beach, an improvised human barrier to keep migrants out where the multimillion euro fence had failed. Within a few days, Moroccan forces resumed policing the border, and several thousand of those who made it to Spanish territory were later deported to Morocco as a part of an agreement between the two countries. 

It’s not the first time migrants have swam around the fences that surround Ceuta and Melilla, though the scale of this attempt is unprecedented. It’s drawn international media attention, once again igniting anti-migration sentiment in Spain: As Ceuta struggled to house those who weren’t deported, the leader of the country’s far-right party flew in and gave an incendiary interview branding the mass migration as an “invasion,” demanding a militarization of the border and the construction of an “impassable wall.” 

But it’s not always clear that a better wall makes for less migration. While irregular crossings into the Spanish enclaves dropped in 2020, academics, activists, Spanish police, and even government sources attribute the decrease to  an increase in Moroccan policing and Covid-19 restrictions — the land border has been closed during the pandemic, reducing the number of migrants crossing on false passports.

Neither the Spanish Interior Ministry nor the local government in Melilla keeps a tally of the total number of injuries or deaths at the border. Between the fences’ construction in the mid-1990s and last spring, some 56 people died after being shot, beaten or otherwise injured while attempting to cross the barriers, according to an analysis of data collected by the Amsterdam-based NGO United for Intercultural Action. (That figure doesn’t account for the several dozens more that died before reaching either of the fences.) Among them was a 30-year-old Senegalese man who bled to death while entangled in razor wire at the Ceuta border in 2009. 

Other deaths have followed. Not all are attributable to the fence itself, but many are clearly a product of the demands of the crossing. In 2018, a Malian man collapsed and died during the crossing, reportedly as a result of overexertion and an existing health condition. Last August, a Burkinabe man died after falling from the fence into a ravine. 

“The fact that the tide in Melilla brings in human bodies in the 21st century … It’s a catastrophe.”

At least two people drowned during the mass crossing in May, and many others arrived exhausted, disoriented, or suffering from hypothermia. A photo from the crossing captured the moment a baby was rescued from the frigid water by a Spanish soldier. But the images aren’t new to those who police Ceuta and Melilla’s borders. When faced with increasingly fortified barriers, migrants choose alternative routes, often more perilous methods to reach the two enclaves. Swimming in the two territories is still common — particularly in the summer, when the water is warmer. 

Sitting in a narrow strip of shade outside of the migration center in Melilla, Abdelilah Badi Hassani, a soft-spoken 23-year-old auto technician, told me that he swam into the city a month earlier to seek asylum after becoming convinced he would not find work in Morocco. “I heard of many people dying in the attempt,” he said. Nevertheless, he swam in. Hassani fled his native Mauritania with his family, after they were targeted by a rebel group there, he said. He hoped to eventually earn money to send his sister, who remained in Morocco. 

Bodies wash up on the city’s beach regularly, a police spokesman confirmed, but it’s often impossible to know the exact circumstances of their death. Neither the Interior Ministry nor the local government had data on how many people entered the city this way or how many had drowned in the attempt. 

In March, several bodies washed up on Melilla’s shore; neither the police nor the local government knew exactly how many. Marquez, the border cop, was working that day and recovered the body of a young man wearing a car tire as a makeshift float around his waist. “The fact that the tide in Melilla brings in human bodies in the 21st century,” Marquez said, trailing off. “It’s a catastrophe.”

When Falikou first made it into Spanish territory, it felt unreal. He had left Guinea a year and half earlier amid sectarian tension: He was threatened and faced forced conversation after a conflict in the family. Dreaming of reaching European soil, Falikou’s herculean border crossing came after he spent a year hiding from police and living off handouts from locals in the woods, first around Ceuta, then Melilla. He lived in a makeshift camp in the forests high up on Mount Gurugu in northeastern Morocco. From the camp where he lived through baking summer heat and freezing winter, Falikou would look down at the lights of Melilla. 

After he made it across the four fences between Spain and Morocco’s borders in January, Falikou raced to the migration center with those who weren’t too injured to run. Here, they were safe from the controversial practice of summary rejections at the border (the practice has recently been upheld by a European court ruling). As they ran through the deserted streets, exhausted, wounded, but jubilant, they chanted “Boza!” or “Victory!” in the Fulani language. 

But when we met some two months after he crossed the border, he was frustrated and anxious to escape the city. “I feel sad all the time,” he told me, sitting in a small strip of shade on the scrubland outside the migrant center. The border fence loomed behind us. “There is nothing to do, and anything you put down gets stolen.”

Those who make it here often spend months, sometimes years in limbo, unable to travel to the mainland while they wait. Melilla becomes in effect a holding cell; the administrative line between the city and the mainland, another border. 

The EU-funded migrant center, known by its Spanish acronym CETI, was built for some 800 people, but sometimes holds twice that. The wide boulevards and palm-tree lined parks of the town center disappear as you reach the CETI, giving way to abandoned lots and roads with no sidewalks. Young men congregated outside the center in small groups, killing time on their phones, watching soccer or listening to rai or Algerian trap. Soldiers carrying weapons, and military vehicles with surveillance gear, filed past on their way back to base. 

The hood of his blue windbreaker pulled over his head, his eyes barely visible over his mask, Falikou paused when I asked what’s next. He’d love to play football, he ventured. “I like the sound of Madrid. I’d like to try my luck there.”