The “Unstoppable”Wave

30 September 2005

The “Unstoppable”Wave

By Gwynne Dyer

It is rapidly getting worse on the Spanish-Moroccan border. Three times in the past week, mobs of “refugees” have assaulted the fences that surround Ceuta and Melilla in an attempt to break into the European Union, and at least eight of them have died. Organised groups of up to five hundred young African men have been storming the three-metre-high (ten-foot-high) border fences by night with home-made scaling ladders, hoping that in the confusion most will make it across.

Several hundred did, though not without damage: Ceuta’s hospitals reported at least fifty refugees with broken limbs or deep cuts. Some didn’t make it: one bled to death after his neck was caught on the razor-wire, another was trampled in the crowd, others were allegedly killed by rubber bullets fired by Spanish police.

Spain is rushing extra troops to Ceuta and Melilla — and on the return trip to the Spanish mainland, the ferries carry some of the successful “refugees” across the Strait of Gibraltar into Europe. With no further border checks, they could be in Stockholm in a week.

They aren’t really refugees, of course; they are economic migrants. They are not Moroccans, either. The vast majority come from sub-Saharan Africa, where the poverty is much worse and some desperate people are literally willing to risk their lives to make it into Europe. One young man, typical of those who stormed the fences in Ceuta last Thursday, set out from Guinea more than two years ago and travelled through Senegal, Mali and Algeria to reach Morocco and a chance to crash the border into Ceuta or Melilla. (The two enclaves on the northern Moroccan coast, Spanish for more than four centuries, are the EU’s only land frontier with Africa.)

What does this spectacle of human misery and desperation remind you of? Why, the only other place where a developed Western country has a land

frontier with a poor country: the border between the United States and  Mexico.

That border is hundreds of times longer than the twin fences, only ten km. (6 miles) long, that surround Ceuta and Melilla, so the bands of desperate economic migrants from Mexico and Central America have no need for scaling ladders. They just have to avoid US border patrols and not die of heat and thirst in the desert. Every day, thousands make it.

Just as the Mexican government promises to try to keep illegal migrants away from its side of the border, Morocco is promising to cooperate with Spain in keeping them away from Ceuta and Melilla. And Morocco, at least, means it. The young Guinean mentioned above was arrested and sent back to Algeria twice by Moroccan police — but each time he just walked across the border again, and eventually he made it.

Just as the United States is strengthening the border defences in the thickly populated western section between San Diego and Tijuana (and extending the barrier far out into the Pacific Ocean), so Spain is planning

to double the height of its border fences to 6 metres (20 feet). But nobody believes that the new US fence will cut illegal immigration seriously; it will just push it further inland. Same for the higher Spanish fences: as a local aid worker said, it is like “putting fences in the sea.”

Except that this pose of helplessness is a steaming heap of nonsense. If you put a really serious fence in the sea, as they are now doing off San Diego, it won’t stop water, but it WILL stop people in small boats. (The Coast Guard can stop the bigger boats farther out.) And if you build a really serious barrier on land — like the old one between East Germany and West Germany, or the one that Israel is building today in the occupied West Bank — it WILL stop 99.99 percent of the people who want to cross.

No barrier will stop people unless you are prepared to protect it by force, of course, but the better the barrier, the fewer the casualties.

Nobody knows how many thousands of people die on the US-Mexican border each year, but it is surely many more than the death toll along the Berlin Wall during the whole 27 years of its existence.

The US government could build and man an effective physical barrier along the whole of the Mexican border, allowing only legal immigrants to

pass through, for a tenth of what it is spending this year in Iraq. Why does it not do so? Sheer hypocrisy and cynicism: US business and agriculture want the ultra-cheap workers that only illegal immigration provides, but the government must make a show of trying to protect the border (without being too efficient about it). So potential illegal immigrants know that those who survive the crossing will find work, and they keep coming.

At the moment, much the same applies in Spain, where the current (incredibly stupid) law says that the police can only deport illegal immigrants if it proves their identity and nationality before a court within forty days. So the illegals, knowing this, destroy their documents, and after forty days they are free to go anywhere in the “Schengen zone”, including France, Germany, Italy, the Low Countries and much of Scandinavia. No wonder they keep coming.

Spain will probably change that stupid law one of these days, because its economy does not actually depend heavily on below-minimum-wage illegal immigrants. It will take a lot longer in the United States.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 10. (“Spain…week”; “Just…made it”; and “No barrier…existence”)