By Shereen Talaat
FNIDEQ, Morocco (Reuters) – Weary of his hand-to-mouth existence in a poverty-stricken Moroccan town, Yasser El-Shada thought his route to a better life had opened up this week when controls at the border with Ceuta, a Spanish enclave just down the road, appeared to ease.
He and his best friend in Fnideq on the Mediterranean coast joined crowds of other would-be migrants heading for the tiny pocket of European territory by swimming around the fence separating it from North Africa.
They were part of an estimated 8,000-strong wave of humanity of all ages that crossed by water or climbed the border fence on Monday and Tuesday.
“We went from there (Fnideq) down to the sea, swam to the border, and entered Ceuta,” he told Reuters TV.
“There was a woman who had a one-month baby girl, she swam with the baby and entered with us. She put her in a plastic bag and swam. There was also a father with his wife and two little children, he did the same thing, everyone entered from here.”
Shada made it across the few hundred metres (yards) of sea, landing on Ceuta beach – but the harsh welcome he says he received there persuaded him to return home again, joining thousands of others who had been expelled back to Morocco by Wednesday evening.
“The Spanish were very racist… We were very tired and they were beating us with big batons. If they saw us setting down, they would beat us on our legs to stand up…,” Shada said.
“We could not stand because of the pain and it was very cold so we decided to come back.”
Spain has beefed up border security in Ceuta with around 200 troops and an additional 200 police, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said. A ministry source told Reuters the security forces were scrupulous in not mistreating migrants.
“Under no circumstances do they use violence against them and, in the case of Ceuta … police have spent much of their time helping people who ended up in the sea needing help,” the source said.
For many, the dangerous swim is a measure of how far Fnideq has fallen.
The town once thrived on trade with Ceuta, often in imported goods that townspeople smuggled across from the enclave to sell in small shops.
But Morocco suspended access to the border last October, part of an attempt to rescue its internal economy that has backfired badly on Fnideq.
Border controls were tighter again on Wednesday, Monday’s apparent loosening having been widely interpreted as retaliation for Spain’s hosting of a Western Sahara independence leader..
But hundreds more Moroccans and sub-Saharan Africans nevertheless attempted to slip into Ceuta as thick fog descended.
Shada was not among them, but he says he will try to cross again.
His dream remains to reach mainland Europe, where he hopes he could live with dignity and support a family.
“I proposed to another woman after my divorce but we left each other because am not working. At my age I can’t marry and have a family without having a job,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Emma Pinedo in Madrid; Writing and editing by John Stonestreet)