Every year thousands of Moroccan children, some as young as ten, enter Spain alone, without proper documentation. Sneaking past Moroccan and Spanish police at ports and border posts, they put their lives at risk to pursue their dreams for a better life. Some flee abusive families; others flee poverty and the lack of educational and employment opportunities at home. All too often they find violence, discrimination, and a dangerous life on the streets of unfamiliar cities. When apprehended in Spain they may be beaten by police and then placed in overcrowded, unsanitary residential centers. Some are arbitrarily refused admission to a residential center. The residential centers often deny them the health and education benefits guaranteed them by Spanish law; in these centers, children may be subjected to abuse by other children and the staff entrusted with their care. If they are unlucky, they may be expelled to Morocco, where many are beaten by Moroccan police and eventually turned loose to fend for themselves.
All this takes place in two countries that have undertaken to provide all children within their jurisdictions the rights and guarantees specified in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In the case of Spain, this undertaking has been codified in legislation guaranteeing unaccompanied foreign children care and protection on the same basis as Spanish children, including the right to education, health care, temporary residency status, and protection from repatriation if repatriation puts the child or the child's family at risk. The Spanish government has failed to ensure that these provisions are uniformly enforced, and the Spanish regional governments that implement the law selectively or choose to ignore it altogether are not called to account.
For its part, the Moroccan government does not routinely monitor the situation of Moroccan children in Spain, facilitate repatriation from Spain when it is in the child's interest, or ensure that unaccompanied migrant children receive protection and care when they are returned to Morocco.
Conditions for unaccompanied migrant children vary throughout Spain, reflecting differences in the number of children in a particular city, local and regional governments' willingness to implement the law, and the existence of nongovernmental organizations working on behalf of unaccompanied children. Government officials and representatives of nongovernmental organizations agree that conditions for these children are especially dire in the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish cities located on the Moroccan coast.
In July, October, and November 2001 Human Rights Watch researchers traveled to Spain and Morocco to investigate the treatment of unaccompanied children in Ceuta and Melilla. We found a consistent pattern of police abuse in both cities. Unaccompanied children in Melilla were beaten, clubbed, and kicked by Spanish police during forced expulsions to Morocco, and then beaten, detained in unsafe conditions, and then released onto the streets by the Moroccan police who received them at the border. Children in Ceuta faced fewer expulsions, but still suffered from brutal beatings if they fled when Spanish police tried to apprehend them. Children in both cities failed to receive the temporary legal residency status they were entitled to under the law because their legal guardian, the Department of Social Welfare, did not apply for it. After two years of such legal residency, children are eligible to apply for naturalization as Spanish citizens: without this status, they face expulsion to Morocco when they turn eighteen.
Severe overcrowding at residential centers for unaccompanied children run by Ceuta and Melilla's Departments of Social Welfare further diminished the level of care they provided and increased the risk that children would be abused by staff and other children. The two worst facilities, Purísima Concepción Fort (Fuerte de la Purísima Concepción) in Melilla and the San Antonio Center in Ceuta, are old facilities that are in the process of renovation for use as child care facilities. The former was originally a fortress; the San Antonio facility is also a former military installation. San Antonio was first adapted to house about thirty children but now regularly holds one hundred or more, with some children sleeping on floors and tables. Children shared one bathroom and complained of filthy bedding, insufficient and poor quality clothing, and meals that they said frequently contained pork, which was inappropriate for many children for religious reasons. Neither facility provides recreational facilities for residents. Children in the Purísima Concepción Fort were free to wander the city unsupervised during the day; those at San Antonio reported greater restrictions on their movement and were punished if they escaped. They faced days of unrelieved boredom in the small facility.
Neither Ceuta nor Melilla provided unaccompanied children with routine preventive health care and frequently arbitrarily denied children access to health care for more serious medical problems, care to which they are entitled under Spanish law. This was especially true in Ceuta, where many children had not received the government-issued health card (tarjeta sanitaria) to which they were entitled. Government-supported medical centers in Ceuta often refused care to children who did not have a health card or were not accompanied by staff from the residential centers.
The vast majority of unaccompanied migrant children in Ceuta and many children in Melilla were not enrolled in school even though in government care-although Spanish law provides for compulsory education for all children aged six to sixteen. The government rarely integrated unaccompanied children into Spanish schools, relying instead on residential center staff to provide basic education. Residential centers, however, often arbitrarily denied children even this level of education. Children older than sixteen also frequently were denied full access to vocational education when the Department of Social Welfare refused to apply for the necessary work documents.
Unaccompanied children living in residential centers faced extortion, theft, and physical abuse by larger, and older, youth in the centers. Residential center staff rarely intervened to protect children, even when witnessing attacks. Staff also engaged in abusive disciplinary practices, including beatings, collective punishment, and threats of expulsion. In Ceuta, staff at the San Antonio center placed children in a small, dark, filthy "punishment room" with only a few mattresses and no toilet. Children told us they had stayed in the room for up to one week for infractions that included smoking, leaving without permission, or running away. Children in both cities cited ill-treatment by staff and other children as the primary reason they ran away from residential centers.
Spanish police regularly summarily expelled unaccompanied children to Morocco in violation of provisions in Spanish law that require children to be returned only to family or social welfare agencies in their country of origin, and only when return does not place the child or his or her family at risk. The Association for the Rights of Children (Asociación Pro Derechos de la Infancia, Prodein), a Melilla-based human rights organization, reports that at least seventy such expulsions have taken place between July 2001 and February 2002. Children we interviewed reported that Spanish police slapped, beat, and threatened them before handing them over to Moroccan police, who also abused them.
Spain is failing to protect and care for these children. No Spanish government agency actively takes responsibility for ensuring that unaccompanied children in Ceuta and Melilla receive care and protection, and no effective mechanisms exist to facilitate the lodging of complaints by children or the exercise of their right to be heard in all proceedings that affect them. Central government officials defer to local government agencies to monitor conditions and investigate abuses. These agencies in turn say they lack the means to do so and rely on residential centers and police to report any abuses.
Moroccan authorities also fail to provide unaccompanied migrant children the care and protection they require. Despite large numbers of unaccompanied children present in Moroccan port and border cities, the government has done little to ensure their care and rehabilitation and in most circumstances only provided shelter to children who had been convicted of crimes, placing them in juvenile detention centers. Children expelled from Ceuta and Melilla to Morocco frequently faced beatings, extortion, and detention in unsafe conditions at the hands of Moroccan police. In Morocco, the children were typically held with adults in Moroccan police stations for hours without access to food, water, or toilets. Moroccan police often beat the children and sometimes stole the children's money or property before releasing them. Just one of the children expelled from Ceuta or Melilla we met told us that Moroccan police returned him to the custody of family members. In all other cases we investigated, children said that after they were held for a day or more the police simply told them to leave the station, sometimes in the middle of the night. The children then made their way back to Spain, a process that could take hours or days as the children first walked back to the border, then tried to elude the Moroccan and Spanish police staffing the border crossing.
· The Governments of Spain and Morocco should coordinate to ensure that children are repatriated from Spain to Morocco only when they are returned to family members who are willing and able to care for them or to an appropriate social service agency. In no case should Spanish or Moroccan police be the agency responsible for carrying out unaccompanied migrant children's repatriation.
· The delegates of the Spanish government in Ceuta and Melilla should ensure that no child is repatriated or expelled from Spain unless the delegate has verified that the child is to be returned either to a family member who is willing and able to care for the child or to an appropriate social service agency in the child's country of origin. The delegate should also verify that the child's return would pose no risk or danger to the child's safety or to the safety of his or her relatives before proceeding with repatriation.
· The Government of Morocco should facilitate the return to Morocco of unaccompanied migrant children when it is in the children's best interest and should provide resources for their care and protection, including designating a social welfare agency to receive unaccompanied migrant children who have been returned from Spain and, where appropriate, return them to their families.
· The autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla should ensure that residential centers for unaccompanied children meet basic standards of health and safety and provide children the protection and care that are necessary for their well being.
Methods and Scope
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed thirty-five unaccompanied migrant children: twenty-three in Ceuta, ten in Melilla, and two in Tangier. Most children traveled to Ceuta and Melilla from nearby towns and villages, but some came from as far away as Agadir, Salé, and Fés. All but one of the children we interviewed, an Algerian, were born in Morocco.
The children we interviewed ranged in age from twelve to seventeen. We also interviewed one twenty-one-year-old migrant who had lived in Melilla since the age of eleven. Thirty-two of the children give their ages as sixteen or younger, and fourteen of the children give their ages as fourteen or younger. Only two of the children we interviewed were girls. Representatives of local organizations told us that girls make up a very small percentage of the total population of unaccompanied migrant children in the two cities, and only a handful of girls were staying in Spanish residential centers for unaccompanied children in Ceuta and Melilla.2
In Spain we interviewed representatives of the Spanish central government and autonomous governments with responsibilities for unaccompanied migrant children. The central government officials included the deputy director for immigration in the Ministry of Interior, the deputy director for foreigners' affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the secretary general for social affairs in the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the chief of cabinet in the ombudsman's office (defensor del pueblo), the central government delegate (delegado del Gobierno) in Ceuta and the chief of staff in the office of the central government delegate in Melilla, the fiscales for minors in Ceuta and Melilla, and the president of the court and judge for minors in Ceuta. (A fiscal for minors combines prosecutorial functions with investigative and protection powers.) Local officials included the chief of staff in the office of the Presidency in Ceuta, the director general in Melilla's Department of Social Welfare and Health, and the deputy director in Ceuta's Department of Social Welfare. We requested but did not receive meetings with the minister of education, culture and sports, and the directors of the Departments of Social Welfare in Ceuta and Melilla.
In Morocco we interviewed the minister of justice, the children's rights counselor in the Ministry for Human Rights, the director of the Ministry of Youth and Sports' child protection center in Tangier, and staff at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) mission to Morocco. We requested but did not receive meetings with the ministers of foreign affairs, interior, youth and sports, and human rights.
Representatives of nongovernmental organizations and activists on children's issues in both Spain and Morocco provided us extensive information on the treatment of unaccompanied migrant children in both countries.
We have assigned pseudonyms to all children mentioned in this report to protect their privacy.
Human Rights Watch follows the usage of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in using the term "unaccompanied children," to refer to persons under eighteen years of age who have been separated from both parents and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible to do so. 4
1 See Human Rights Watch, "The Other Face of the Canary Islands: Rights Violations against Migrants and Asylum Seekers," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 14, No. 1 (D), February 2002; Human Rights Watch, "Trafficking of Migrant Women for Forced Prostitution into Greece," A Human Rights Watch Memorandum, July 24, 2001; Human Rights Watch Letter to Members of the Greek Parliament on the Proposed Immigration Bill, February 1, 2001; and Human Rights Watch, "Urgent Concerns: Conditions of Detention for Foreigners in Greece," A Human Rights Watch Memorandum, December 20, 2000.
2 Human Rights Watch did not investigate reports that Moroccan girls are sometimes trafficked to Melilla to work as domestic servants. See Jesús Prieto, "Niñas marroquies esclavas en Melilla," Andalucía Libre, Correo No. 96, 2001.
4 See Protection and Assistance to Unaccompanied and Separated Refugee Children: Report of the Secretary-General, para. 3, U.N. General Assembly, 56th sess., provisional agenda item 126, U.N. Doc. A/56/333 (September 7, 2001). The high commissioner uses the term "separated children" to refer to persons under eighteen years of age who are separated from both parents or from their previous legal or customary primary caregiver, noting that "[s]uch children, although living with extended family members, may face risks similar to those encountered by unaccompanied children." Our interviews did not uncover cases of children who were separated from legal or customary caregivers, and so we have decided to use the more readily understandable term, "unaccompanied children," or alternatively, "unaccompanied migrant children," in recognition that these children are primarily migrants, and not refugees or displaced persons. For a discussion of issues affecting separated children in Europe in the asylum context, see Sandy Ruxton, Separated Children Seeking Asylum in Europe: A Program for Action, (Stockholm: Save the Children and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2000).