Dozens died trying to cross this fence into Europe in June. This man survived Migrants spend years trying to get to Melilla, Spain — an enclave city on the African continent. It's a perilous journey that led to dozens of deaths in June.

Dozens died trying to cross this fence into Europe in June. This man survived

Dozens died trying to cross this fence into Europe in June. This man survived

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Steven Khon Khon, of South Sudan, stands on the Spanish side of a four-layered fence dividing Nador, Morocco from Melilla, Spain on October 11. On June 24, Khon Khon and many others trying to get to Europe charged the fence. They were beaten back by Moroccan authorities. Dozens were killed. Khon Khon made it to Spain that day, but his brother remained stuck in Morocco. Ricci Shryock for NPR hide caption

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Ricci Shryock for NPR

Steven Khon Khon, of South Sudan, stands on the Spanish side of a four-layered fence dividing Nador, Morocco from Melilla, Spain on October 11. On June 24, Khon Khon and many others trying to get to Europe charged the fence. They were beaten back by Moroccan authorities. Dozens were killed. Khon Khon made it to Spain that day, but his brother remained stuck in Morocco.

Ricci Shryock for NPR

To visit a popular transit point into Spain, you have to go to Africa. There, you will find Melilla, a city perched on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.

Migrants spend years trying to get there.

This has provoked severe border restrictions by Spanish officials.

"Melilla today is like a bunker. It's like living in an island," says Irene Flores, a longtime Spanish journalist in Melilla.

The Spanish enclave city has changed in the last few decades, making it all the more difficult for people like Steven Khon Khon to enter

Listen to our full report by clicking or tapping the play button above.

Mallika Seshadri contributed to this report.


To see the southernmost land border of Europe, you have to visit Africa. There, you'll find two cities perched on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea - Melilla and Ceuta. They're politically part of Spain, geographically surrounded by Morocco. Melilla tells a story about itself. You can find it on a stone tile in the narrow, winding streets of the old city. The tile has the letter M in four alphabets - Arabic, Latin, Hebrew and Hindi. It represents four groups of people who've lived in this city together for centuries. But like every story of a place, the one Melilla tells is part reality, part mythology. Muslims living here weren't granted citizenship until the 1980s. Before that, they were stateless. And today, the city's history as a cultural mixing bowl is at odds with its place on the front lines of a global upheaval.

IRENE FLORES: (Through interpreter) Melilla today is like a bunker. It's like living in an island.

SHAPIRO: Irene Flores has worked as a journalist in Melilla for more than 35 years. She was born and raised in this enclave city of Spain.

FLORES: (Through interpreter) Melilla has grown always looking to Morocco. All the development in the city has to do with Morocco.

SHAPIRO: We met at a cerveceria, a sidewalk cafe where tapas come free with a beer. Snippets of Spanish and Arabic drift over from the surrounding tables. Growing up in Melilla, Irene Flores says, there was virtually no border at all.

FLORES: (Through interpreter) There was no fence. There was no border. It was, like, a free crossing through a checkpoint.

SHAPIRO: No passport required. She could go for a swim on a Moroccan beach in the middle of the day and be back at work reporting from Spain in half an hour. But for journalists these days...

FLORES: (Through interpreter) The issues with the fence could be, like, 85% of the time.

SHAPIRO: The fence is actually multiple fences, four layers deep, more than 20 feet tall, fortified with armed guards patrolling the perimeter. All of that armor is paid for by the European Union to keep out people who've traveled thousands of miles to enter this fortified city.

FLORES: (Through interpreter) Melilla is somehow a gate into Europe.

SHAPIRO: For the past week, we've been reporting on the connection between climate change, global migration and the rise of far right politics. And yesterday, we looked at migration from the Moroccan side of these fences. Today, the view from inside the enclave, beginning with the migrant center where people who successfully crossed the fence await the next step.

It's not meant to be a prison, but the outside sure looks like it, with cameras and a guard at the door. As journalists, we're not allowed inside, but we can talk to people who are allowed to come out.

ABDO MOHEMAD AHMAD: (Through interpreter) Well, I made it to Europe. That's all I wanted.

SHAPIRO: Abdo Mohemad Ahmad left his home in Sudan when he was 19 years old. Now he's 23, in a holding pattern at this migrant center, waiting for permission to go to the Spanish mainland. He lists the countries that he's been through on this long, strenuous journey - Sudan, Egypt, Libya...

AHMAD: Niger, Algeria...

SHAPIRO: ...Niger, Algeria, Morocco. He didn't call his family for a year.

AHMAD: (Through interpreter) I didn't want to give them false hope. So when I entered Morocco a year ago, I finally contacted them.

SHAPIRO: Oh, and what did they say then, hearing from you for the first time in so long?

AHMAD: (Through interpreter) Well, they were really happy for me, but at the same time, they yelled at me. Because even if you're in bad shape, they said, we should have known you're alive.

SHAPIRO: In each country he passed through over the last four years, he experienced challenges that he cannot begin to describe. But he can tell us about June 24 of this year.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Yelling, inaudible).


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling, inaudible).

SHAPIRO: That date has become a rallying cry. And it continues to make headlines in Spain as the government has come under pressure for withholding information. We'll warn you that in the next minute or so, there will be some graphic descriptions of videos taken that day.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: On June 24, Abdo joined a huge crowd of people in Morocco to charge the border fence. Most of them were from Sudan like him. Moroccan police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the group. According to Morocco and Spain, 23 people died. But the number could be much higher. Human rights groups say more than 70 others who ran at the fence that day are still unaccounted for. Morocco has refused to allow an independent investigation. NPR reached out to the Spanish Interior Ministry about the events of June 24, and they declined to comment.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: The video from that day shows piles of bodies and police dragging people who are injured or dead. One of those killed was Abdo's good friend.

AHMAD: (Through interpreter) I was with him three hours before. I started hearing he died. He didn't make it. That was very difficult.

SHAPIRO: Abdo Mohemad Ahmad was one of the lucky ones who made it here to Spain. So did a young man from South Sudan named Steven Khon Khon.

When did you leave South Sudan?

STEVEN KHON KHON: 2016, yeah.

SHAPIRO: So you've been traveling for six years.

He says he'll never forget his friends who died on June 24.

KHON KHON: Because I'll never forget our brothers, rest in peace.

SHAPIRO: Steven's story is similar to migrants all over the world - spending years crossing borders, being detained, trying again, working in a foreign country to raise enough money to continue the journey. He left home with his younger brother when violence broke out in South Sudan. In Libya, they tried crossing to Europe by boat.

KHON KHON: I try many time to cross the sea. The police catch me, you know, 15 time. Sometime, when you caught, you put in prison six month, three month.

SHAPIRO: After spending several long stretches in Libyan prisons, Steven and his brother decided to try this land crossing in Morocco instead. But he says Moroccan authorities were relentless.

KHON KHON: They give us 24 hours. They say, when we find you here, we have problem.

SHAPIRO: Be gone in 24 hours or there would be a problem, authorities said. That was June 23. When they charged the border crossing the next day, Steven reached the other side. His younger brother did not. After six years traveling together, they're now on opposite sides of the fence, in two different countries. The man who oversees this migrant center and others is based in Madrid. And while Carlos Montero wouldn't allow us to tour the facility in Melilla, he did agree to talk with us over Zoom.

CARLOS MONTERO: (Through interpreter) Immigration is like water. If you block it in one place, the water is going to flow out somewhere else. That's just the way it is.

SHAPIRO: That may be true, but the European Union has poured billions of dollars into trying to stop the water from flowing. And far-right political parties across Europe have used a different metaphor.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Those politicians compare migrants to poison - something to be cleansed from the continent.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: In Spain, the far-right party Vox has compared immigrants to animals.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).


SHAPIRO: A different, center-right political party governed Melilla for most of the last 20 years. Miguel Marin is a leader of that party. And so at his office in the center of Melilla, I ask him about the steady militarization of the border.

MIGUEL MARIN: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: He blames the leftist national government in Madrid and says, Spain needs immigrants. Our population is aging. But migration has to be controlled, he says, through legal pathways.

What you are saying is something that we hear all the time. I'm not against immigration. I'm only against illegal immigration, people often say. And last week we were in Senegal. And we spoke to many people who said, I went to the embassy. I asked for a work visa. And I was told no again, again, again. And so do you think the system needs to change to allow more people to come to the country legally?

MARIN: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Yes, and not only in Spain, he says. The whole world needs a system where countries that need manual labor can regulate migration from anywhere. I ask him about the way journalist Irene Flores described Melilla - the city that is a gateway but also a bunker. And I wanted to know, how do you balance the two?

MARIN: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Miguel Marin bristles, and his blue eyes flare. "Melilla is not a bunker in any sense," he says. "Look at your country. The U.S. has a bigger, longer fence on its border with Mexico. Is the United States a bunker?"

MARIN: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Nearly 300 miles northwest of Melilla, we meet a friend of Steven Khon Khon's. He's the man we met at the migrant center earlier. Husein Mohamed sits in the town of Espartinas. He is in mainland Spain with two Sudanese friends. They sip coffee at an outdoor food court packed with locals. This group has been through so much together. They're really more like brothers now.

Did you all travel together?



Months before that June incident where so many people died, Husein Mohamed jumped the fence in Melilla. When we tell him that we met his friend Steven, Husein opens his iPad and plays a video for us.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: That's outside of Melilla?

MOHAMED: I was care - my friend. I was very happy.

SHAPIRO: The video shows Husein and others outside the migrant center welcoming the group that had just crossed the border on June 24, including Steven. They're high fiving each other. Husein is carrying a newcomer on his shoulders. And while Husein's fully dressed, his friend is shirtless, his pants completely ripped from the struggle to cross the fences. Shortly after that video, when Husein finally arrived on the Spanish mainland, he broke down.

MOHAMED: When I enter here, I was crying.

SHAPIRO: I can think of so many reasons to cry. Which reason were you crying?

MOHAMED: Six years on the road.

SHAPIRO: Were you crying from happiness or sadness or the people who didn't survive or your pain or all the...

MOHAMED: All of it - I was happy and very sad.

SHAPIRO: If you could talk to the Husein of six years ago, what would you tell him?

MOHAMED: Keep going. Keep going. Don't give up.

SHAPIRO: We recorded that conversation with Husein on October 16. Soon after that, Steven was transferred from Melilla to mainland Spain. Now he's in Barcelona, while Husein is still in Espartinas. Without papers, they can't get jobs. But they've applied for asylum and hope to get approved in about a month. So they have to keep going, keep going just a little while longer.

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