Europe-bound migrants found amid broken glass, toxic ash

In this image taken from video made available by the Guardia Civil, an officer of the Guardia Civil helps a man out from under glass bottles in a container in Melilla, Spain, Friday Feb. 19, 2021. Spanish authorities say they have found and rescued 41 migrants who tried to reach continental Europe from North Africa in the past four days, some of them hiding inside a container of discarded glass bottles and a bag of toxic ash. (Guardia Civil via AP)

MADRID - Something seemed wrong to the guard inspecting sealed bags of toxic ash in the port of Melilla, one of Spain’s two small territories in North Africa. So he pulled a knife, cut the bag open and found a motionless leg, confirming his suspicion that a person was inside.

He lifted and dropped the leg a few times, with no reaction. A few moments passed. Suddenly the leg pulled back, and a young man emerged from the ashes — frightened and disoriented, but alive.

The disturbing scene from a video released Monday by Spain’s Civil Guard highlighted the great lengths and risks that migrants and asylum seekers take in their desperate attempts to reach Europe.

The survivor was among 41 people found hiding amid cargo in Melilla’s port area on Friday, attempting to sneak aboard a ship that would take them across the Mediterranean Sea to mainland Spain.

Four of them were discovered buried in recycling containers beneath glass bottles, some broken with sharp edges.

Surrounded by Morocco, the tiny enclaves of Melilla and nearby Ceuta have been a target for many African migrants for years. But the two territories fall outside the Schengen area of free mobility across much of Europe, so many of them become trapped in their effort to reach European soil.

The port of Melilla, where trucks and containers begin a trip to Spain that can take up to seven hours, gives many a way to escape. Some try to enter the fenced area of the harbour by swimming there or by hiding underneath vehicles, jumping onto them when they slow down or stop at the gates of the port.

Others try to climb the perimeter fences and walls, sometimes falling and getting seriously injured.

With the help of search dogs and microphones to detect heartbeats, police often find people hiding amid the cargo, from containers to cement mixers. This year alone, the Civil Guard said it has identified 1,781 migrants trespassing in Melilla port’s security perimeter; last year, the number was 11,700.

Still, discoveries like those last week are unsettling for the most experienced officers.

“We’ll never get used to it,” said Juan Antonio Martín, a spokesman with the Civil Guard in Melilla.

Because the border between Spain’s North African territories and Morocco has been closed since the pandemic began in March, it is more difficult for migrants to slip in. According to Spain’s Interior Ministry, nearly 1,500 people crossed illegally into Melilla last year, down from more than 5,800 in 2019.

But those who tried to leave Melilla last week were already in the enclave, Martín said. They were unable to take the passenger ferries or the flights to reach the mainland, either because they didn’t have travel documents or because they entered Spain illegally in the first place.

Their nationality was not released, but the spokesperson said most were of Moroccan origin.

While Morocco’s closure of the land border with Ceuta and Melilla came on the heels of years of stepping up border security, which had already led to a big drop in illegal crossings, Spain’s Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean have emerged as the main landing point for people fleeing North and West Africa to Europe.

Last year, some 23,000 people reached the archipelago, most of them plucked from the waters by Spain’s Maritime Rescue Service, and more than 500 died or disappeared in the attempt.

And there, too, rescuers sometimes faced the unthinkable. In December, Spain’s El País newspaper reported how a 14-year-old from Nigeria spent two weeks clinging to an oil tanker’s rudder before he was found by a patrol boat near the port of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria island.

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Brito reported from Barcelona, Spain.

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