Life Is Hard For Migrants On Both Sides Of The Border Between African And Europe : Consider This from NPR There are two tiny patches of Spain on the African continent. One is a city called Melilla that's surrounded by Morocco and the Mediterranean Sea.

The European Union has spent billions to keep migrants from sub-Saharan Africa from crossing the border between Morocco and the Spanish city.

This episode, we look at what that means for the people who make it through and for the city they arrive in.

This story is part of an NPR series on climate migration and the far-right.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

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Life Is Hard For Migrants On Both Sides Of The Border Between Africa And Europe

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There's a man who runs a general store in a village in Morocco. It's surrounded by olive groves and rolling hills. Every so often, people come down out of those hills and visit his store.

UNIDENTIFIED STORE OWNER: (Through interpreter) They sometimes come here without shoes because they've been chased. I give them my shoes. They have ripped or burned clothing. Sometimes they have injuries. I try to give them minor first aid.

SHAPIRO: The people camping in the hills are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. They're here because this village is right across the border from Europe - a tiny patch of Spain that's actually on the African continent, a city called Melilla. The European Union wants to keep African migrants out. So the EU has paid the Moroccan government billions to take a hard line. That's why we agreed not to use the name of the old man who helps the migrants at his general store.

What do the authorities do when they see you help?

UNIDENTIFIED STORE OWNER: (Through interpreter) It's always a problem for me. But they can't really do anything to you. They'll ask for documents, take me to the police headquarters until midnight, harass me.

SHAPIRO: And so why do you continue to offer help even when you know police will harass you for it?

UNIDENTIFIED STORE OWNER: (Through interpreter) Well, I can't stay and do nothing. If you see someone who needs help, can't even walk, have no shoes, you have to do it. The day before yesterday, people came. There were only four or six people. But the authorities burnt everything they had. I saw the smoke from the hill.

SHAPIRO: You have this philosophy that if you see someone in need, you have to help. And so when you see smoke coming up from the hill next door where authorities have burned the few possessions people have, some of which you gave them, how does that make you feel?

UNIDENTIFIED STORE OWNER: (Through interpreter) You can't put that feeling into words. You can't describe it. I close my eyes, and I go inside because, as the saying goes, the heart can't feel what the eyes don't see.

SHAPIRO: Could you get in trouble for talking with us? Could the authorities come and harass you for having this conversation now?

UNIDENTIFIED STORE OWNER: (Through interpreter) Who knows what's in their head? By law, they can't do anything to us for telling the truth. They can't do anything to me. People are free to speak.

SHAPIRO: As if on cue, a battered, old car rolls up, and a man with a baseball cap gets out. He asks if we have authorization.

A police officer pulled up...

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: ...Said we don't have a right to be here.

He tells us to wait until the supervisor arrives.

You know what? Just in case, I'm going to remove the sound card and put it in - deep in my bag right now. So this is the last of the recording, folks.

After about 20 minutes, a much nicer SUV rolls up, and a man in a suit steps out. He introduces himself as the authority in the area. He doesn't give his name. He tells me I am forbidden from publishing any photos or videos. And I truthfully reply that I have no photos or videos. He doesn't mention audio. When he asks what we're doing, we say we're trying to find out whether there are people living in the hills. The authority in the suit smiles, shakes his head and says in English, quote, "we work on this to not have any Black people here."

I went to Morocco and the literal fence that separates it from Europe as part of a weekslong reporting trip. I wanted to see how climate change is driving migration and how that migration is feeding far-right politics. CONSIDER THIS - European countries are spending tons of money to keep African migrants on the Morocco side of this border. We're going to look at what that means for the people who do make it through and for the Spanish city they're crossing into.


SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Friday, November 25.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Melilla, the city on the Spanish side of the border fence, tells a story about itself. You can find that story 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. 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. 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 decades, the city has been a transit point for those seeking a new life in Europe. Some are seeking opportunity. Some are pushed from their homes by war or famine. But increasingly, climate change is a factor in the decision to migrate. One expert we spoke to called climate change a vulnerability multiplier. To meet some of the people making the journey, we started at 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 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) 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.





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 MIGRANT #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 MIGRANT #3: (Non-English language spoken).

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

STEVEN KHON KHON: Because I'll never forget for 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. Yeah. Sometime when they catch, 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.



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


UNIDENTIFIED POLITICIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

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


UNIDENTIFIED POLITICIAN: (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: (Speaking Spanish).

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: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Miguel Martin 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: (Speaking Spanish).

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. 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 MIGRANT #5: (Non-English language spoken).

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

SHAPIRO: That's outside of Melilla?

HUSEIN 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 - 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 Hussein 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.


SHAPIRO: This story is one of many we've reported on our trip from Senegal to Morocco to Spain. You can find a link to all those stories in the show notes. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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