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Migration station

For sub-Saharan immigrants, the Spanish enclave of Ceuta is a gateway of hope for a better life.

Alain slept on a concrete floor in an abandoned car dealership, its broken windows covered in thick grime. Last winter, he and hundreds of other sub-Saharan Africans lit open fires to cook and keep warm, waiting for their asylum cases to be heard in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the tip of North Africa.

Most immigrants, like Alain, heard of Ceuta years ago, in faraway towns in Nigeria and Cameroon. Like thousands before them, they set off on foot or hitched rides northward, slipping through Algeria and Morocco on their way to the European Union's southernmost outpost.

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This tiny patch of Europe - cordoned off from Morocco by two towering barbed-wire fences - offers little work or opportunity. But its proximity to impoverished and war-torn nations makes it a staging post for immigrants - most of them economic migrants, even though many apply for political asylum - before they steal across the sea to a better life in Europe.

All over Europe, immigrants flood in illegally, in cargo holds, under trucks, and packed into small boats. The EU estimates that 500,000 immigrants entered illegally in 2001, as agriculture, construction, and home-care industries beckoned cheap labor from abroad. Yet their arrival coincides with a swell in anti-immigrant sentiment across a wide political spectrum.

Ceuta - spread over seven square miles - is a microcosm of Europe's migration pressures. From one side of the peninsula to the other, the enclave's challenges are palpable: undocumented immigrants spilling onto streets, residents griping, politicians scrambling for solutions.

"Ceuta is a living laboratory of the globalization process," says Jose Maria Campos, a lawyer and long-time civic leader in the community. "Before, the migration flow was exclusively from Morocco. Now immigrants from all over the world pass through.... But we do not have the capacity to assimilate the ever-increasing flow of people."

This port town of 70,000 has been a Spanish military base since 1580, and coveted for the hand it gave in controlling both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar. But its neighbors in North Africa view it as occupied territory - an imperial anachronism. Spaniards respond that Ceuta, and the enclave of Melilla, to the east, are inherently Spanish, since both existed before Morocco became a country.

As the relationship between Morocco and Spain has deteriorated over the past decade, Morocco has refused to cooperate on many border issues. It has rejected all non-Moroccan immigrants who try to use the country as a stepping stone to Europe. And tensions have increased in Ceuta and Melilla, as sub-Saharan Africans and other migrants have used Morocco to illegally slip into both enclaves, in the hopes of eventually reaching mainland Spain and the rest of Europe.

Alain, who does not want his last name used as he waits for his asylum case to be heard, once worked in a bottle factory in Cameroon. But his family was starving, he says. He left one night on a journey that would take him through Nigeria, Mali, Algeria, and Morocco, doing odd jobs in each place to get to the next.

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He camped out on the Moroccan side of the border, where mud streets are strewn with litter and homes are missing roofs or doors. Then one rainy evening a year and a half after leaving Cameroon, he made it over the parallel fences that separate Africa from Europe. He shows a scar along his forearm from the barbed wire, as proof of his feat.

To the social workers who provide him with food every day, he says he believes God will help and that he will receive papers soon. Over a cup of coffee in private, he talks about Plan B. If his asylum case is rejected, he will appeal - a lengthy process that will allow him to travel to mainland Spain and get "lost" among thousands of other undocumented immigrants.

Economic migrants like Alain have little hope of receiving political asylum. Michelle Berg, a policy analyst at the US Committee for Refugees in Washington, says Spain granted refugee status to 3 percent of all asylum seekers last year - among the lowest percentages in Europe.

Add to that a new immigration law in Spain that in January 2001 made it impossible for immigrants to apply for work visas after reaching Spanish soil illegally. Still, while they wait for asylum, immigrants are housed and fed, and after six months if their cases have not been heard, they can apply for work papers.

Tall fences make irritated neighbors

Getting into Ceuta used to be easier. In the 1990s, the peninsula was separated from Morocco by a flimsy fence, the kind that might enclose a swimming pool or park.

But when the EU began erasing interior borders and passports were no longer required to move between member countries, Ceuta - only eight miles from mainland Spain - found itself serving as a crossroads between two continents.

The EU tried to seal off its southernmost gateway. By 2000, it had helped erect the double fences, topped with barbed wire, sensory lights, and 24-hour lookouts. Running the entire five-mile border with Morocco, it costs $18,000 a day to operate.

Such efforts have helped stem the flow of migrants. But just as thousands risk their lives in the desert that separates Mexico and the United States each year, Alain and hundreds of other immigrants who have inundated Ceuta in the past six months show that fortified borders are no obstacle for those willing to risk death for hope.

Ceuta's delegate to the central government in Madrid, Luis Vicente Moro, rubs his forehead when asked about Ceuta's unwanted immigrants. Little more can be done to keep them out, he says. "Ceuta is a frontier town, and frontiers produce scars," he says.

Every day, 40,000 Moroccans cross legally into Ceuta, to work in the homes of wealthy Spaniards or to sell merchandise on the streets. That number is more than half of the entire population of Ceuta.

Amid those thousands who clog the border checkpoint, last year 76,424 migrants - the majority hailing from Morocco - tried to enter illegally and were turned away. Moroccans who succeed in crossing are immediately deported, under a repatriation agreement.

More troublesome to Ceuta's leaders are the illegal immigrants who come from countries that have not signed readmission agreements with Spain. Those immigrants, the majority from sub-Saharan Africa, cannot be turned away until their asylum cases are heard.

In the meantime, roughly 400 are housed in Ceuta's Temporary Stay Center for Immigrants. CETI director Santiago Perez says those asylum seekers cost the center $6,000 a day.

Resentment on the rise in Europe

Across Europe, leaders are grappling with how to deal with incoming immigrants. In Britain, the number applying for asylum grew to a record 110,00 last year. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Britain accepted the largest number of refugees in 2002 - 19 percent of the world's total.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is coming in the wake of increased asylum pleas and a growing number of undocumented immigrants in Europe. In early May, the government office for internal affairs in Britain said that a rise in asylum cases will lead to "social unrest," a statement that echoes others made across the European continent.

In Ceuta - where the ebb and flow of immigration tides are tangible on the street, as undocumented immigrants idle the days away on city sidewalks - this tension is more accentuated, says Raul Rodriguez, a Spanish social worker based in Ceuta last year.

"It reminds residents that [Ceuta] physically belongs to a different continent," Mr. Rodriguez says. "Historically, Ceuta [residents have] always lived with the fear that they will one day be handed over to Morocco.... So all they want is everyone back to the border."

Ceuta, as many residents like to point out, lacks space and job opportunities. Immigrants know this, so most attempt to reach mainland Spain, where there are tomatoes to be picked and resorts to be built. Last year, more than 16,000 migrants were apprehended while trying to reach Spain by sea. The Association of Moroccan Workers in Madrid estimates that 3,000 have died in the past five years, attempting to cross the strait in wooden boats.

But reaching mainland Europe from other points is even more dangerous and expensive, and usually requires the assistance of the international mafia. Getting into Ceuta, by land or sea, is relatively safe - and, most important, free.

"The really poor ones continue to come, regardless of technological advances," says Alfonso Cruzado, a police officer and spokesman for the Guardia Civil of Ceuta. "Some try to jump the fence. Others put flippers and scuba suits on and swim in, even though many of them have never swum before."

A much smaller number from as far away as Iraq or China have appeared in Ceuta recently, as well. Many of them say they paid the mafia to get to Europe, and were dropped off in Ceuta.

Migrants' use of Ceuta as a launching pad irks residents. "I am in favor of immigration," says Mr. Campos, the lawyer. "But these immigrants do not look at Ceuta as their final destination."

Immigrants in limbo live on the streets

The Spanish branch of Doctors Without Borders denounced the local government in Ceuta this winter for inhumane treatment of immigrants left to fend for themselves on the streets. Immigrant advocates say this abuse amounts to a morally unacceptable government attempt to deter future immigrants.

The government maintains that it lacks resources. "There are 400 illegal immigrants in [CETI] already, and another 413 in the street," said Mr. Moro, the government delegate, in late February. Since then, Alain and other asylum seekers have been moved to CETI. But other immigrants will end up in similar makeshift arrangements when the center becomes overpopulated, and public indignation will flare.

Along the waterfront, storeowners are frustrated by increasing theft and loitering - mostly by the enclave's youngest undocumented immigrants from Morocco - and have taken to closing an hour earlier.

"You can't turn your back around here or you get robbed," says a shopkeeper, who asked not to be named. "I was not born racist. This town made me racist."

Irking many residents - Spanish and Moroccan alike - some lawyers and academics have suggested that handing Ceuta and Melilla back to Morocco would reduce illegal immigration and improve the rocky relationship between Spain and Morocco.

"But if you think about that in global terms," says Elena Arce Jiménez, a lawyer in Córdoba, Spain, who specializes in immigrants' rights, "if you move the [EU] border up to mainland Spain, there would still be a continent dying of hunger. The difference is you wouldn't have people coming in and asking why people are starving in a developed country."