A Childhood Lost in the Cracks of Europe's Border

To escape a life of misery takes more than climbing a fence.

By Kasia Masser / About the author and
Jurga Meskauskaite / About the author

Not safe from harm

Bleeding and desperate, Fatima was just 13 when she was found by the Spanish border patrol. She was trapped inside the coiled barbed wire fence which lines Melilla's periphery. The spikes, which had dug into her flesh and a chain wrapped around her ankle made it impossible for her to get through.

Scared and bewildered, she was lifted out and the chain around her ankle was removed. She was taken into the care of Spanish social services, whose reports stated that she had run away from her home in a nearby Moroccan village where she had been raped and beaten.

Three days later she was handed over to Moroccan authorities who took her home. A report by the Spanish social services, concerning the repatriation, stated simply that the best place for the child was in her home.

That was her first ejection from Spanish soil, and perhaps the one and only chance to help her. Now 22 she lives illegally in Melilla and works as a prostitute. There is no way of knowing of how many times she has been deported. She gets deported each time the police pick her up.

She was first raped by her father when she was 12 and as she describes how a chain had been placed on her leg by him. She lifts her leg to show the scars on her ankle.

"He used it to shackle me to a pole," she says in a flat matter-of- fact tone. "So I ran away."

After being returned to her parents it wasn't long before she escaped again. This time she made it onto the streets of Melilla where she found that to feed herself she had to work. By the age of 15 she had given birth to a boy. She kept the child for as long as she could but she eventually gave him up to a woman who approached her on the street.

"I had to do it," she explains. "No one would fuck me. The men would come and they'd see the baby and give me a few coins and walk away. I couldn't even afford to feed him."

fatimag: Sheltering for night in an ITM booth
Home for the night on ATM floor
She doesn't know where her son is now and her future prospects are uncertain. Despite years of trying to stay in Spain, each time she slips into Melilla she is deported again. She is the face of a system which extends its protection and ideals of human rights to an imaginary line in the sand fortified by steel.

She has little prospect of being granted Spanish citizenship despite the fact that she has spent most of her life within its borders.

Moroccan children, or unaccompanied foreign minors as they are referred to in official reports, who live in Melilla for several years before their 18th birthday are entitled to Spanish papers once they come of age, if there is sufficient documentation of their presence in Melilla.

The argument is one of cultural identity. Whether a young person has lived in Spain long enough to have become accustomed to European culture and its set of values.

Police and social services' reports are used as the needed proof of a minor's status in Melilla.

"Fatima has a big file," says Jose Palacon a teacher and member of Prodein, a voluntary organisation who fight for the rights of North African youths in Spain.

"But she came to me too late, there is little I can do for her now," Palacon says. "I have argued with the officials here, I have shown them the documents, but they say that she is Moroccan and has no right to Spanish papers."

When asked about this particular case, the Director of Social Services in Melilla, Jose Antonio Vallez Munoz, shakes his head.

"Such a case would not be possible these days," he says. "Each child's case is checked as best we can. We try our best to trace parents and family but sometimes we have to depend on Moroccan authorities then it is up to them.

"If we know of sexual abuse we won't send a child back to the person hurting them," he adds.

But it is difficult to say how this will help the many children yo-yoing back and forth across the border.

fencegood: It is a twin 3,5 m. hight barrier the blacks need to jump
Europe's border with Morocco
Munoz has only been in office for 10 months and is only just beginning to take the reigns. His powers do not extend to the question of citizenship for children who have grown up in Spain.

"We look after children," Munoz says. "Once a child turns 18 they become the responsibility of the central government offices. They decide who gets citizenship and who doesn't. It becomes an immigration question."

In the meantime, Fatima will be deported again, but the police on the border know her and before long she will be back again working the streets.

Name has been changed to protect her identity.

See a map of Melilla, click here

See a newspaper from Melilla, click here

Read other stories from this author;

Melilla- Cashing in on the Border, click here

Jumping in to Europe, click here

Street Urchins of Europe's Deep South, click here

Read what locals write, click on the postcards: