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Moroccan father of boy who crossed into Spain longs for his return

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AP Photo


When Abdeslam El Afaki got home last Monday, his sons had heard rumours that the border between Morocco and the Spanish city of Ceuta was open, after more than a year closed due to the pandemic.

Surprised by the news, and fearing they would try to cross, their father instructed them not to leave their town of Fnideq, on the Moroccan side, and reminded his 15-year-old that he needed to go to school.

They didn't listen and were among roughly 1,500 young people who made it to the Spanish enclave in North Africa.

They did it by swimming around a breakwater or climbing over a fence, after Morocco relaxed its border surveillance in an apparent retaliation against Spain for hosting a Sahrawi leader.

The eldest who is 18, eventually returned, but Soulaiman, the 15-year-old didn't.

After many days worrying about his fate, El Afaki was finally able to reach him through intermediaries, and found he was being held in a temporary center for young migrants in Ceuta.

"I was defeated," his father told AP from his home in Fnideq. "I fell to the ground."

A week after an unprecedented number of irregular crossings – more than 8,000 people in 36 hours – Spanish authorities are now faced with a complex and delicate issue: What to do with the hundreds of unaccompanied teenagers and children from Morocco, now in their hands?

At least 800 minors have been identified so far and are sleeping in several temporary centers set up in Ceuta, including in gymnasiums and warehouses.

But there are more minors sleeping in the streets, hiding from authorities and fearing deportation.

The existing shelter for unaccompanied minors was already at its full capacity - with 300 teenagers - before the massive border breach on 17 May.

The Spanish government said it will transfer 200 of them to other parts of mainland Spain to make space for the new arrivals.

In normal circumstances, migrants under 18 who enter Spain irregularly cannot be deported and become the responsibility of the local regional government until relatives are found or until they become adults.

But many of the young migrants who have recently crossed have parents desperate for their sons and daughters to be returned.

Save The Children, an international non-profit, has urged Spanish authorities to analyze each case individually and to base repatriation decisions on the child's best interest and safety, which may not necessarily mean sending them back to their parents in Morocco.

Soulaiman for example doesn't want to go back, much to his father's dismay.

"My children have started to drift away, they want to go to Europe, they say that they cannot live in Morocco," the father said.

Despite the sadness and heartache caused by the departure of his son, El Afaki says he understands why the boy prefers not to come back.

There are no jobs in his town for young people, even those with an education and a degree, pushing many young men into drugs and crime.

"We need our children here, in our country. They must be in this country, we educate them in our country but unfortunately there is no work or studies (education)" he said.

The 60-year-old father of four wants at least to have the chance to leave a house for his children "I want to buy a land for them (his children) or a house, that is what I hope for them, to be calm when I die and to leave a house where they will stay".

But It will take time for authorities to decide about Soulaiman's future and if he will return to his family in Morocco or not.

The Spanish authorities are going through the cases of each minor currently in Ceuta, and will assess whether each teenager and child should be repatriated or remain in Spain.

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