The underage migrants who changed Spain’s repatriation policy

A surge in complaints has led to more guarantees for the minors, but there is renewed political support for sending them back

Bilal El Meghrau at the Barcelona restaurant where he works.
Bilal El Meghrau at the Barcelona restaurant where he works.Consuelo Bautista

Bilal was at school, having breakfast with his friends right before the start of morning classes, when four plainclothes police officers showed up and took him away in a patrol car to the Madrid airport. Just a few hours later, he was back in Tangier, the Moroccan city that he had left behind a year and a half earlier, hidden under a truck, on his way “to a better life.” It was 2006 and Bilal El Meghraui was 17 years old.

Bilal is one of the few Moroccan teenagers that Spanish courts have managed to bring back to Spain after Madrid and Rabat signed a memorandum in 2003 allowing for the deportation of unaccompanied minors.

Repatriations are used as currency by Morocco and Spain, Germany, France or Sweden

His story showcased just how badly government agencies can handle these cases. In a pioneering ruling, a judge eventually ordered authorities to bring the young man back to Spain, three years after his traumatic experience. But Bilal does not like to think back on that episode. “It hurts,” he says, 13 years later.

He was flown back to Morocco on the grounds that it was in his own best interest, although nobody had asked him if he wanted to. Nor had any official contacted his family to make sure somebody would be there for him, despite the fact that this is a legal requirement.

“They knocked me to the ground, they put me up against the wall, they insulted me...the police didn’t explain anything to me,” he recalls.

Legal changes

From 2004 to 2017, Spain sent back around 300 minors, including at least 158 from Morocco, according to figures from the Prosecutor General’s Office, which oversees these procedures to ensure they comply with the law.

It’s not going to make a difference. People are going to try it again

More than two thirds of these repatriations took place between 2004 and 2006, the year they took Bilal. After that, prosecutor reports began complaining about “very scant cooperation” from the countries of origin, while admitting that there were “serious deficiencies” in the way these returns were being handled. There was a surge in legal complaints and more court decisions that were favorable to the underage migrants. This led to legislative changes with greater guarantees for the deportees.

But the initiative to send back underage immigrants has been supported by local, regional and national leaders from across the political spectrum. The latest politician to embrace the measure was Albert Batlle, Barcelona’s deputy mayor for citizen safety, who does not even have powers over these policies.

Reactivating the old agreement with Morocco has been on the executive’s agenda for months. In late 2018, officials from the Interior Ministry and the Office of the State Secretary for Migration intensified talks with Rabat in an effort to get Morocco to take back its underage migrants.

Non-profits are warning that the bad practices of the past could make a comeback. “I can’t refuse to send back a child who wants to go back to his family. The key is that these procedures require guarantees: the minor has the right to be heard and to a lawyer who will defend his or her interests,” says Lourdes Reyzábal, of Fundación Raíces.

Rabat is key

Once again, Rabat holds the key. According to official figures, nearly 70% of the more than 12,000 underage immigrants living in Spain are Moroccan.

“Repatriations are used as currency by Morocco and Spain, Germany, France or Sweden,” says Mercedes Jiménez, an anthropologist who works to defend immigrant children and teens. “The primary concern is not protection, it is migratory control and the use of a criminalizing rhetoric.”

Bilal waited three years for the court ruling that said that he was sent back illegally. He returned to Madrid in 2009, resumed his carpenter courses and later studied cooking. Since 2012 he has been working as a cook at one of the restaurants run by the world-famous Adrià brothers, thanks to a project named Cocina Conciencia run by Fundación Raíces.

“I suffer when I think of the way those policemen treated me, and what they did to me,” says Bilal. “Now I have another life. I just want to be a good cook.”

Bilal does not think that sending kids back is a good solution. “It’s not going to make a difference. People are going to try it again,” he notes, recalling how the only thing he could think of when he found himself back in Tangier was how to climb under a truck again to go back to Algeciras in Spain. “There’s no stopping that.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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