MELILLA , SPAIN
It is midnight and nine-year-old Wahib hides near the port of Melilla, a tiny Spanish territory on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast.
Like scores of other street children here, he is prepared to risk everything to reach mainland Europe.
“No entry, danger of falling,” reads a sign on a fence blocking access to the port.
But the fence is scaled every night by boys doing the “risky”, as they call their dangerous game of hide-and-seek with security forces and guard dogs.
A Moroccan young boy sleeps inside a cave of a breakwater near the port of the Spanish enclave of Melilla. AFP
“It means sneaking onto a boat without being seen, without being detected by heartbeat sensors or sniffed out by dogs,” explains Sara Olcina, a volunteer for the Harraga association that tries to help the minors.
Wahib is one of 50 to 100 foreign minors, mainly from Morocco, who sleep on the streets of Melilla after sneaking into the Spanish city with hopes of getting onto a boat, according to a recent report by Madrid’s Comillas Pontifical University.
Living in caves, filth
But the road to Europe is treacherous and the youths’ game of hide-and-seek takes many forms.
Some climb over the fence and descend into the port with a rope. Others cling to the undercarriage of trucks waiting to board ferries for mainland Spain.
Attempts to cross the Mediterranean also include hiding among cargo and clambering onto ferries with the aid of mooring ropes.
There are no estimates of how many youngsters actually make it illegally from Melilla into mainland Europe.
Wahib fell in his last failed bid and sports a badly-healed wound on the back of his head.
The “risky” caused at least four deaths in 2015 and 2016 in Melilla, according to local media, including two Moroccan minors who drowned as they tried to approach a boat.
Olcina remembers a group of children who lived in the streets last year.
“The youngest was seven, the eldest 10,” she says.
“Many boarded boats illegally.”
Some children live in difficult-to-access caves facing the Mediterranean which they reach by making a perilous climb, sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes.
Others spend their nights in filthy hiding places under bridges or on public benches.
Many of the youngsters sniff glue to get high, making it easier to take their “risky” activities as a game.
Bilal, 14, has a cheerful face and wears a filthy sweatshirt decorated with a rabbit.
He has already made “three attempts this week.”
His older brother, he says, made it across to mainland Spain. Originally from the Moroccan city of Fez, he arrived in Melilla, an 80,000-strong city, in January.
But he spent just “four days” at a reception centre for minors before he escaped. Nearby, one of his friends is covered in grease from a truck after a failed “risky” attempt, a desperate expression in his eyes.
“We can’t understand how the government of a country like Spain can allow this,” says Jose Palazon, the president of local migrant rights group, Prodein.
He notes the “distress of these children, who are victims of groups that control people on the streets, who sell them glue, who make them beg or steal.”
Melilla and its sister city Ceuta, located some 400 kilometres further northwest along the coast, have been under Spanish control since the 15th century but are claimed by Morocco.
The only two land borders between Africa and the European Union, they have become infamous for the fortified fences that separate them from Morocco, which migrants routinely try to climb over.
Some of the children say it is fairly easy to enter Melilla by hiding among the crush of Moroccans who work as porters transporting goods across the border every day. Once on Spanish land, they are taken to youth reception centres.
The number of unaccompanied foreign minors arriving in the city has soared over the past two years, overcrowding the centres, says Daniel Ventura, a government official in charge of social protection.
The centres house close to 500 minors whom they are tasked to feed, clothe and educate.
Most are enrolled in school or work training programmes, according to Ventura. But the bulk of the minors live in a centre set up in a rundown former military fort, which the media is not allowed to visit.
By law, minors cannot be sent back to their country. And when they reach 18, they are entitled to Spanish nationality if they have been in a centre for at least two years.
But associations say that children flee the centres because they lose confidence in the system and decide to take matters into their own hands.
“They see that Spanish authorities no longer deliver Spanish ID documents to many who reach the age of majority,” says Palazon, a claim contested by government social protection official Ventura.
Abdelali, who says he is 17 and from Marrakech, sleeps under a bridge after he was kicked out of a reception centre for minors that concluded from a bone scan that he was 18.
“My friend managed to get on a boat, I fell,” he says, his arm in a sling. “As soon as I get better, I will ‘do the risky’ again.”