Images of a Spanish police diver rescuing a months-old baby from the freezing seawater as his mother attempted to reach Spain’s North African exclave city of Ceuta have made the headlines the world over.
The pictures captured the humanitarian crisis that began to unfurl in the area this week when Morocco unexpectedly loosened its border control on irregular immigration, allowing thousands of people to attempt the crossing into Spanish territory unimpeded. Spain has tied this move to its own recent decision to provide hospital care for an independence leader from the disputed territory of Western Sahara, to which Morocco lays claim
Spain deployed the army to Ceuta and began a flurry of diplomatic activity in a bid to stem the flow of migrants. On Monday and Tuesday, between 8,000 and 9,000 people crossed into the city, either on foot or by swimming to Ceuta’s beaches, according to estimates by security forces. The Spanish government said that 5,600 people have been sent back to Morocco, but authorities are now struggling to find shelter for hundreds of unaccompanied minors who remain in Ceuta and who cannot be deported like adults under Spanish legislation.
The maritime route is particularly risky, and divers such as Juan Francisco Valle, 41, have been rescuing people since the crisis began. Valle is one of eight members of a special underwater unit (GEAS) attached to the Civil Guard in Ceuta. He and his colleagues spent nearly two full days in the water.
“We’ve slept a total of eight to 10 hours since Sunday,” he told EL PAÍS on Wednesday afternoon. Valle said he did not know whether the baby he plucked out of the water looking “rigid, white” was a girl or a boy. Or even whether the child was dead or alive, for that matter. Civil Guard sources since confirmed that the baby was alive and well and was being cared for at an undisclosed location.
Juanfran, as his friends call him, used to be a member of the military and he worked as a diver in the Spanish Navy. He joined the Civil Guard 12 years ago, and was trained to deal with “almost any situation at sea.” Even so, he had never faced a situation quite like this one, “a human tide” made up of “hundreds of desperate people.”
“Our regular job involves recovering dead bodies from the water, whether the sea, a reservoir or a river,” he said. “But this time we had to rescue living people of all ages and in all kinds of conditions, and also to decide which among so many people required our help most urgently. We picked the baby, who was freezing cold, not moving at all.”
Civil Guard sources said that they have been taking “children, women, young people, old people” out of the water since before dawn on Monday. Valle himself could not recall how many people he has helped these past two days.
“We were watching all the people we believed would not be able to make it from their departure point to the Spanish zone,” said Valle. “They were using toy swim rings, empty bottles, anything. Some of them were wearing life vests the wrong way, and instead of keeping their heads above water they were having the opposite effect,” he recalled. “There were many fathers and mothers with their children strapped to their bodies as best they could.”
The diver noted that despite saving so many people, he and his colleagues were unable to reach everyone: one young man drowned on Tuesday, the only fatality so far in the ongoing crisis. But the rescuers will not soon forget the panic in the eyes of the people they helped. After answering questions from the press, Valle went back into the water with his fellow divers to keep saving lives.
English version by Susana Urra.