Abdelaziz Zeriouh was 17 years old when he illegally crossed the border between Nador, Morocco, and the Spanish city of Melilla. He was in search of a better future but was soon apprehended and, being an unaccompanied minor, he was placed under state guardianship. Upon turning 18, he was granted a residence permit in Spain, but it did not allow him to work. Without the means to support himself or to study, he started to travel between various cities on the peninsula where he found work in the so-called black market. Without documents, he found himself exposed to exploitation and precarious working conditions.
His situation is not unique, as, from the moment a person enters Spanish territory without prior permission or by crossing the border without going through a checkpoint, they are considered an irregular immigrant. As such, the law foresees their expulsion from the country unless they regularize their situation, a procedure that, in the best of cases, can take between two and three years.
During this period, migrants are denied social rights, and the vast majority work illegally. Additionally, a high percentage of men and women end up in the hands of human trafficking mafias, which force them into domestic work, begging on the streets, or prostitution. Abdelaziz experienced this while working as a fruit picker in the fields during harvest seasons.
Stability through formation
A change in the law is now facilitating some things for migrants who have been in Spain for more than two years and want to learn a trade that will enable them to obtain a work contract later on. This new process is called “Arraigo por formación,” or establishment through training, and, according to data from the Permanent Observatory of Immigration in Spain, it has granted over 15,000 residence permits in the last year.
“If a person commits to training in a specific field, this allows them to receive, initially, a residence permit. Later, if they complete their studies and obtain a diploma, they can benefit not only from a residence permit but also a work permit, enabling them to find employment in the specialized sector,” explains Araceli Navarro, a social worker from the ProLibertas Foundation. This organization is affiliated with the Trinitarian Order and has a School of Training and Hotel Entrepreneurship in Algeciras. Abdelaziz received comprehensive training there and, aged 22, he now works regularly as a waiter at “La Esquina,” a well-known seafood restaurant in the city.
“I managed to do my internship here, and it went very well, with the best boss I’ve ever had, with the best colleagues, in the best company I’ve ever worked for in my life,” comments Abdelaziz, who is not the only migrant on the staff. Everyone has a contract and proper documentation. “The important thing is that they come to work. I try to help everyone, and already eight or nine [migrants] have passed through here, but they need to commit to the work. I ask only for that,” says Juan Moreno, the restaurant owner.
Migrant Center or Prison?
But it’s not only good news for those assisting migrants. The inauguration of a new Immigration Detention Center (cie) in Algeciras is planned for this month. It’s an enormous facility where migrants from the region with ongoing expulsion proceedings will be detained.
There are seven such centres in Spain where individuals who have committed not a crime, but the administrative offence of not having proper documents, or have entered the country through an unauthorized passage, are deprived of their liberty. Several ngo s and Church associations oppose these facilities, which operate under a prison regime run by the police, and where migrants can stay for a maximum of 60 days, after which they usually either return to their home country or end up on the streets because not all expulsions are executed.
The new cie in Algeciras is being built with funds from the European Union, which, according to official information, would exceed 26 million euros. It has been presented as a model detention centre for migrants because it would have recreational areas, as well as permanent health and social assistance. However, according to lawyer Jesús Mancilla, a volunteer for the “Algeciras Acoge” Foundation, none of these facilities or services is sufficient to make humane a space that is considered inadequate and entirely unnecessary.
“In practice, cies are run like a prison where people have set times for being in their cell, a time for being in the courtyard, a time for meals, and a time to return to their cell. While, by definition, cies must not have the features of a prison, people need to know that cies are prisons for immigrants!” argues Mancilla. Therefore, his association, along with others, is calling for the structure not to be authorized. Amongst other things, he notes, it has been built just a few meters from the Botafuegos prison.
“The imprint and symbolism given to this building, located next to a prison, make it a real prison. So, for public opinion, it is difficult not to associate the cie with a prison for people who have done something wrong when, in reality, it is people simply migrating in search of a better life,” observes the lawyer.
Threat of xenophobia
Currently, another cie in Algeciras is located in the old La Piñera prison, a prison that was closed due to the precarious conditions of its facilities. Although this detention centre has space for 60 people, Mancilla claims that it has never accommodated more than 30 migrants at a time. Therefore, there is great concern about the opening of a new centre capable of accommodating 500 people, as Mancilla believes authorities would be forced to fill the cie to justify the multimillion-dollar investment, potentially unleashing a wave of xenophobic persecution.
The chaplain of the cie in Algeciras, Father Livio Pegoraro, coordinator of Pastoral Care of Migrants in the Campo de Gibraltar and Ceuta region, is also concerned. The Scalabrinian priest meets with detainees every week in the courtyard of the dilapidated former prison to speak with anyone who wishes to do so, regardless of their religious belief, as the majority are Muslim.
“These people often suffer trauma because they find themselves in a kind of prison, separated from their families, work and life projects, and are sent back to their country because of administrative matters. Among them, I have met people who have been in Spain for 30 years. So, what does it mean for them to return to their country of origin?” Pegoraro wonders.
Therefore, the chaplain notes that using cies as a means to regulate the migration flow is wrong because it “criminalizes migrants simply for being migrants,” while, he recalls, “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that a person has the right to move freely.” But the chaplain reiterates his optimism and says he has not lost hope for a better scenario as he takes stock of the great moral, spiritual and human energy demonstrated by migrants that gives them strength and perseverance. “Decrees, debates, and prejudices will not end this situation. Life is stronger than anything else,” declares Father Livio, who had just been served at table with great professionality by Abdelaziz Zeriouh, in a restaurant in Algeciras.
By Felipe Herrera-Espaliat
special envoy to Algeciras, Spain