Perched between two worlds – Spain and Morocco – Melilla wants to be known for more than just its controversial border.
There wasn’t much to indicate that we had strayed into one of Melilla’s restricted military zones. The car’s navigation app had instructed us to keep heading up one of the Spanish city’s many ascents, despite the asphalt road below the wheels turning to gravel and dust. Rounding a corner, we were surprised by a convoy of three armoured personnel carriers on exercise, a mounted gunman brandishing a weapon that was a little too close to our vehicle for comfort. We were eventually waved on by the stern cadets.
In Melilla, you’re never far from the military, the police or the military police. A realm of the Spanish crown since the 15th century, the autonomous city lies on a fortified rocky outcrop of Africa about 200km southeast of Málaga across the Alboran Sea. Morocco has long claimed the 12 sq km EU enclave – as well as another Spanish autonomous city in the Maghreb called Ceuta, directly opposite Gibraltar – as its own. Alongside a 10-metre-tall double-fence border dividing it from Morocco’s Rif region, there are a plethora of armed personnel here. Some 3,000 troops and 600 members of the Guardia Civil (Spain’s gendarmerie force) make up part of the city’s population of 82,800. Combined with the public servants in town, about half of Melilla’s workforce depends on Madrid for their employment. “This is the last communist city in Europe,” says Gabriel Gonzálvez, making a common quip. “If you aren’t living from the mother country, you don’t eat.”
Gonzálvez is sitting on a mosaicked bench in Melilla’s downtown, a compact area packed with an impressive and surprising array of art nouveau and art deco buildings. Some are in a state of dilapidation from the sun and salty air, making downtown feel like a cross between Barcelona and Havana. Gonzálvez is the president of the Melilla Entrepreneurship Cluster, a group of start-up owners and more conventional workers. “The economic model has always been the border,” he says. His cluster is looking to change the way Melilla works and diversify its industries.
And yet the border has always been an inescapable part of life here. Not long ago, its presence was a minor inconvenience at most. During our four days in town, several people tell us about childhoods in Melilla when the frontier was only demarcated using low-slung concertina wire that one could hop over to spend a weekend in Morocco. Moroccans, in turn, would come to Melilla to buy clothes, head to the beach or sneak an illicit beer. The fruits of this social and cultural mestizaje (mixing) can be felt today: about half the population is Muslim and of Berber descent. Spanish churros are washed down with sweet mint tea, and Tamazight, the Berber language, is as commonplace as Spanish, Melilla’s official language. A five-minute walk from where Gonzálvez sits feels more like Tangier than Tarifa, with teeming streets full of informal sellers – moved on by the police when they can be bothered – and people heading into the yellow-and-green Central Mosque three times a day for prayers.
The fence might have gradually grown over decades – partly due to Spain joining the European Communities (now the EU) in 1986, even if Melilla remains outside the visa-free Schengen Area – but the big change came in August 2018 when Morocco unilaterally closed its customs border with the enclave, upping the ante on its sovereignty claims. Two years later, it used what many analysts see as the cynical context of the pandemic to close the crossing. Although one border post is open, to date there has been no return to the “good neighbour” agreements that allowed residents on both sides of the frontier to cross easily with just an ID card. Currently, Melilla inhabitants need passports to visit Morocco; residents from the Moroccan province of Nador require a passport and visa. It has left Melilla’s estimated 10,000 non-resident and undocumented peoples in a legal limbo, essentially unable to go anywhere. “It’s not an open border,” says Mar Soriano, a lawyer who works for Melilla-based ngo Solidary Wheels, from a tiny co-working space in the city centre. “Only those with privilege pass.” She says that many cross-border families haven’t been able to reunite.
As only one of two EU cities with an African land border, Melilla is also seen as an El Dorado for migrants looking to reach the bloc. That has led many to try to jump the fence, with Moroccan authorities often turning a blind eye. Spain’s defence minister, Margarita Robles, has accused its Maghreb neighbour of “blackmail” by weaponising migration to put political pressure on Madrid. The results have sometimes been tragic: on 24 June last year, nearly 2,000 migrants crossed from their camp in Morocco’s Mount Gurugu area and attempted to scale the border fence. Police ineptitude on both sides and excessive use of force resulted in the deaths of at least 24 people.
Playing on Spanish fears of mass migration may have worked. The European nation began to openly court Morocco last year, culminating in the first bilateral meeting in eight years between the two countries in Rabat in February. Spain, long neutral on the status of Western Sahara, its former colony annexed by Morocco, performed a policy volte-face during this period. It now recognises Rabat’s plans to grant Western Sahara autonomy, which would keep it part of Morocco. Spain is clearly banking on Moroccan concessions over Ceuta and Melilla, alongside a normalisation of border exchanges and better control of illegal migration. But not a lot has changed. “Spain hasn’t fixed anything and hasn’t even accomplished its own objectives,” says Hugh Lovatt, senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. But it’s Maite Echarte, who works with street children in Melilla, who puts it better as we sip coffee near the city’s la Vieja fortress. “It was a bajada de pantalones,” she says with a smirk. This literally translates as “a lowering of the trousers”, meaning that Spain revealed its hand (and possibly other things) without guaranteeing anything in return for a population that feels Spanish and under threat.
Melilla’s City Hall is one of its finest examples of art deco architecture. Dominated by two small towers, the building’s façade curves with the contours of the square in which it sits. Up a grand staircase, past a giant oil painting of Pedro de Estopiñán, the conquistador who founded Melilla in 1497, leads to the office of the city’s president (essentially a mayor who oversees an assembly), Eduardo de Castro. When we meet, he has just returned from a trip to Madrid, during which Morocco topped the agenda.
De Castro is sitting at his desk next to a trio of flags: one for the city, Spain and the EU. During our chat he glances at a laptop in front of him; it’s not clear whether he’s using it as a crib sheet or multitasking. He says that the purpose of his trip, in part, was to urge Madrid to keep up the momentum regarding rapprochement with Morocco – a country that he accuses of “operating in grey areas” – rather than leaving Melilla in the lurch. But he also recognises that his city needs to shift its gaze.
“Melilla needs to stop just looking to Morocco,” he says. “It needs to find another economic niche.” In the past, that economic niche has been contraband goods flowing to Morocco (euphemistically referred to by many here as “atypical commerce”), something that recent border complications have put a stop to. Aside from defence and government, Melilla doesn’t has few industries. There are no factories or farms and its youth unemployment rate is over 50 per cent. The official population has decreased by nearly 2,000 in two years and finding solutions won’t be easy. Soon, however, it won’t depend on De Castro. Citing ideological divisions in the city assembly, where he sits as an independent, as well as rampant patronage, he admits to being “disgusted” by the way that politics is conducted. When elections are held at the end of May, he will step down after a single four-year term.
Allegations of graft and institutional corruption are nothing new in a city that was dominated for 19 years by the right-wing People’s Party’s Juan José Imbroda. But that isn’t deterring others from stepping up. Standing in the doorway of his HQ, Amin Azmani switches effortlessly between Tamazight and Spanish as he receives food and clothes donated by Melilla’s residents to earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria. As well as being a healthcare official and restaurant manager, Azmani is the founder of Somos Melilla (We Are Melilla), a new political party that claims to be above the city’s political sectarianism. He is adamant that his party will be in the next assembly.
Azmani says that he has a plan to “restore and uplift” Melilla. Alongside recuperating its decimated fishing industry, he thinks that the city can become a centre for everything from education to Mediterranean marine investigation. And then there’s the economic boost of bringing in more military, a surprising policy goal for a former member of Spain’s left-wing Socialist Party. “This means a higher population, more consumers and a better economy,” Azmani says. “There are regions that live from fishing or agriculture, such as Andalucía, and Melilla is historically a military territory. During compulsory military service [which ended in 2001] we had 17,000 military personnel here.”
Just like entrepreneur Gabriel Gonzálvez, Azmani is determined to move beyond border talk. And while he admits to the tension created by the fence, he says that it’s no different to the US-Mexico relationship. Azmani says that Melilla could be an example to the world of cultures and religions living side by side. Alongside the Christian and Muslim populations, there is a sizeable Sephardic Jewish community that found refuge here after being expelled from peninsular Spain in 1492. Counting about 1,000 members, it has seven synagogues in the city. Melilla also has a small Hindu population.
Though run-down in places, it’s hard to deny that the enclave has potential. What it seems to need most of all is a positive branding campaign that would move the story beyond the single issue of migration. Alongside business advantages such as no vat and heavily reduced corporation tax, Melilla’s unique heritage could also appeal to international tourists. It’s something that the city’s official chronicler Antonio Bravo, collector of 5,000 books and 500 magazines relating to Melilla, thinks “could be the future of the city”. But almost everyone monocle speaks to complains about connectivity. The only way to access Melilla is via either ferries from the mainland, which take at least six and a half hours, or a small Air Nostrum-operated atr-72 propeller plane that departs from a few peninsular cities. While Melilla residents get 75 per cent of the ticket subsidised by the state, there’s a feeling that prices are too expensive to lure tourists. De Castro speaks of wanting to install a price cap, while Azmani suggests a state-controlled boat service.
Nevertheless, air ticket sales are up and 14 cruises are scheduled to stop in Melilla in 2023. Beyond the beaches and clement weather, perhaps it’s architecture that could provide the greatest lure. After Barcelona, Melilla has the highest number of modernista, art nouveau and art deco buildings in Spain. Much of this bounty is down to one man: Enrique Nieto, a Catalan architect who arrived in 1909 and never left, quickly establishing himself as a favourite among a bourgeoise intent on making its mark. Nieto’s designs include City Hall, Or Zaruah Synagogue and the Central Mosque – his oeuvre an enduring testament to Melilla’s diversity. And yet no museum dedicated to the enclave’s architectural legacy currently exists.
Like many others, Jennifer Aragón believes that more needs to be done to promote this side of Melilla. Over juice at Churrería El Mantelete, a no-frills café established in 1955, she explains how she returned to her hometown in 2018 after studying in Granada and living in Latin America. Two years later – just before the pandemic – she set up a tour-guide business that is beginning to take off. While she is honest enough to admit that she needs to be earning a viable living, she adds that her principal motivation is to make Melilla better known to the world. “This city has huge potential,” she says. And she’s determined to make sure that it is realised.
Spain’s armed forces have left their mark everywhere in Melilla. Street names include Spanish Navy Avenue and Lieutenant Aguilar de Mera Street, and there are army bases and restricted areas dotted around town, especially near the Moroccan border. The army’s elite Legion, which Francisco Franco led in Melilla in the 1920s, has a unit in the city, while command barracks are daubed with the words “Everything for the motherland.” Melilla has a complicated relationship with Franco and a statue of the former dictator was only removed in 2021; there’s still a plaque on the house he once lived in. One huge and glaringly fascist monument continues to stand among the art nouveau buildings – something that Melilla will need to rectify if it wants to improve its brand. The 1942 Monument to Spanish Heroes may have had its plaque removed but it’s possible to see the outline of Francoist symbols on one side and graffiti, that someone has tried to scrub out, which reads: “Down with fascist monuments.” President Eduardo de Castro says that he wanted to remove the statue from the start of his mandate but it takes time. “This isn’t a dictatorship,” he says. “It needs to be negotiated.”