Bargains, Hope Draw Moroccans To Spanish Land

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Melilla and Ceuta re two areas in Morocco that are still under Spanish control, even though it's been more than 50 years since Morocco gained its independence from Spain. While the territories are well-guarded Spanish enclaves that attract African migrants seeking a better life in Europe, Ceuta is an especially popular shopping destination for bargain-hunters.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Morocco gained independence from both France and Spain in 1956, but Madrid retains two small chunks of North Africa - Spanish enclaves on the North African coast. Melilla and Ceuta are targets for African immigrants seeking a better life in Europe. But Ceuta's also doing a thumping business in tax-free shopping.

NPR's Peter Kenyon sends us this report from the Morocco/Ceuta border.

PETER KENYON: As the taxi crested a hill not far from the most northwestern part of the African continent, an unlikely traffic jam appeared. Cars were awkwardly backing and filling on the two-lane road, trying to parallel park along the hillside, though there was no sign of civilization in any direction. When we managed to get underway again, the mystery was soon resolved. At the foot of the hill a large dirt parking lot was already jammed with cars, small trucks, and a whole fleet of taxis. This called for some investigative reporting.

(Soundbite of conversations)

KENYON: Before we can even get out of the taxi, a young man thrusts a piece of paper into my hand. His name is Muhammad(ph) and he seems disappointed that we're not planning any foreign travel today, because it seems he makes a meager living helping people fill out their immigration cards. Perhaps a hundred yards away stand Moroccan soldiers and behind them the border with Spanish Ceuta. No pictures, warned several people at once, pointing to the soldiers.

To the left a steep hill rises above the crossing and it is crawling with people. In some cases literally, because the crowd includes elderly women wheezing up the hill on their way into Ceuta and others, slipping and staggering back down their way out under improbable loads: huge boxes of detergent, tall stacks of blankets, even appliances. Welcome to the world of duty-free shopping, Ceuta-style.

Except for the shiny brand-newness of the goods, the scene is strongly reminiscent of the West Bank, where Palestinians have perfected the art of off-road commuting to avoid Israeli checkpoints and barriers. But in this case no one is sneaking anywhere. Everyone here either has a visa for Spain or doesn't need one. They choose this route into Ceuta by a second crossing because it's faster. When we reached the top, panting for breath as the wind wipes off the Mediterranean, Muhammad has reappeared and he starts to explain to my translator what's going on.

MUHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: He says those brightly colored blankets stacked a few yards away cost 350 dirhams in Morocco, a little more than $40 each. But in tax-free Ceuta they can be had for nearly half that price. So if you can haul enough of them back into Morocco, you can clear a tidy profit. As for why these people are hauling the goods by hand or sometimes wheelbarrow, instead of zipping in and out with a car or a truck, Muhammad seems to think the answer should be obvious. When the import/export business is practiced at the subsistence level, luxuries such as private vehicles are rare. Those who can afford cars use them.

MUHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Of course, Muhammad adds, there are expenses, mainly bribes for both the Spanish and Moroccan soldiers, especially if you're making five or 10 trips a day. You used to need bribes only for the Moroccans, he adds with a smile, but the Spanish soldiers watched and learned.

Morocco has long sought sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, just as Spain has pressed to get Gibraltar out of British hands. So far neither plea has made much progress. And that's just fine with the extreme shoppers on the Ceuta/Morocco run, although they wouldn't object if someone offered them a car.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News on the Ceuta border.

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