Multicultural Melilla: Spain’s secret African enclave

An Indian housewife in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, looked around her diverse multicultural London neighbourhood, and observed that: “No one was more liberal than anyone else anywhere anyway. It was just that here, in Willesden, there was just not enough of any one thing to gang up against any other thing and send it running to the cellars while windows were smashed.”

Situated in the north coast of Africa, where the blue sea laps against its shores; a tax-free haven, a port of call for the many cruises which dalliance around the Mediterranean and a smuggling point between Morocco which contests the city as its own. Nowhere is diversity more evident than in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, which along with Spain’s other autonomous city Ceuta shares a border with Morocco.

Melilla has been praised as a shining example of multiculturalism and is home to populations of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Indians and Chinese. Over the years the native Christian population, which was the majority in the past, has been shrinking, while the Muslim demographic has steadily increased, due to increased immigration and higher birth rates, approximately 45 percent of Melilla is now Muslim. The city also has an established Jewish population, which has also shrunk from 20 percent down to 5 percent with many emigrating to Israel and Venezuela.

Although Melilla has been part of Spain since 1497, it was only until about fifteen years ago that migrants and refugees have attempted to storm the six-meter high security fences, which surround the city. Immigration reached its peak in 2005 and has been increasing ever since, amounting to what are now full-scale fence storming operations. On the 28th of May this year more than 1000 migrants stormed the fences with 400 managing to make it over, to be housed in the city’s ‘temporary’ migration centre, which was built to house 500 but has now over 2000 refugees, and that number is increasing. In 2013, some 4,200 migrants crossed into Spain from both Melilla and Ceuta, a 49% rise over the 2012 figures, according to official figures. The situation is already desperate not just for the migrants but also for the Spanish authorities who are reaching saturation point.

If the migrants successfully make it over the fence they are housed in the migration centre where they will find themselves in a no-mans land, a bureaucratic purgatory until they are eventually sent back home or more likely released and granted asylum, by which they can travel to any other EU country, due to the relaxation of border controls. The Schengen agreement, which removed internal borders within Europe, puts great pressure on border countries, which have to deal with refugees and immigrants on behalf of other countries. Melilla, a small city, bears the brunt more than most places. It should also be noted that many migrants lose their passports so they cannot but be accepted by the Spanish authorities. No identity, no country to send them back to.

The situation in Melilla is echoed throughout Europe at large. On the same day that 1000 migrants stormed the border fences in Melilla, the French riot police stormed two similar migrant centres in Calais (the last port of call to England) forcing some 500 migrants mostly from Afghanistan and Syria to collect their belongings and leave. The encampments were then bull dozed. Italy has also experienced a massive influx with migrants attention focused on the island of Lampedusa, which is close to Africa and the last port of call to the EU.

Most people, might imagine Melilla to be a wondrous place, a fascinating anomaly in the north of Africa, where east meets west, just a jaunt down the street and you’re assaulted by an array of languages, colours and smells, a vibrant market place of diversity. You’d be wrong. Almost immediately upon arrival the languid fatigue of the place slaps you in the face, as you desperately try to gather your bearings. Rather than being a unique multicultural wonderland, the various cultures of the city have literally given rise to what can only be described as a cultural vacuum, with the various cultures, whether Christian, Chinese or Muslim, effectively neutralizing each other. For example, you have Spanish style cafes but they double as kebab or pizza takeaways; you have tapas bars but they’re not nearly as good as they are on the mainland, the Chinese food is ghastly and Berber food difficult to find.

Despite being technically Europe, the whole place has a distinctively third world feel to it. And with the increasing Muslim demographic, the city will eventually become part of Morocco by default, leaving only a ghostly whisper of the town’s Spanish past. The Bengali housewife in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth would doubtless have thought the same about Melilla as she did about her culturally diverse neighbourhood in London, but whether anything will fill the cultural vacuum of this place is for future generations to decide.


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