Lost in Melilla: Syrian refugees despair as Europe closes door

Wed Dec 18, 2013 2:36pm EST
 
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By Julien Toyer and Juan Medina

MELILLA, Spain (Reuters) - Yahya Khedr has travelled for more than two years, through five countries and with six forged passports to get his family from the war-ravaged Syrian city of Homs to Europe.

But now that his wife and five children have reached Melilla, a small Spanish enclave on Morocco's Mediterranean coast, their chance of a European life seems as remote as ever.

"People make it to Melilla hoping to find Europe," said Khedr, who before his country's war owned a successful European truck-parts import business. "But here, it's an open-air jail."

Armed guards and razor wire lining the 12-km (7.5-mile) frontier around the town have long discouraged Africans fleeing poverty and conflict from seeing Melilla as a gateway to Europe, 180 km (110 miles) away across open water.

But desperation has driven hundred of Syrians like Khedr to brave long journeys - and Moroccan crime gangs that prey on migrants - to fetch up at the gates, turning the port town of 80,000 into a new pressure point for waves of destitute people struggling to reach the safety and prosperity of Europe.

As the United Nations marked International Migrants Day on Wednesday, drawing attention to governments' obligations toward people on the move, European Union leaders were preparing for a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday that is likely to approve tougher ways to keep immigrants out.

That will disappoint Spain, Italy and Greece, whose hope of persuading northern neighbors to share the burden of taking in those fleeing across the Mediterranean have been undermined by hostility among voters feeling the pinch of austerity policies.

Before an EU summit in October more than 360 people drowned within sight of Lampedusa, an Italian island off Tunisia that has long been a magnet for migrants. But talks on a more coordinated, EU-wide solution have made little progress.   Continued...

 
Cisse Tiemouko, a migrant from Ivory Coast, warms himself by a fire at a clandestine campsite named Bolingo in northern Morocco near the border fence with Spain's north African enclave Melilla, November 28, 2013. REUTERS/Juan Medina