Mohammed was twenty-six and working at a clothing store in a working-class satellite of Algiers when a friend suggested they try to reach Europe together. He decided to go for a few reasons. One was to avoid compulsory military service, as Mohammed, who has a narrow face, slight frame, and neatly trimmed beard, told me. But he also left for the same reasons most young people seized by wanderlust decide to pick up and go: a desire for adventure, self-knowledge, and freedom. He imagined a better quality of life too, of course. He wanted to finally see the Europe he’d long glimpsed on TV and social media; there was a woman in England he’d been chatting with online; and he hoped to finally meet his father, who’d immigrated to Belgium when Mohammed was still an infant. His life at home was bearable, he said. But he wanted something more.
That was four years before I met him in Melilla, a five-square-mile speck of Spanish territory located along the northeast coast of Morocco, where Mohammed had been stranded ever since, trying to navigate the administrative maze of the Spanish migration system. Most afternoons, he and a half dozen other young men sat in a loose circle of mismatched camping chairs or flattened milk cartons outside a “temporary” migrant housing center. Behind them, beyond a golf course, stood a towering, twenty-foot-high fence topped with razor wire, separating them from Morocco.
As part of Spain, Melilla is in the EU but not in its Schengen zone of hassle-free travel. I went there first in March of 2021 to report on a Spanish government plan to make the barriers higher while removing some razor wire, which it claimed would make the border more secure but also more “humane.” What I found was an entirely different story: a generation of young men for whom the greatest barrier to starting a new life was not physical but bureaucratic. They were effectively held prisoner by a byzantine application process so interminable that people had begun scaling the fences — to escape and return to their home countries.
Melilla had become a de facto holding cell for asylum applicants — and a symbol of two increasingly common trends in how rich countries handle asylum cases. Refugees are detained “offshore” while their applications wind through the system; wait times drag on as applications pile up, and “host nations” seem to deter future migrants by making those who are already there more miserable.
Amid this systematic erosion of the modern refugee convention, accurate portrayals of the people who risk everything to reach a new country are essential to combat xenophobic populism. And yet, as I reported my story in Melilla, interviewing young men, some of them still teenagers, who had traveled thousands of miles to risk their lives crossing a border fence, I felt the discomfort of prodding them to recount traumatic experiences so that they could be cast as sympathetic characters in a magazine. In this, mine was a role not too dissimilar from the one asylum judges would play, if the men’s paperwork ever made it through the system.
Mohammed, who spoke in rapid, expressive bursts between draws on a cigarette, knew that his appeal depended on his ability to demonstrate his own story of suffering. But he was also frank that his motivations for leaving were as much about what he hoped to find in Europe as they were about what he was escaping back home. He seemed to sense he stood little chance of being granted the right to stay, but he felt unable to concede that he had spent so much time here for nothing.
“I have [wasted] the best years of my life here,” he said with a sigh.
While Mohammed was stuck in Melilla, I’d moved across two continents, changed jobs, and moved in with my partner. He and I were the same age.
Facing east across the Mediterranean, modern Melilla is built on the ruins of a trading outpost ruled variously by half a dozen civilizations over thousands of years. Its central square, the Plaza of Four Cultures, is dedicated to the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu roots of the town. The old city is centered around a military fort, built by Spanish colonists. Today the border fences trace the line of demarcation that was first established as the limit of Spanish cannon fire. Looking out from the military fort on a clear day, you see not Europe but the outline of the North African coast fading into the horizon as Morocco gives way to Algeria.
In the shadow of the fort lies Melilla’s port, through which flows a steady stream of goods and people from the mainland. For those without the right to travel, however, the Mediterranean is yet another border. Around the time of my visit, thousands of attempts were made each year to access the port by swimming or climbing aboard moving trucks, a tactic its practitioners called, in a telling example of understatement, “risky.” In March of 2021, police discovered forty-one people trying to reach Europe by hiding among broken glass and toxic ash in cargo on a ship headed for the mainland. And not long before I arrived in Melilla, several bodies were recovered near the shore. Neither the police nor the local government could tell me exactly how many. Despite having detailed figures on would-be migrants prevented from crossing the border, which are published monthly, the interior ministry told me it had no figures on how many people swim into the territory or die trying. Eventually, by way of documents obtained through a Spanish information-transparency law, I learned that the bodies of twenty-three people were recovered from the beach or waters of Melilla between 2013 and 2021 (though the figure ignores bodies found in Morocco).
At Melilla’s land border with Morocco, meanwhile, access to asylum is conditioned not only by nationality but also, in many cases, by race. Since 2015, people from sub-Saharan Africa have been effectively turned away from asylum offices along Morocco’s borders. Instead, they must either smuggle themselves in vehicles as stowaways or scale Melilla’s fences, at obvious risk. Earlier this year, at least twenty-three people died in clashes between Moroccan security forces and a group of people trying to reach Spain.
Many of the North Africans I met in Melilla, however, just walked in. Moroccans from neighboring provinces have the right to enter the territory, and North Africans with the means can often purchase fake Moroccan documents to cross the border before applying for asylum or as economic migrants. But once inside, bureaucracy takes over, governed less by prima facie considerations of an individual’s case than by the petty politics of Europe. Spanish police, who control the asylum process, are often reluctant to process asylum applications from Moroccans in the LGBTQ+ community, one refugee investigator told me, while Tunisian applications are deliberately slow-walked. “The police don’t want to transfer them to the mainland because their destination is France,” he told me. “Spain faces diplomatic pressure from France and the EU as a whole to transfer as few people as possible.”
Globally, asylum processing has slowed as nativist governments or policies have strengthened. There is also a high cost for those who spend extended periods in the migrant center, known by its Spanish acronym CETI. “Indefinitely prolonging one’s stay in the CETI or other temporary facilities impacts on physical and mental health, increases level of anxiety and aggression, and decreases the ability to take charge of one’s life and dependents,” according to SJM.
That’s how Mohammed, then only thirty years old, became an accidental elder statesman in the overcrowded migrant center. For many of the men in the center, Mohammed was a source of advice on how to best stick it out in the territory, at the mercy of a sluggish asylum process. But he was also a warning.
Speaking fluent English peppered with idioms that he had picked up from watching countless hours of British reality TV, Mohammed was garrulous and welcoming. He loved English football and peculiar, seemingly random points of trivia, which I only later learned were the fruit of his time spent planning a future life in the UK. (“Why is London usually warmer than the rest of England, even the south?” “There are lots of jobs in hotels at the moment in London, aren’t there?”) His friendships with other people in the center, and a side hustle fixing mobile phones, seemed to lend him purpose and keep at bay the bigger questions about all the time he’d spent in Melilla — about when he might leave, and where to.
He knew that asylum seekers who made it to the mainland were free to travel while their claims were processed, but he also knew that the swimming and smuggling routes were risky. In June of 2018, Mohammed decided to file his application from Melilla. It was a tough decision: once a person’s application is admitted for processing, they are safe from deportation but can’t leave the territory. There was a chance of being moved, officially, from the overcrowded center in Melilla to the mainland, but Mohammed assumed he wouldn’t be that lucky. Even people whose applications had been admitted for processing — and who should have been able, by law, to travel freely to continental Europe — were often stopped by police from boarding boats or planes to the mainland.
Some days, Mohammed thought about giving up, but he couldn’t go home the way he came, even if he wanted to. Smoking as he watched young men wander out of the center and huddle in groups, listening to Algerian trap on their phones, he turned briefly introspective. He acknowledged that he may not reach Europe, that he may never meet his father. “If he dies, he dies, and I won’t meet him,” Mohammed resolved before trailing off. “But right now he is alive.”
On an early morning in March of 2021, he and others went to CETI, looking for updates on their cases. They went often, at least once a week, and they went in big groups so that they couldn’t be ignored, clustering outside the office under the glare of the low early-spring sun. That day, the staff told them there was nothing they could do; it wasn’t up to them. And that was it, until the next week.
To see himself through these routine disappointments, Mohammed cultivated an almost Pollyannaish insistence that things would work out. When, on occasion, he allowed himself to acknowledge his frustration at time lost, he quickly pivoted. “But it’s not too bad,” he would say, forcing a smile and taking another drag on his cigarette. “You have to be strong. Without that, you risk falling apart. If you don’t have faith, you change into another person. You go crazy here after so many years.”
For others, the descent into hopelessness had already begun. Boredom and frustration occasionally boiled over into violence. Fights broke out. Long, dull days on the scrubland were punctuated by occasional outbursts. One day, I watched as a shirtless young man, covered in scars and hoarse from shouting, tried to cut himself with a broken bottle; several of his peers restrained him, forcefully pulling the bottle from his hands and scolding him like exasperated parents would a difficult child. I watched as Mohammed talked to him quietly for a few seconds, then kissed him on both cheeks before ushering him back to CETI.
Amir wasn’t crazy, or violent, but he was edging toward hopelessness. At thirty-one, he was tall and initially reserved. Scrolling on his phone, he showed me photographs of his hometown and selfies in which he looked healthy and athletic, his muscular frame contrasting with the skinny man in front of me. Sensing my reaction, he smiled knowingly. “That was before I smoked,” he said. A former judo champion, Amir told me that without equipment and space to train, he had chosen to stop. Though he spent hours on Instagram, he never posted photos of his life in Melilla.
Amir had been in Melilla before. Years earlier, he’d managed to sneak into the port, swim out to a boat, and stow away, hitching a lift to mainland Spain. He grinned mischievously when he recounted the story. That journey had ended when he returned to Algeria to deal with a family crisis, he told me, and a few years later, he decided to head for Spain once more.
But he had no interest in repeating the same journey on his second run in the detention center, he said. It was too dangerous. This time, Amir told me, he had been granted asylum; he was only waiting for permission to travel to the mainland. But his asylum had been approved months ago, and he had no idea when he would be able to leave.
We watched YouTube videos of an Algerian singer who, Amir said, was catapulted to stardom after clips of him singing in his taxi went viral. Amir lifted his gaze from his phone and jerked his head around to look at the golf course behind us. “I could take a photo here and look like I’m in Europe,” he said, then mimed snapping a selfie. “But then,” he continued, gesturing at the litter-strewn strip of scrubland before us, “you turn around and it’s Africa.” He laughed.
Toward the end of my week in Melilla, Mohammed suggested making a rare trip downtown to the mall. As we walked into the center of town, heat rose from the pavement, and the taste of petrol fumes filled my mouth. Over the hum of passing traffic, Mohammed talked about his family. He missed his mother, his brother, and his three sisters back in Algeria. When he speaks to his mother, he lies to spare her worrying about him. “I tell her everyone spends years here. That the center is like a resort, that we have a swimming pool,” he said, laughing.
As we approached the mall, abandoned lots and housing projects gave way to elegant cafés and landscaped parks. Display windows promised comfort, ease, and affluence. But it was Sunday, we realized too late. The stores were closed. We had to make do with sitting outside, looking in.
I wanted to understand what made Mohammed stay in Melilla for years, when others turned back. He spoke about life in Algeria, the dearth of opportunity, occasional police harassment, and crime. If he returned, he would be forced into military service, he said. But Mohammed is not political or a member of a persecuted minority group, and as a Spanish lawyer told me when we talked before my trip, people without either background rarely meet the criteria for asylum status. Mohammed knows this but hopes he will get lucky anyway.
That afternoon, Mohammed showed me a clip of one of his favorite reality TV talent shows. In this particular episode, an “emotional magician” retold a nakedly sentimental personal story through a series of magic tricks and ultimately won the hearts of the dispassionate judges.
On my last day at the migrant center, I found Mohammed in his usual spot on the scrubland in front of the center. There was no traffic, save for the occasional military patrols lumbering past on their way back to the nearby base. Bands of unaccompanied teenage migrants, some of them as young as fourteen, wandered in packs along roads with no sidewalks. The names and countries of origin graffitied on underpasses and abandoned buildings of the town offered an informal registry of those who had gone before them, with single-word demands in misspelled Spanish: salida (escape), libertad (freedom).
We stood there for some time as the evening cooled. Mohammed suggested that maybe he would reach Barcelona one day and look me up. A droning sound overhead interrupted our conversation. We turned in unison toward a passenger plane that shuttles locals between Melilla and the mainland, and we watched as it came in to land.