Perilous lives of runaways Europe does not want
Street children who flee Morocco face beatings and abuse in Spanish enclave Guardian
Friday June 15, 2001
Street children who flee Morocco face beatings and abuse in Spanish enclaveGiles Tremlett in Ceuta
GuardianIsmael, just 14 years old, emerged from behind the breakwater in the Spanish port of Ceuta with blood running from his nose, half a dozen fresh cuts on his arm and a purple bruise swelling up on his elbow.
"They have just beaten me up and taken all my money. When the police came they also hit me," he said, glancing nervously towards where his attackers had run away.
Ismael is one of a new breed of European street children. He and his friends live and sleep in the warren of holes between the giant concrete cubes that form Ceuta’s breakwater. Charity workers say they live by begging or stealing and suffer violence, sexual abuse, police harassment and official neglect.
Up to 1,000 children who have fled the poverty of Morocco are to be found in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the north African coast 15 miles from mainland Spain, and in such cities as Madrid and Barcelona. A few have made it to France or Italy.
Some, like Ismael, who came to Ceuta from him home in Tetouan more than a year ago, live rough. Many more are housed in Spanish children’s homes, although the local authorities complain that they cannot cope with the flood.
"They took me to the San Antonio children’s home, but the bigger children hit me, so I came back here," Ismael said, sinking his nose into a dirty sock. He swore that he was just mopping up the blood, but it is more likely that the sock contained "cola", a strong glue which many street children sniff.
This time he has been lucky. Last month he was dowsed in lighter fuel and set on fire. Large white scars mar his dark skin. "I woke up with fire on my arms and face and ran straight into the sea. The man who did it wanted me to rob for him, but I said no."
He was the third street child to be attacked this way in the past few months; all the others suffered third degree burns. All were attacked by young Moroccan men, some also living rough in Ceuta, who wanted the children to beg or steal for them.
Estimates of the number of children living on the streets of Ceuta vary from 50 to 150. Some have been on there for up to four years. "This is like Brazil," said Angel Casas, a police officer. "It is impossible to catch them once they are in there."
Until recently the local police rounded them up at night, shoving them into vans and dumping them at the Moroccan border town of Castillejos. That stopped when three officers denounced it as illegal, and were suspended in consequence.
Ana Morano, a Carmelite nun who works with the Ceuta street children, said some were just like those she had met in Colombia and Peru. "They are true street children, their family structure has broken down completely."
Under Spanish law the children must be housed, fed and educated by the local authority. "But people do not like these children and they do not want them here, and the politicians know it," she said.
Ceuta’s newly appointed social services counsellor, Mohamed Chaib, one of the city’s 20,000 Spanish Muslims, said the children were stretching his meagre budget to the limit, and called for additional European Union funding.
He said no child was ever turned away from San Antonio, the city’s only children’s home, but he admitted that many ran away. At present 68 live in accommodation intended for 55.
People living nearby complain that the children are disruptive. Two weeks ago they stoned the building.
San Antonio used to have a punishment cell where children were left naked with a bucket for a toilet, Sister Ana said. The children were fed twice a day by the army and were often supervised by just two police officers, who had orders to separate them if they fought. Things are said to be much better now.
But city officials make it clear that it will remain the only children’s home in Ceuta. The 80,000 Spaniards in the city, they say, will not allow more. "I would not open new centres," Mr Chaib said. "The best answer is for them to be regrouped with their families."
Officials say new homes would only encourage more of the estimated 30,000 street children in Morocco to find their way into the city, which is already surrounded by barbed wire fences to keep immigrants out.
The Spanish People’s Party government has said it plans to send the children back to their parents in Tetouan, Tangiers or Casablanca. But aid workers say this is often impossible, since many were unwanted or abused and have not seen their families for years.
Children returned to Morocco recently from the Canary Islands and the other Spanish north African enclave, Melilla, have been dumped by the Moroccan police or beaten up, they add.
It is clear that the people of Ceuta want to be rid of the street children, who find it easy to slip in to the city among the 20,000 and more Moroccans who visit the duty-free shops that drive the local economy.
Sister Ana said she could not find a local lawyer prepared to defend cases of alleged sexual abuse or police violence towards the children, let alone one prepared to try to force the local authority to obey Spanish laws defending the rights of children.
Mar Bermudez, a researcher with the Ortega y Gasset Foundation in Madrid, has counted about 1,000 Moroccan runaway children in Spain. Those in Ceuta, she says, are mostly waiting for a way to steal aboard a ferry to the Spanish mainland. About 600 have already managed it.
From there they go to Madrid and Barcelona, where they are already being blamed for an increase in street crime. Those who rob, she said, have usually fallen into the clutches of inner city gangs.
"Just because this is the 21st century you must not think that there are no Oliver Twists left," she added.
Local authorities in Spain, she points out, have both a legal and a moral obligation to put the children into school.
"They will integrate naturally. They are not going to leave and they are not going to disappear miraculously. We don’t want to create 1,000 delinquents."