CEUTA, Spain (Reuters) - Illegal migrants see Spain’s enclaves in Morocco as gateways to a better life in Europe, but many Moroccans suffer beatings and pay bribes to go in past razor-wire fences just to be able to return home.
Waves of African migrants stormed the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in 2005, when 11 were killed, but thousands of poor Moroccans queue to enter the Spanish territories in order to make a meager living when they trek back into Morocco.
They go in and return laden with food, perfume, shampoo, household wares and electric appliances. Moroccan border police let them back without paying import duties to undercut legal importers and turn a small profit.
In the harsh sun outside Ceuta, patience wears thin.
“Get back! One at a time!” cries a uniformed Spanish border guard as his colleagues struggle to fend off the crowd, dealing occasional truncheon blows to the goods piled on their backs.
A woman drops to the ground in a fit of hysteria and her companions pour water on her face.
“Sometimes they take my goods, sometimes they beat me and even when I give them a bribe they insult me,” said 70-year-old Fatima Zgharia, carrying a heavy load of beans, crisps and rice held tight to her back under a cotton sheet.
Bent double and pale, Fatima weeps as she tells of the 40 years she has spent trudging back and forth for a pitifully small return.
“Occasionally I return home injured,” she says. “Usually I earn about 100 dirhams ($13.73) but I have to shell out 30 or 40 dirhams of that in bribes.”
Many traders are only porters working for wealthy Moroccan businessmen who never take the same risks as their employees.
“My boss is getting rich and I am earning only insults and beatings,” said Abdelkader, 32. “But what do you want me to do? Sell plastic bags? Smuggle drugs?”
The Moroccan government says smuggling across its borders loses it $240 million in tax revenue every year.
“We often turn a blind eye to the small-time smugglers as they are very poor and live from this trade,” said a Moroccan customs official who asked not to be named. “But when it comes to bigger smuggling operations we take a very firm line.”
Such smuggling, known euphemistically in Ceuta as “atypical trade,” has become a money-spinner for the densely populated city occupying a slither of land near the Strait of Gibraltar.
It also staves off hunger in Morocco’s long-neglected north, where an ambitious drive to redevelop the region with ports and free trade zones has yet to transform local lives.
Yet much of the economic logic for contraband may be swept aside in 2012, when customs duties on most consumer goods between Morocco and the European Union are due to be removed. Local Moroccans fear for their livelihoods.
“If ever this trade stops, we in Morocco will start eating each other,” said the porter Abdelkader.
Spain took formal control of Ceuta from Portugal in 1668 and has guarded it jealously ever since for the protection it offered Spanish ships and its strategic position as a trading post between Europe and Africa.
In theory, free access to Ceuta is reserved for Moroccans from the region who have relatives in the city. Those people accuse Moroccan officials of selling local residence cards to Moroccans from other regions who want a share in the trade.
Traffic the other way has grown as Spaniards enter Morocco to buy seaside villas, take a holiday or visit cheap dentists.
After the 2005 violence sparked by the African migrants’ exodus, two six-meter-high fences topped with razor wire have been erected in Ceuta, separated by service roads with regular car and dog patrols and backed up with electronic sensors.
European security officials see the enclaves as a front line against illegal migrants, drugs and Islamic militants. But security fears increase as Ceuta’s economic ties to the surrounding area deepen and traffic grows.
“The border is both very open and very closed. I think one day the situation will explode,” said Michel Peraldi, an expert on informal border economies at French state research body CNRS.
Morocco claims Ceuta and Melilla for its own and withdrew its ambassador in Madrid last year to protest at a visit by King Juan Carlos to the enclaves, the first of his 32-year reign.
Ceuta, with a population of 77,000, has the highest unemployment rate in Spain according to 2006 figures. Many of the jobless are Ceutan Muslims who complain of discrimination. Some say their ethnic Spanish counterparts label them “Moors.”
At the same time, their ties to Morocco are weakening.
“Whether we like it or not, our children are becoming Spanish in their thoughts, their language and culture,” said Ahmed El Yazid, an Imam at a Ceuta mosque. “The only thing linking us with Morocco now is the flame of Islam.”
Ceuta’s Muslim community depends heavily on commerce with the mainland and Yazid said most would prefer the territory to remain Spanish for fear of losing their livelihoods.
Additional reporting by Martin Roberts in Madrid; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Charles Dick