Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Treacherous Hearts and Empty Spaces: Practices of Everyday Securitisation at the Spain/Morocco Border



Time to read

6 Minutes

Guest post by Daniel Fisher, PhD student in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh. Daniel’s research examines the technologies of control used to enact Europe’s borders and their effects on undocumented migrants and refugees. His work has already taken him on journeys to Ceuta, Fnideq, Warsaw and various cities in the United Kingdom. Daniel is on Twitter @DX_Fisher. This is the sixth instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'Seeking Refuge in Europe' organised by Monish Bhatia.

The border crossing point between Ceuta and Morocco at El Tarajal is a cacophony of car exhausts, car horns and the chatter of thousands of people attempting to cross the border on foot in the midday sun. Situated in northern Morocco, opposite the Rock of Gibraltar, the autonomous city is most famous for the metallic fence that separates Europe from the Global South. Though administered by Spain, the city depends economically on its Moroccan hinterland, so an ‘exemption’ was written into the Schengen Agreement allowing visa-less (day) access for Moroccan citizens from the neighbouring province. As a result, about 30,000 Moroccan citizens legally cross the border into Ceuta each day, most of whom work as day labourers for the Spanish citizens of the city. Many, especially older women, also cross the border once or twice a day carrying large (50kg+) packs of shop-bought commodities to sell on the Moroccan side. They are, however, restricted from staying overnight within the enclave and strict port security (including passport checks) ensures that only those with EU citizenship or the correct visa can pass to the mainland. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the border crossing point there operate also the gangs who, for a cost of roughly €4000, promise to smuggle a person across the border inside hidden compartments of their cars – often dangerously close to moving/hot components. Despite this option and the barely organised chaos of El Tarajal, most attempts at reaching Ceuta by those without the correct documentation occur either at the barbed double border fence or by patera (small rubber or wooden boats). Indeed, the pictures of bloodied migrants sat atop the barbed wire fences or wrapped in Red Cross blankets are now famous and re-circulate throughout the media and Twittersphere with regularity.

In theory, there is a safer way to reach the Spanish city and the protection it affords. Hidden amidst the four lanes of traffic, police station, guard posts and the Integrated System of External Vigilance (SIVE) control station there is a small asylum centre. It is situated in the ‘no-man’s land’ beyond the Moroccan border control station, yet before that of the Spanish Guardia Civil. While the asylum centre has been operational for over a decade, it was recently renovated and re-opened by the Interior Minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, following the Spanish government’s formalisation of the law concerning devoluciones en caliente (which allows the expulsion of migrants from between the two border fences to Morocco).

‘Fernando’ (pseudonym), a gruff police chief, acts as my bemused guide on my brief tour of the asylum centre. Although I had primarily wanted to speak to him about the police’s role in finger printing and controlling migrants’ mobility following their arrival in the city, I decided to ask Fernando for permission to see the asylum centre as my entry had been blocked by the police on duty the day before. Inside the centre, there is a reception area with a water cooler, a coffee table and a selection of International Organisation for Migration refugee information booklets. Located next to the reception area are three small interview rooms, complete with computers and yet more IOM booklets. IOM posters also lie haphazardly on the ground of the centre, as the special paint used on the walls means the glue apparently won’t stick.


The asylum centre at El Tarajal located behind a barbed-wire wall between the Spanish and Moroccan checkpoints (Photo: Daniel Fisher)

The asylum centre is also completely devoid of human activity. Indeed, according to Fernando, not a single asylum claim has ever been made at the centre. Moreover, it is unlikely that there ever will be. ‘It’s a joke,’ he explains, ‘the Moroccan guards will never let someone without papers through, their law forbids it.’ Moreover, an asylum application at the asylum centre would have to be completed in just 12 days, while in Ceuta the process can take a number of months (also potentially allowing the person to transfer to the mainland). If someone were to get past the Moroccan guards in a car or with false papers, therefore, then it would be in their best interests to pass the Spanish guards too and gain entry to the city. The asylum centre at El Tarajal, therefore, currently functions solely as a propaganda tool used by the Spanish government to defend its rule change and claim that asylum seekers need not risk their lives at sea or by climbing the fences.

In contrast, the asylum centre in Melilla (Ceuta’s twin Spanish sister in the East) has been used by just under a hundred Syrian migrants Fernando noted. ‘For the moment there are more Syrians in that part of Morocco,’ he muses, ‘and unlike the sub-Saharans they can perhaps convince the Moroccan guards with their fake passports.’ Even in Melilla, therefore, the asylum centre is also underused and its existence behind the Moroccan border checks makes accessing it almost impossible for those who need it most.

Upon leaving the empty asylum centre, Fernando and I strike up a conversation about border control technologies (the main interest of my PhD) and their uses in Ceuta. I mention the heartbeat monitors at the port, used to check for stowaways. ‘We have those here too,’ says Fernando and points towards what appears to be an empty police box at the side of one of the four car lanes. Inside I find a long yellow cable which looks more like a long plug for an electric car, rather than a heartbeat monitor worth thousands of euro. ‘We try to use it whenever we can,’ explains Fernando but there are numerous problems with deploying the device in El Tarajal. To work correctly, the technology requires the police to separate a suspicious-looking car from the queue and to attach the sensors in a quiet locale. The sheer volume of cars needing to be checked and the aforementioned cacophony of the location mean that at the time of my visit (summer 2014), the police had yet to detect a single person with their heartbeat detector at El Tarajal.

The asylum centre and heartbeat monitor at El Tarajal serve as reminders of the fact that the border is not just Spain’s to control and manipulate as it pleases. Responsibility over its enactment and ‘success’ also lies with the Moroccan border guards, whose actions and tactics will, in turn, greatly impact upon the ways in which Spain can control the border. While the Moroccan guards, therefore, are responsible for prohibiting access to the asylum centre, their cooperation is also heavily relied upon by the Guardia Civil in securing the city’s infamous border fences. Yet the Spanish border guards have little to no direct control over their Moroccan counterparts. Similarly, the proper functioning of border control technologies depends on the everyday conditions of the border. The guards are unable to control the number of people that will cross the border at El Tarajal each day as the city is reliant upon the nearby Moroccan citizenry. Nor can the police re-design the physical geography of the crossing point to create the necessary conditions in which the heartbeat monitors can be used successfully.

The border assemblage visible at El Tarajal is, in other words, not a ‘seamless whole’. Instead it ‘take[s] form through the interaction of the capacities of its parts’ and their subsequent interactions with other actors ‘on the ground’. Indeed the border assemblage is constantly changing, as new technologies and actors are added to the mix, while others are removed. Moreover, the failure of the heartbeat monitors also serves as a reminder of the importance of speed at the border. Ultimately any form of automated sorting technology must contend with modern borders’ needs to remain porous and open towards ‘good circulation’. Yet while the movement of those considered bona fide is privileged, it is almost always those with the least power who are further slowed. As noted even by Fernando, it is unlikely that the asylum centre will ever see a migrant from sub-Saharan Africa enter through its dusty doors.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Fisher, D. (2017) Treacherous Hearts and Empty Spaces: Practices of Everyday Securitisation at the Spain/Morocco Border. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/05/treacherous (Accessed [date]).

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