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Why Migrants Organize Perilous Mass Crossings Into Melilla, Spain

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's visit a city now that sits on the northern edge of the African continent. Melilla is technically an autonomous city of Spain. The land is legally part of Europe. But it is surrounded by Morocco, across the sea from the Spanish mainland. So Melilla is one of the few ways migrants can cross from Africa into Europe without risking a dangerous voyage on the water. This summer, migrants have coordinated efforts to overwhelm Melilla border security in sheer numbers. Last week, authorities say about 300 people scaled a complex fencing system to get into the city. Laura Jimenez is covering the situation in Melilla.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LAURA JIMENEZ: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Who are these migrants and why are they so desperate to cross from Morocco into Spain?

JIMENEZ: Well, most of the people who jump the fence are people coming from sub-Saharan countries. Top countries are usually Mali, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Guinea, or Burkina Faso, but they are not the only migrants trying to reach Melilla - also, people coming from Syria or other countries in the Maghreb like Morocco or Tunisia. As for the reasons why, they come either as asylum seekers because they face conflict and persecution as dissidents, women or LGBT people in their countries or as economic migrants searching for new means of living.

SHAPIRO: To get into the city, people have to scale multiple fences. The drops can be as high as two stories, with guards and rows of razor wire in between. So explain how migrants are organizing into these large groups to overcome those defenses.

JIMENEZ: Well, as many of them gather together in large groups in Morocco, they train and study there the best strategy. So first, they usually use coats or heavy clothes. And they also are equipped with hooks or nail boards that allow them to go over them, to climb the mesh that covers the whole fence. Those hooks also help them to jump from the first fence to the second one without falling. Nevertheless, a lot of them end up with injuries from the fall or terrible cuts.

SHAPIRO: These large groups organizing to get across the border together, it's not a new phenomenon. When did it start to happen?

JIMENEZ: Well, actually, these jumps involving, like, large groups of people is something that has been going on since at least 2005. That year, for the first time, 700 people tried to jump at once. Then, 2013 and 2014 marked a milestone with more than 1,000 people storming the fence in 2013 and almost 4,000 people in 2014. Since then, jumps haven't stopped.

SHAPIRO: What happens to people who do manage to enter the city? I understand some of the migrants are now being isolated in quarantine and tested for COVID-19.

JIMENEZ: There are several scenarios. The first thing they have to do is they need to enter a Spanish territory, which is not easy because the Spanish security forces can make express deportations while they are still in the border. So once they are in Melilla, most of the people try and apply for asylum, which can be granted to people facing risk. If their application is submitted, they stay in Spain or in Melilla until their claim is finally accepted.

SHAPIRO: You've worked as a journalist in many African and European countries, and you are originally from Melilla. Can you talk about how things have changed in your hometown as the situation has evolved?

JIMENEZ: What has changed is the geopolitical role that Melilla plays in the broader Spanish and European political scene. As the European Union has evolved and the policy changes were made in Spain, Melilla became a gate into Europe and a hotspot for migrants just like the Balkans or Greece in the last decade. So as the European Union is trying to push its borders. Melilla, like other exclaves and islands in the European Union close to Africa or Asia, is now quickly becoming a camp, a place to keep migrants and asylum-seekers away from the European continent.

SHAPIRO: Reporter Laura Jimenez, thank you very much.

JIMENEZ: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.