Ceuta, Spain: When she first heard that thousands of people were flooding across the border from Morocco into Spain’s Ceuta enclave, Gloria Nisrin admits she panicked.
“To be honest I was a bit scared because some people were saying they wanted to remove the (Spanish) settlers from Ceuta,” said this 38-year-old resident of the tiny Spanish territory in North Africa that is also claimed by Morocco.
“But when I saw them taking off their wet clothes and walking through the streets in their underwear, some of us gave them clothes,” she said.
“I just couldn’t see them like that, walking around with their feet all damaged from going barefoot.”
When an unprecedented 8,000 people crossed from Morocco into Ceuta earlier this week, the images made global headlines but sparked fear in this enclave of 84,000 people, where many shops and bars closed for fear of looting.
“It caused a real sense of panic, particularly among women and children who didn’t dare go out because they were afraid,” said a 70-year-old pensioner who did not want to give his name.
“Businesses closed as well because these people came empty-handed — they need somewhere to go to the toilet, they need food, toiletries, everything, so they were afraid they would come and rob them.”
Most of the arrivals were young men and teenagers, who swam to the beaches of Ceuta to find work and escape the grinding poverty, unemployment, and hunger back home in Morocco which has been worsened by the Covid pandemic.
Penniless but euphoric, the crowds surged into Ceuta fanning out across the city before Spain ramped up security, deploying troops along the beach and sending thousands of them back.
Fear of Covid infections
Although the Spanish government says 6,000 have been sent back, another 2,000 or so remain inside the enclave, among them 800 minors, official figures suggest.
By Thursday morning, countless groups of youngsters could still be seen aimlessly wandering the streets of Ceuta, many clutching plastic bags of food or blankets handed out by good samaritans or NGOs, which also provided face masks.
“I was afraid because there were all these poor creatures running through the streets, they didn’t know where they were going, they were just trying to get away from the police,” said Rafaela Callejas, a housewife in her 50s.
“I wasn’t scared that they would do anything.. but because there’s a global virus that has killed a lot of people,” she told AFP.
On Wednesday evening, a handful of Red Cross medics wearing full protective gear could be seen carrying out Covid tests on scores of minors at a long trestle table outside a warehouse complex by the border.
But others who had entered the city in the initial wave were not tested and although most had masks, many weren’t wearing them or had them pulled down.
“Put your mask on!” snapped an elderly man in Spanish as he walked past two youngsters with their masks under their chin.
‘They’ll start stealing’
Although some appeared moved by their plight, offering food or clothes, or handing out small change, others were angered by their presence in the city, predicting that the situation could quickly turn nasty.
“They’re just wandering around the city and as the days go by, crime is going to increase,” said Luis Duenas, a 39-year-old local businessman.
“They need to eat and drink and (without money) they can’t do that, so what are they doing to do? They’ll start stealing,” predicted this former soldier.
“So the city is going through a huge crisis and the problem is that we are helpless because the Spanish government doesn’t give us any help,” he said, pointing the finger at the government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
He said Spain’s two tiny enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, both of which are perched on the northern coast of Africa, had been abandoned by the government, describing them as “the forgotten cities”.
“They throw us a bit of money from time to time, but when they have to take real action, they never do.”