Something seemed wrong to the warden who inspected the sealed bags of toxic ash in the, one of the two small Spanish territories in North Africa. So he took out a knife, opened the bag and found a still leg, confirming his suspicion that a person was inside.
He lifted and dropped the leg several times, without reaction. A few moments passed. Suddenly, the leg pulled back, and a young man emerged from the ashes – scared and disoriented, but alive.
The disturbing scene in a video released on Monday by the Spanish Civil Guard highlighted the lengths and considerable risks migrants and asylum seekers take in their desperate attempts to reach Europe.
The survivor was among 41 people found hiding in the middle of a shipment in the Melilla 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 under glass bottles, some broken with sharp edges.
Surrounded by Morocco, the tiny enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, nearby, have been the target of many African migrants for years. But the two territories are not part of the Schengen area for free mobility in much of Europe, so many of them are trapped in their efforts to reach European soil.
The port of Melilla, where trucks and containers begin a trip to Spain that can take up to seven hours, offers plenty of escape routes. Some try to enter the fenced area of the port by swimming or hiding under vehicles, jumping on them when they slow down or stopping at the port gates.
Others attempt to climb fences and perimeter walls, sometimes falling and seriously injuring themselves.
With the help of search dogs and microphones to detect heartbeats, police often find people hiding amidst cargo, from containers to concrete mixers. This year alone, the Civil Guard said it had identified 1,781 migrants entering the security perimeter of the port of Melilla; last year the number was 11,700.
Yet discoveries like those of last week are troubling to the most experienced officers.
“We will never get used to it,” said Juan Antonio Martín, a spokesperson for the Civil Guard in Melilla.
The border between the North African territories of Spain and Morocco having been closed since the start of the pandemic in March, it is more difficult for migrants to slip through. According to Spain’s Interior Ministry, nearly 1,500 people entered Melilla illegally last year, up 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 passenger ferries or flights to the mainland, either because they did not have travel documents or because they entered Spain illegally.
Their nationality was not disclosed, but the spokesperson said most were of Moroccan descent.
As Morocco’s closure of the land border with Ceuta and Melilla follows years of strengthening border security, which had already led to a sharp decline in illegal crossings, the Spanish Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean have become the main disembarkation point for people fleeing North and West Africa to Europe.
Last year some 23,000 people reached the archipelago, most of them pulled from the waters by the Spanish maritime rescue service, and more than 500 died or went missing in the attempt.
And here too, rescuers have sometimes faced the unthinkable. In December, the Spanish newspaper El País reported that a 14-year-old Nigerian spent two weeks hanging from the rudder of an oil tanker before being found by a patrol boat near the port of Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria.