Holding pattern | Immigrants in Spanish enclave turn to fútbol

Recently arrived immigrants play outside the holding center in Melilla on 15 Oct 2005. (Alvaro Barrientos | AP)

Melilla, Spain | For a taste of the familiar after months-long journeys by land and sea, football has much to offer hundreds of displaced Africans. Recently the CETI Club de Fútbol started to compete in a 10-team city league in this Spanish enclave on the coast of northern Morocco.

CETI stands for Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes, the holding facility for the undocumented migrants who frantically scaled a 3-meter fence last year to gain entry. Eleven died in Melilla and Ceuta, another enclave further west, as the result of clashes with security forces. Although Morocco claims ownership of Melilla, it has remained in Spanish hands for more than 500 years and remains the only piece of Europe sharing a land border with Africa. Writes Paqui Sanchez for the Associated Press:

Soccer is a way to have fun and kill time as they try to obtain work and residency papers, which for many is probably a hopeless mission. … “Although they don’t have the discipline and professionalism needed to play soccer today, they have more than enough fight and commitment,” said Juan Carlos Redondo, the CETI coach.

The idea of incorporating members of the CETI community, with Guinea Bissau, Cameroon, Algeria, Mali, India and Nigeria among the nations represented, comes from the Melilla football federation. Instead of spending time doing menial jobs or in idleness, the players gain purpose and can apply the dedication that enabled them to endure long separations from family and excruciating journeys across the Sahara. Some arrivals in Ceuta even swam from the African mainland to reach the Spanish-controlled waterfront.

Now that the desert routes are thoroughly policed, the preferred route to the European Union, although perhaps more treacherous, is from Mauritania to the Canary Islands, several hundred miles in wooden fishing canoes. More than 1,000 have died over the past four months while trying to make the crossing.


Links: Inverness-born writer Ali Smith reports for the Sunday Times Magazine (U.K.) on the limbo facing these migrants seeking refuge in Ceuta and Melilla. A driver with the Nobel Prize–winning Medicins sans frontieres takes Smith to the infamous Ceuta fence, “literally layers of fence, fences that rise up out of the sea to a height of three metres, hairy with barbed wire.”

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