Lost Cities


Police. Everything happens lightning fast. Nightsticks hit bare skin. Three men in the back of a pickup; they will be spending the night in prison. A shadow jumps from the bushes. It runs across the freeway, almost colliding with a truck, before finally disappearing into the protective canyons between the buildings.

»There’s so much prejudice, and nobody’s interested in what’s really going on.« Juan Carlos, 28, kicks at the dusty ground. His dark eyes look tired, his clothes are dirty. »We’re not criminals,« he adds quietly. Cars zoom past on the freeway, alongside the canal. Large numbers of tourists are marching over the bridge that connects the border crossing with the city centre. Tijuana. The past few decades have seen the Mexican city on the border with the USA gain a sad reputation; the drug trade, prostitution and illegal immigration have made it world famous. Juan Carlos originally comes from the south of Mexico, but the American dream has brought him all the way to Tijuana.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates put the number of Mexicans living in the US as unauthorised residents at over 6.6 million. In the same year, almost 282.0001 of them were deported. They were taken through a simple gate in the border fence by bus, and released into the neighbouring country. »Up to 250 people are deported to Tijuana every day. In previous years it was even more, around 400 per day.« Victor Clark Alfaro sits in his small office directly opposite Tijuana city hall. Innumerable qualifications decorate the yellowing walls. He is a professor at San Diego State University and director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in the Mexican border city. »The people who’ve been deported don’t have any work. For many Tijuana is the end of the line, and it is gradually becoming a social problem,« he believes.


The overhead light in the dining room doesn’t provide a lot of illumination. Volunteers are putting food in bowls in the small kitchen. Dark silhouettes sit at the tables and slurp refried beans. »Our organisation’s finances are severely limited, which is why we can only offer a place to sleep, a shower, and warm food for the first two weeks after deportation,« Ofelia Gress de Vargas explains. This slim woman is the manager of a shelter for migrants, financed by the Salvation Army. Usually the Mexican immigration authorities receive the people who have been deported, and provide information. The deportees are expected to look for work, or return to where they came from within Mexico, but in the era of the economic crisis this is all a little more difficult. »There are 50,000 unemployed people in this city. It is extremely difficult to find work here at the moment,« says Victor Clark Alfaro. So many of the deportees end up on the street after the first two weeks are up.

The sun glitters on the dribble of water in the riverbed as it flows quietly through the city. Forty years ago the water could still flow freely through Tijuana, but in the mid 70s it was corralled in a wide concrete basin that now dominates the city. »Around a thousand people live in the concrete riverbed. How many it really is, no one actually knows exactly. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes fewer.« Victor Clark Alfaro has visited the inhabitants of the riverbed. He’s sure of one thing though, »There are lost cities down there. If the people of Tijuana knew about it, it would be a huge scandal.«


»The Mexican police are worse than the American, they hunt us like crazy,« Gerardo, 25, is in the middle of gathering together his few belongings. A police patrol was in the riverbed a few hours before, and they took the people living there into custody. Gerardo only just got away over the freeway. »They don’t bother asking our names, and if we have documents or money, they just take it from us. They beat us with their nightsticks and throw food and medicine in the riverbed.«

Gerardo has previously spent a year as an unauthorised immigrant in the USA. Then he was deported. The corruption of the Mexican police is well known, with human rights activists complaining repeatedly about it. The deportees are usually taken into custody with no clear explanation. They are taken before a judge, who decides on the level of their fine. Then they spend up to 36 hours in police custody. »These people are simply made illegal by the police and legal system, and hunted in their own country,« Victor Clark Alfaro explains.

In a report from 2008, he describes 187 cases of police wrongful conduct, which were reported to him between August 2007 and April 2008. But most cases aren’t even reported, for fear of provoking an even more severe reaction from the police. The police argue that their behaviour is a preventative measure that combats criminality. Many of the migrants living in the riverbed would engage in theft, and hang around the street, deputy chief of Tijuana police, Aurelio Martinez Paz, says. Juan Carlos pulls his trouser legs up to the knee. A bruise. He didn’t manage to get out of the way of the police in time. His eyes begin to tear up. »Nobody comes to us and asks why we’re living on the street. I haven’t done anything wrong.«


Books and newspapers are stacked on the desk. Victor Clark Alfaro looks almost lost behind them. »Let’s not lie to ourselves,« he murmurs, »there are criminals living in the riverbed too.« There are lots of reasons people get deported from the USA. In most cases it’s a trivial offence, such as a traffic violation. People charged with serious crimes usually sit out their sentences in a US prison, before being deported to Mexico. »Former prisoners and gang members live in the riverbed, but there are innocent people too,« Victor Clark Alfaro explains.

The riverbed is a lawless place, where the strong survive. That’s why a lot of the people there form groups, to protect themselves. Life on the street is hard, some don’t make it, falling to drugs. Some of the people you see in the riverbed don’t live there. They go there to sell drugs.« Many of the deportees sniff glue; it’s the only drug they can afford. The dream of being able to return to the USA has over time become a hazy drug trance in Tijuana’s dirty riverbed.

During the day, they look for work in one of the vegetable markets, or clean cars waiting to cross the border into the USA. This earns them a few pesos to buy food, or finance their addiction. The politicians have been looking for a way to solve the problem of the people in the riverbed. »They want to offer them work, and get them off the street,« Victor Clark Alfaro says, »But the problem is that huge numbers of people are deported to Tijuana every day, and so new people are constantly arriving in the riverbed. I don’t know if that’s the way to solve this whole problem.«

Juan Carlos and Gerardo want to leave life on the streets behind them, whatever it takes. They avoid drugs and alcohol. Juan Carlos says that if he doesn’t make it over the border into the USA soon, he’ll return to his home town in the south of Mexico. »There, life is better than in Tijuana after all,« of that he’s sure.


Tigers in the Woods


Meidling, a suburb in Vienna. The cool wind blows away the remains of the late summer day on the platform. Large yellow letters on the board show the destination – Roma Termini. Vinda briefly embraces his friends, climbs aboard, waves. Then the train departs, leaving nighttime Vienna.

It is one year ago, and it is silent on Monte del Renegado, only the cicadas are singing. »Two of my friends died in the desert,« says Babu. The 25 year old holds his face in his hands and takes a deep breath. When he looks up again there are tears in his eyes. He self-consciously wipes them away and shakes his head. If only he’d known how the journey would turn out, if only someone had told him that he’d be robbed, beaten, imprisoned and humiliated, he would never have been part of it. Babu is one of 54 people from India who came to Ceuta as irregular migrants in 2006, and are now stranded in the Spanish exclave on the continent of Africa, to the north of Morocco. Only the 21km Strait of Gibraltar separates them from their dreams, from the Spanish mainland, from Europe.

Their home is a camp in the woods. It feels a little like a summer holiday camp, but it’s no game for the Indian migrants, it’s hard reality. They’ve spent two years in the Centro de Estancía Temporal para Inmigrantes, a kind of detention centre. It is intended as a reception centre, with social services, for people who have crossed the border illegally. The centre in Ceuta holds 512 people, occasionally even more. Many migrants have been living there for years; Senegalese, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Indians. In April 2008 rumours were going around that the Indians were going to be deported, after two years of waiting. The group has reached a decision, they’re not going to give up without a fight. The Indians flee into the nearby mountains, into the woods on Monte del Renegado.


The Odyssey lasted two years. It all started in India, with an empty promise. »A man came up to me at the university,« Babu explains. He’d be able to live in the European Union and also be able to work, all legal, the man told him. He’d just have to come up with 8,000 euros. Most of the Indian migrants living in the Ceuta woods come from the northern province of Punjab, a region dominated by agriculture. To finance their sons‘ journeys, their families sold land or went into debt with friends, or the bank. They wanted to allow their young men to seize this chance. They climbed aboard a plane in New Delhi; heading for Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

»We were met by men, who took us to a building. We had to give them our passports, for the visa.« Babu looks down at the ground and shakes his head. »We never saw our passports again.« The Indians had fallen into the hands of people smugglers. They spent months in the building in Addis Ababa as prisoners. Then the journey carried on to Burkina Faso, then Mali, then from there into Algeria, and the Saharan Desert. »We were on foot and in cars. We didn’t know when we would get anything to eat or drink, and sometimes the Mafia mixed petrol into the water, so we wouldn’t drink so much. That’s how my friends died.«

The Sahara is one of the most deadly stretches of the journey to Europe for an immigrant; not just because of the dangers posed by the desert, but also because there they are at the mercy of the police. Babu tells how he crossed the border between Morocco and Algeria several times. How often? Eventually he stopped counting, he says. Every time they made it to Morocco, the police came and took them back to Algeria. A phenomenon well known to experts; the Migreurop network of European NGOs quoted Hicham Baraka, president of the Moroccan human rights organisation ABCDS, in their annual report, which appeared in late 2009. In it he talks about a ping pong game between the Moroccan and Algerian border authorities.


Vinda has a limp. He can’t put any weight on his foot anymore. This morning, as he went out the door, he heard a crack from his leg and realised he’d sprained it. He’d never injured himself during the whole three years he’d been in Ceuta, up and down the pathless slopes of Monte del Renegado, and now he tears his ligament, just as he arrives in Vienna to start work delivering newspapers. He can forget that now, he can’t even climb a staircase in this condition.

The day lies oppressively hot on Ceuta. One of the Indians is carrying a 25 litre bottle of water up the slope. He stops half way, puts the bottle down, and quickly catches his breath. »Pani,« Babu explains, »is a very important word; it means water. It took us seven months to cross the desert, and we never knew when we would get any water.« One of the immigrants comes closer. He has dark skin, and his dark eyes inspire trust. His arm is covered in large, long scars. »The Mafia wanted more money. I didn’t have any, and I couldn’t ring my family to ask them to help me, so they cut me with a machete,« he says.

Most of the Indian migrants are Sikhs, and they have put up a small Gurdwara, a Sikh temple, in one of the camps in the woods. They pray for a better future there every day. Life in the woods is heavy on the nerves and robs them of energy. In the humid summer of 2009 the future doesn’t look very bright. »We’ve been in Ceuta for three years now, and no news ever comes from Madrid. We’re just numbers to the politicians. If they wanted to deport us, why didn’t they just do it in the first few weeks?«

The Indians call Ceuta a Sweet Prison. The desert is behind them, they’re safe, but they’re still trapped in the Spanish exclave. »The worst part is the waiting, not knowing what the future will bring, not to be in control of your own life anymore.« After a short pause, Babu continues and explains that all male Sikhs have Singh as a last name. It indicates the equality, and means something similar to lion or tiger. That’s why the group call themselves Los Tigres del Monte, the Tigers of the Mountain. »We are strong, and we wont give up,« he assures me.


It’s warm when Vinda arrives in Vienna, after a journey of two days. He set out from Barcelona and has crossed half of Europe to get to Austria. He has friends here, and there is supposed to be work; more than in Spain at least. He spends three or four days in Traiskirchen, where he applies for asylum. There is no other way for him to be in Austria. At this moment he has no idea that he’ll soon be heading back again.

December 2009, winter is making life in the forest unbearable. The cold is a constant companion on Monte del Renegado. Heavy rain has made the earth muddy and the rats shelter in the camp under the roofs. Babu is in town for the day, he has a job. There aren’t many opportunities to make money, to survive. The Indians help drivers park their cars near the city centre, or help people put their shopping in the car in front of supermarkets. They make a few cents this way, sometimes even a euro. The people of Ceuta show a lot of solidarity with the Indian migrants, and many assure me that the young men are always nice and friendly. But this doesn’t change much about their situation; their future is in the authorities‘ hands. The first news from the Spanish government came in September. The Indians were to be brought to the mainland, and their status was to be legalised. Hope. But four months later their situation is just the same, and there hasn’t been any more news.

Then things start happening all at once. Police. Where were they from, did they have papers. Ten of the Indians are taken into custody and spend two nights in Ceuta jail. They are brought in front of a judge on the second day. He has their deportation orders ready. And then came the moment the Indians had been waiting for so long. »I watched the ferries leaving harbour for Europe every day, but I imagined the trip would be different.« He is now in his seat, surrounded by noisy tourists. To his left and his right there is a police officer, he is handcuffed. »No, I never imagined it would be like this,« he says.

In the visitor area of the Centro de Internamiento de Extranjeros, a Spanish deportation centre, the mood is subdued. People are talking in low whispers. A glass wall divides the bare room in two. »Ten minutes,« the guard shouts to the visitors, while four figures appear behind the glass. Like a zoo, is the fleeting impression. Babu smiles, says something, but it’s hard to catch the words because it’s gotten loud among the visitors, with everyone wanting to tell something to the person they’ve come to see. »I did a lot of thinking there. In the centre, deportation is no longer a distant possibility,« Babu says, weeks later in Madrid. He spent 58 days in uncertainty, before being suddenly set free. Without papers.


»I wouldn’t have had a chance in Vienna,« Vinda says unequivocally, »I hardly know anyone there, and I couldn’t work with my busted knee. That’s why I came back to Spain.« He’s sitting in the Gurdwara’s small kitchen, chopping onions while Babu cleans display cabinets in the prayer room. The Indians have found refuge among the Sikh community of Madrid. They spend almost all day in the temple, cooking, cleaning, helping where needed. »I don’t want to just hang around in the city all day with nothing to do. I want to work,« Babu explains. According to Spanish law he is not allowed to work. This law does however allow migrants who have been in Spain for three years, and who can show that they have a contract of employment, the opportunity to apply for a temporary work visa and leave to stay.

»We’ve been in Madrid for a year, and we fulfil all the criteria, but the Indian embassy in Madrid hasn’t given us a new passport,« says Babu. He has been to the Indian embassy many times to try and apply for a new passport, but he keeps getting fobbed off, told to wait for a later date. Ashish Sinha, the second secretary at the Indian embassy claims to know nothing about the case, »Of course we do everything we can for our countrymen. Anyone who needs a passport is provided with one,« he assures me vehemently, »but nobody came and asked for one.« Babu and Vinda are angry. They feel that the authorities are mocking them. »The Spanish tell us we need our passports, but the Indian embassy won’t give us any. Why are they doing this?« The Indians can stay in Red Cross accommodation for another three months; then they have to go somewhere else. But where? »On the street,« Babu says in a whisper, »How are we going to rent a place if we aren’t allowed to work?«

Thirty-four of the Tigres del Monte, including Babu and Vinda, were taken to the Spanish mainland in late 2009. The remaining twenty were still in Ceuta in early 2011. They stayed in the woods until shortly before Christmas the year before. Then they gave up, after almost 1,000 days on Monte del Renegado. They went back to the Centro de Estancía Temporal para Inmigrantes, the centre which had been their first place to stay in Ceuta four years before. The head of the reception centre had promised to do what he could for them, to transfer them to the Spanish mainland. Three weeks later a visitor came. The Indian ambassador. Not a good sign, as the Indians already knew from experience, because a reception centre visit from an ambassador meant a deportation to that country. The visit was to confirm identities, but hope is the last to die. »We will keep on fighting,« Babu says, »for ourselves and for the people still in Ceuta.«

They Stole Our Sea


»They stole our sea,« of that Kofi is sure. When he says ‘they’, the young Ghanaian fisherman means Europeans, and he’s not entirely wrong. The European Union has negotiated fishing agreements with a number of West African countries, which allow European fishing fleets to operate off the African coast. The consequences for the local fishing industry have been grave. Local waters are almost entirely fished out. Whole villages used to live off the catch, but suddenly they have been forced to look for other sources of income in order just to survive from day to day.

In the summer of 2006 Kofi packed his things and made his way to Europe. He arrived in the Canary Islands on a simple fishing boat. The Spanish government itself brought him – like many others – to the Spanish mainland and released him there without papers. Today he is trying to survive among the greenhouses of the area around Almeria, where fruit and vegetables are grown beneath a sea of plastic, to be exported across the whole EU.


»In the beginning I was working in agriculture, and I could support my family in Africa, but since late 2007 it has become difficult to find a job,« he explains. A few years ago, all the immigrants were needed to ensure affluent Europe got the crops it wanted, but since the European economy has gone into decline, their future also looks bad. Immigrants in precarious circumstances, like Kofi, were the first to feel the effects of the economic crisis. Today he believes that it would have been fairer if they had sent him back to Africa straight away, and never brought him to the Spanish mainland where he isn’t allowed to work anyway.

The 28-year-old man sits in a worn leather chair, next to an ugly floral couch and television, the only pieces of furniture in the room. The plaster is crumbling from the bare walls. He is one of the few African immigrants who is willing to talk about their life in Spain. There is a lot of mistrust of Europeans. »I think the Spanish attitude towards us is very bad. We are immigrants, but first and foremost we are human beings,« Kofi explains. In the beginning he tried to get to know the Spanish, to talk to them, to explain why he was there. But in vain.

The racism in the region around Almeria is palpable. In 2000 this led to an outbreak of violence in the town of El Ejido where immigrants were hunted through the streets. Nothing much seems to have changed since then either, discrimination is still an every-day experience for immigrants. It is so bad that immigrants are refused entry to Spanish restaurants and bars. »I almost always just stay home, because it’s the only place I have my peace,« Kofi says, highlighting the problems. »If I get into trouble in a place like that, nobody is there to help me. I don’t have any papers and I’m frightened to go out. Even a small incident can cause huge problems.«


When he says »home«, Kofi is talking about a cold, deserted building where he lives with other immigrants. The rooms have only the bare necessities, and the acrid smell of mould drifts in the air. These Cortijos are often remote, far away from any infrastructure amid the endless greenhouses. In most cases they don’t have any power and only rarely have running water. Those immigrants who do have work spend almost the entire day in stifling greenhouses. They earn a maximum of 30 euros per day, but more often only 20, and don’t have insurance. »Perhaps the situation is partly our fault, because we aren’t fighting it,« Kofi ponders, a look of resignation on his face.

Every morning countless Africans gather on the dusty street corners of the town in the hope that local greenhouse owners will come by looking for workers for the day. Since the crisis, chances of work have diminished for the immigrants. Where Africans without papers were tolerated before, since very recently there has been an increase in efforts to get rid of them and replace them with guest workers from the new EU countries, Romania and Bulgaria.

People trust East European workers more, they are considered to be more docile. And there is also supposedly less difference in culture and religion. This all means that African immigrants‘ chances of gaining a legal right to stay are diminishing. Under Spanish immigration law, you can obtain temporary leave to stay if you can prove that you have lived in Spain for three years and have an employment contract. At its peak in 2006, there were 31,600 people who came to Spain illegally. For most, the time has now come to apply for the right to stay, but this hasn’t been made easy for them. Many smallholders are trying to make a profit from the crisis. They are offering the employment contracts that immigrants need to legalise their status, but at a price, 3,000 euros.


Only a few organisations are involved in trying to ease this growing conflict, and most are connected to the church, such as Hermanas Mercedarias de la Caridad, who care for immigrants. Sister Purificación Rodríguez Castillo sits at a table in her bright living room, with letters from Africa stacked in the cupboard behind her. They are for the immigrants in the Cortijos who don’t have their own address. Mamá Puri, as she is affectionately called, works in San Isidro de Nijar, a village that lies 40 km north of Almeria. Within the last ten years the local population has doubled to 6917, and Puri thinks that up to 1200 immigrants are living in precarious conditions in the area. »Most of them have limited education, a very large proportion are illiterate and only very few have gone to university,« she explains, »There are two main reasons that they left their homes and came to Spain. The first is that there is a lack of employment there, and the other reason is that there is war. And of course the idea that a lot of money can be made in Europe and a good life can be had is also an influence on their decision.«

Near one Cortijo, which is home to between 20 and 25 young African’s, the area is packed with Spanish school children. They are keen to help make a small field where the immigrants from the Cortijo can grow their own food. Mamá Puri regularly brings school children to the village, to raise the awareness about ‘immigration’ among the younger generation, even if these kind of events can look absurd to the eyes of many immigrants themselves. Although many of the immigrants were farmers in their countries of origin, and a large number of those stranded in San Isidro de Naijar work here in agriculture. Hermanas Mercedarias supports people living in precarious situations, primarily by providing them with information, giving legal advice and offering language courses. They hand out food and other essentials such as shelter and clothing to those in need.


But not every one sees the work of Hermanas Mercedarias de la Caridad and Mamá Puri as positive. They are criticised for creating dependency in the immigrants, or for their work being only good for PR. In her defence, Purificación Rodríguez Castillo says, »There are efforts by the church and NGOs to promote integration and peaceful coexistence. But you still have to remember that Spain’s transformation from a country people emigrated from to a country people immigrate to has been very sudden. Immigration has been so large and so rapid that Spain has been struggling to catch up, and the process of adjustment to this new social situation has been slow and difficult.«

As things stand at the moment, Kofi doesn’t see any future for himself in Spain. He would stay if he had papers and work, »I’m going to go where I can live in peace. That’s just not possible here,« he explains. In resignation he takes stock, »At one time I thought my future would lie here in Europe, but now I’m sure that it lies in Africa. I’m only here in this country to try and support my family. But if I can’t find work, why am I even here? It’s probably better to go back home, to my family.«