The lawyers and activists who supported the Moroccan minors until the refoulements were stopped: “We fought against the clock”.

The Maakum volunteers had been on alert for several days. Statements made by the Government delegate in Ceuta suggested that something could happen soon with the Moroccan minors who arrived in the city during the diplomatic crisis with Morocco last May. On Friday 13 August, they were the first to confirm their suspicions. Their mobile phones were filled with messages from the Santa Amelia reception centre. The returns began.

Justice stops the return of nine Moroccan minors from Ceuta.

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Lawyers and volunteers from different NGOs, who began to work in coordination since the arrivals in Ceuta in May, organized again from different parts of Spain with one goal: to stop repatriations that, they warned, did not meet the guarantees. They are part of Maakum, No Name Kitchen, Coordinadora de Barrios, Fundación Raíces, Andalucía Acoge, Elín, Gentium or Save The Children, among others; but in these months they have worked as one. Three days after the beginning of the return operation, a court in Ceuta gave them the reason. The returns were temporarily paralyzed.

“Since May we were coordinating several organizations. Some that work on the ground, doing street work; others that work in Morocco, who were informing us about the situation of the families of some of the children we were identifying as most vulnerable; and others, most of whom are not physically in Ceuta, but who can offer legal support and defence of children’s rights,” describes Lourdes Reyzabal, president of Fundación Raíces. “For all this, we set up several meetings, a WhatsApp chat for general coordination and a folder in Drive shared by all where we upload all the documentation, writings, distribution of tasks, case assignments … And always our eyes and our hands for contact with the kids were the local associations”, she adds.

One of those eyes were those of Joana Millán, from Maakum, a small collective created in 2018. At around 13:00 on August 13, the social educator learned that something strange was happening in the sports center of Santa Amelia. “They start warning us that they were national police arrived and asked to separate part of the minors so that the rest of the children would not see the performance,” explains Millán, who is one of the founders of the association, from Ceuta. “Everything was very strange. It was said that some children would be taken out for a PCR but, when we asked more questions, there were no answers. It started to become clear that they were going to start sending the children back,” she says.

It was then “a fight against the clock”. While the Maakum activists tried in extremis to contact the Moroccan teenagers who were going to be expelled, lawyers from Madrid were racing to prepare legal briefs to request emergency measures from the courts, the Ombudsman or the UN. Once registered, local volunteers rushed to the court and to the border to warn that proceedings had been initiated and to try to prevent the return before the appeal was studied.

“We could not access the Santa Amelia sports centre, but we were able to contact the kids through social networks to create strategies at a legal level so that the minors could be assigned lawyers to prevent their return,” adds Millán, 28, who explains that the first two days it was impossible to get a response from the court in time “despite showing the police that they had lawyers”.

Inma González, lawyer and social integration technician at Andalucía Acoge, describes those first days as “chaotic and very worrying”. “We have been at the foot of the cannon with Maakum, No Name Kitchen and Elín trying to be in contact with the minors inside and outside the sports centre, going to the border to see exactly what was happening and making public complaints”, explains the lawyer.

From Madrid, the lawyer Patricia Fernández Vicens learned of the start of the deportations from her colleagues who were on the ground. “The handover to the Moroccan authorities was done very quickly. The first day we didn’t have time to act. In view of the fact that on Saturday the same operation was repeated, we had already started to work. And thanks to our colleagues who were in Ceuta, we informed the children of what was happening and explained to them that if they did not want to leave, they could appoint us as their lawyers”, explains the lawyer from Coordinadora de Barrios, who has been working with migrant children for 20 years.

On Saturday, August 14, several minors appointed them as lawyers, so Coordinadora de Barrios and Fundación Raíces asked the court for the first stay, with the aim of stopping the detention.e to stop the returns on Sunday. “But we didn’t get there in time,” Fernandez laments. Before processing the case, the minors had already been expelled. “That’s why the work of the colleagues who were in Ceuta was fundamental. They had to stand at the door of the court to explain that it was urgent, get the contacts of the kids …”.

All that effort had its result this Monday. The Court of the Contentious-Administrative number 1 of Ceuta paralyzed the return of nine Moroccan minors who were to be returned between Monday and Tuesday. According to the order, the returns of children and adolescents without procedure, as the judge says they were occurring, violate the law. The paralysis of this group of returns resulted in the temporary suspension of the returns, which is maintained until now.

This Friday, the State Attorney’s Office has supported before the court in Ceuta the legality of proceeding with the return of the minors to Morocco through the 2007 Agreement signed with Rabat due to the “exceptional situation” that the Spanish city is experiencing after the migratory crisis in May. In his brief of allegations, to which Europa Press has had access, the State Attorney sees defects of form in the appeal filed by two NGOs in the courts of Ceuta that paralyzed the repatriation of a group of minors.

Amaia Ochoa from Guipuzcoa, a 25-year-old philologist and student of a master’s degree in Migration, arrived in the city at the end of July and is part of the team of four volunteers of No Name Kitchen currently deployed in Ceuta, where they carry out, among others, a work of “accompaniment” and advice to minors and adults who are in a street situation.

“In the street there is much more tension since the returns began: it always exists, because migrants are aware of their situation and that something would happen, but not so soon,” she describes the change perceived during the last few days. “We are also seeing that the National Police milkmaids are maintaining a much greater presence in the areas where the kids are, although the agents sometimes don’t even get out of the vehicles, but they are there, I don’t know if it’s to give fear or generate insecurity,” he adds.

Millán, who has been in direct contact with the minors who arrived in Ceuta in May, describes how the process is affecting the kids. “The minors told us that they couldn’t sleep well, that any noise they heard they thought it was the police coming to look for them… Many of those who have escaped from their homes in Ceuta are now in a state of insecurity.The same state of alert is maintained in Santa Amelia and Piniers – two temporary shelters – despite the fact that there is no institutional team working with the minors on the street, apart from independent associations with volunteers who play a role that corresponds to the administration,” he says.

The lawyer of Coordinadora de Barrios recalls with impotence the assemblies they held with the children in June. “There were children who were in the street and we tried to mediate to get them into the centres, because we trusted the child protection services. In view of what has happened, I regret it to some extent,” says Fernandez, who recalls especially the case of a boy whose return to his country was “a great risk”. “His sister, who was in the peninsula, called me and told me that if he returned, his father would kill him. She said that the boy was living in a situation of labour exploitation in his country”, she says.

“It has been a fight against the clock, with many open fronts, in the midst of uncertainty and desperation of the minors themselves, who had always received the information that Spain is a state governed by the rule of law”, summarizes Millán, who also talks to some of the minors who have returned in the last week. “They ask us to help them return, but we can’t say yes, just as we don’t want to create false expectations for those who are here. We are doing everything we can to denounce this situation, a big blunder by the Spanish state,” he says.

Defending minors for 20 years

This is not the first time that Patricia Fernández and Lourdes Reyzábal have supported migrant minors from being returned to their country. The lawyer of Coordinadora de Barrios remembers those kids whose repatriation she tried to prevent “without guarantees” in 2001 and 2006. “We are still in contact with many of them. That is our way of working, so we create networks that allow us to act quickly in situations such as those experienced in Ceuta,” adds the lawyer.

The lawyer looks back to make a reflection: “The state’s attempts to cheat in the protection of unaccompanied foreign minors are cyclical”. But, she clarifies, the operation of the Interior and the Government of Ceuta to return the minors is one of the most “serious” that she has witnessed as a lawyer. “There is a detail that marks the seriousness of what happened: in this case, it is not a violation of human rights occurred in an administrative procedure, but an operation designed to prevent them from defending themselves and to circumvent the law. In 2001 and 2006, there was no pronouncement by the Constitutional Court and there was no detailed regulatory framework,” he adds. Now there is, but “it hasn’t mattered”.

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