Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Feb. 24, 2021

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Europe-bound migrants found amid broken glass, toxic ash

41 people found hiding in cargo in Melilla port area

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In this image taken from video made available by the Guardia Civil, an officer of the Guardia Civil helps a man out from under glass bottles in a container in Melilla, Spain, Friday Feb. 19, 2021. Spanish authorities say they have found and rescued 41 migrants who tried to reach continental Europe from North Africa in the past four days, some of them hiding inside a container of discarded glass bottles and a bag of toxic ash.
In this image taken from video made available by the Guardia Civil, an officer of the Guardia Civil helps a man out from under glass bottles in a container in Melilla, Spain, Friday Feb. 19, 2021. Spanish authorities say they have found and rescued 41 migrants who tried to reach continental Europe from North Africa in the past four days, some of them hiding inside a container of discarded glass bottles and a bag of toxic ash. (Guardia Civil via AP) (Guardia Civil) Photo Gallery

MADRID — Something seemed wrong to the guard inspecting sealed bags of toxic ash in the port of Melilla, one of Spain’s two small territories in North Africa. So he pulled a knife, cut the bag open and found a motionless leg, confirming his suspicion that a person was inside.

He lifted and dropped the leg a few times, with no reaction. A few moments passed. Suddenly the leg pulled back, and a young man emerged from the ashes — frightened and disoriented, but alive.

The disturbing scene from a video released Monday by Spain’s Civil Guard highlighted the great lengths and risks that migrants and asylum-seekers take in their desperate attempts to reach Europe.

The survivor was among 41 people found hiding amid cargo in Melilla’s 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 beneath glass bottles, some broken with sharp edges.

Surrounded by Morocco, the tiny enclaves of Melilla and nearby Ceuta have been a target for many African migrants for years. But the two territories fall outside the Schengen area of free mobility across much of Europe, so many of them become trapped in their effort to reach European soil.

The port of Melilla, where trucks and containers begin a trip to Spain that can take up to seven hours, gives many a way to escape. Some try to enter the fenced area of the harbor by swimming there or by hiding underneath vehicles, jumping onto them when they slow down or stop at the gates of the port.

Others try to climb the perimeter fences and walls, sometimes falling and getting seriously injured.

With the help of search dogs and microphones to detect heartbeats, police often find people hiding amid the cargo, from containers to cement mixers. This year alone, the Civil Guard said it has identified 1,781 migrants trespassing in Melilla port’s security perimeter; last year, the number was 11,700.

Still, discoveries like those last week are unsettling for the most experienced officers.

“We’ll never get used to it,” said Juan Antonio Martin, a spokesman with the Civil Guard in Melilla.

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