José Palazón Melilla

Sometimes there is a photograph that captures in one image an essential truth.

Jose Palazon is a resident of the tiny Spanish enclave of Melilla, a nick in the Mediterranean coastline of Morocco. The enclave is surrounded by a tall fence, built and guarded with the help of European Union money to try to prevent African migrants from reaching Spanish territory. Palazon runs an organization called Prodein, which attempts to help immigrants who enter the enclave illegally.  On Wednesday this week he took the photo above as more than 200 migrants attempted to cross the massive border fence.

In the photo, the migrants are attempting to escape into the Club Campo de Golf de Melilla, a public golf course where games can cost up to £20. The per capita income of Melilla is 15 times more than that of the surrounding areas of Morocco and astronomically higher than many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Thousands of African immigrants living illegally in Morocco try to enter Spain’s enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta each year, hoping to reach Europe.

Jonathan Jones writing in today’s Guardian made this analysis of Palazon’s photograph:

The obscenity of this photograph lies in the willed indifference of the golfers. They play as if they could not see the desperate danglers so close to their pampered game. They are clad in expensive, well-laundered white clothes and equipped with caddies of top-notch gear. The creases and cleanness of their apparel are obvious even at a distance and contrast glaringly with the shabby garb of the migrants. The players shine in the African sun, their unwilling audience wears clothes that grimly repel it.[…]

The enclosed garden they inhabit is an artificial paradise that luridly triumphs over nature. Out there, in that other world, nature itself looks poor and unforgiving. Wild grasses and raw earth on a sparse hillside. In here, in the paradise of the wealthy and the lucky, the grass is so synthetically fed, so monstrously cosseted that it glows with an unreal almost fluorescent lime beauty. It is like a Beverly Hills lawn transplanted to the moon. […]

It is a metaphor not just of Spain’s enclave in north Africa as an uneasy meeting place of two worlds, but of the rich and poor parts of humanity. The golf course is Europe itself, shutting out a common humanity clamouring for better lives. Your poor, your tired, your huddled masses? Wrong continent.

Spain’s Interior Ministry said 2,000 migrants have made it across Melilla’s border fence in roughly 60 attempts so far this year. Those that make it head for the city’s temporary migrant accommodation centre. They are eventually repatriated or let go. There are more dramatic photos of the Melilla fence on the International Business Times website (!?) here.

Seumus Milne commented in the Guardian earlier this month:

Given the escalating scale of global inequality, the only surprise is that migration pressures are not greater still. In the late 19th century average income in the richest countries was around five times that of the poorest. By the early years of this century, it was more than 18 times higher – in the US it is now around 25 times that of the poorest.

The champions of capitalist globalisation insisted that the power of global markets would change all that. But, if you strip out China – which has delivered the fastest growth and poverty reduction in history, albeit at high environmental and social cost, by ignoring the neoliberal Washington consensus – poverty and inequality has continued to grow between as well as within countries.

As the catechism of ‘free market’ deregulation has been imposed across the world under “free trade” and “partnership” agreements and the destructive discipline of the IMF, World Bank and WTO, capital and resources have been sucked out of the developing world and tens of millions of people have been driven into urban poverty by corporate land grabs.

That is why the number living on less than $2 a day in sub-Saharan Africa has doubled since 1981 under the sway of rich world globalisation. Africa’s boom has been in resource exploitation, not in most people’s living standards. So it is hardly surprising that migration from the global south to high and middle-income countries has more or less tripled over the past half century.

Add the impact of multiple wars over the past two decades, sponsored or fuelled by rich world countries – from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali and Libya – and the pressures on Europe’s borders and off its coasts are not hard to understand.

Melilla fence

The Melilla fence

The Immigrants by Margaret Atwood

They are allowed to inherit
the sidewalks involved as palmlines, bricks
exhausted and soft, the deep
lawnsmells, orchards whorled
to the land’s contours, the inflected weather

only to be told they are too poor
to keep it up, or someone
has noticed and wants to kill them; or the towns
pass laws which declare them obsolete.

I see them coming
up from the hold smelling of vomit,
infested, emaciated, their skins grey
with travel; as they step on shore

the old countries recede, become
perfect, thumbnail castles preserved
like gallstones in a glass bottle, the
towns dwindle upon the hillsides
in a light, paperweight-clear.

They carry their carpetbags and trunks
with clothes, dishes, the family pictures;
they think they will make an order
like the old one, sow miniature orchards,
carve children and flocks out of wood

but always they are too poor, the sky
its flat, the green fruit shrivels
in the prairies sun, wood is for burning;
and if they go back, they towns

in time have crumpled, their tongues
stumble among awkward teeth, their ears
are filled the sound of breaking glass.
I wish I could forget them
and so forget myself:

my mind is a wide pink map
across which move year after year
arrows and dotted lines, further and further,
people in railway cars

their heads stuck out of the windows
at the stations. drinking milk of singing,
their features hidden with beards or shawls
day and night riding across an ocean of unknown
Land to an unknown land.

Melilla fence sea

A Melilla fence ends in the Mediterranean at the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave

See also


8 thoughts on “The fence: between a world of need and a world of excess

  1. This is crazy. I don’t think I could stand that far away from people in need and continue on in my life of privilege. I wonder if this is what’s it’s like in Texas on the Mexican border. I live nowhere near it, and it pains me just to think about it. I couldn’t imagine seeing it every day.

  2. Dear Gerry Cordon,

    I am currently studying my A levels, and for my baccalaureate qualification I must complete an extended piece of personal research on a topic of my choice. I hope you don’t mind me contacting you, as my dad follows your blog, and thought you may be able to help. I have decided to write about English and Welsh war poetry and prose, and therefore I must find primary and contemporary sources to discuss the issues I shall be raising. I have been reading your blog posts about Wilfred Owen, and there is a part I am particularly interested in. You state that war literature teaches us ‘how to live, how to live with each other, and how to write’. I was wondering if you could extend this in order that I can attain a secondary viewpoint on War Literature. Your viewpoint will be valuable for my essay, and I hope that you have time to contact me back soon.

    Thank you.

    Yours faithfully,

    Faye Latham

    1. Hi Faye

      It was Robert Graves (not me) who wrote that the First World War raises questions about ‘€˜how to live, how to live with each other, and how to write’€™ in ‘€˜Goodbye to All That’€™. His phrase is quoted by Lavinia Greenlaw who curated a series of talks on Radio 3 in which writers reflected on the impact of the war. ( I wrote about Jeanette Winterson’s contribution here – – which may be how you came across the phrase.

      I don’€™t know how much help I can be with your question, but I suppose the value of reading the First World War poets (not just the British ones, but the French, German, etc) and the novels (like Barbusse’€™s ‘€˜Under Fire’€™ or Remarque’€™s ‘€˜All Quiet’€™) is that they encourage empathy and compassion (for your fellow-soldiers, for the enemy ‘Owen’€™s ‘€˜pity of war’€™); they encourage the questioning of patriotism, nationalism, authority, religion, and justifications for war in concepts such as ‒sacrifice’€™ (‘€˜Patriotism, in the trenches, was too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as fit only for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism would soon be told to cut it out.’€™ ; ‘€˜It would have been difficult to remain religious in the trenches even if one had survived the irreligion of the training battalion at home.Hardly one soldier in a hundred was inspired by religious feeling of even the crudest kind.’€™, Graves, ‘€˜Goodbye to All That’,Ch. 17).

      There are plenty of good books on the subject -€“ Jay Winter’€™s ‘€˜The Great War and the Making of the 20th Century’€™ and Jon Stallworthy’€™s poetry anthology ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth: 12 Soldier Poets of the 1WW’€™ come to mind.

      Good luck with your studies!


  3. I was struck how my eye was automatically drawn to the green centre of the top image … like a Beverly Hills lawn transplanted to the moon … what’s on the periphery fades into the clashing shadow world. The middle classes, who read, who are informed, but don’t have the funds to distract themselves thoroughly with the perks of life, are, I think, the ones that suffer the depression and numbness of this situation.The need for INTEGRATION of underprivileged groups on our planet floats up as the most vital challenge our age has to tackle. How to achieve it, how to build bridges and create open spaces between borders where creative exchanges can happen? I don’t know, and that’s so depressing.
    Thanks for your succinct post, and the links.

  4. Thanks Gerry, for an important and moving post.
    I work in Leeds City Centre, and an hour ago we provided food for a white person, English, on low income who has no money until friday of this week.Tommorrow, it could be someone from abroad. We have seen a large increase in Spanish people coming to Leeds, many of whom have little English, but are despoerate to work. Some Spanish speakers in our congregation try to help, but the issues these folk face on arrival in \Leeds are considerable.
    The tragedy is, that at the same time a multi million pound shopping developement is being built in the city., one which is not really needed and yet will provide more for those who already have much. We too have such inequalities.
    FIve years ago I read the following.
    If you have 2,200 US dollars to your name you are among the worlds top 50%. If you have asetts of more than 64,000o%
    dollars you are in the worlds top 10%. If you earn anually more than 50,000 dollars you are in the worlds top 10% of earners.
    I was shocked by these figures. I am not a socialist, and poverty is a very complex issue, yet it is one we must address. The truth is that almost everyone I know, is in the top 20% of earners in the world yet many are filled with longing for more and better. We know corruption is a massive issue. We know War is terrible and destructive. But this artcle leaves me with two quick impressions.
    !. The hypocrisy of Spain over GIbraltar, the place they didnt want and willingly signed away.
    2. That we all have a responsibility for doing what we can for those “Other humans” who are withouirt hope.
    May GOd give us politicians, less concerned with their own reputation and genuinley moved by the worlds plight.

  5. Thanks Gerry for this via Ashen. It is extremely graphic and I thank you for this. Poverty is usually due to that country’s politicians … time to take the power out of their hands. They are our servants afterall; who pays their salaries? We do … they are NOT our rulers.
    There is something in the air I think – we’re more aware of inequalties and the desperation of those who want to escape to a better life. The ordinary person’s voice is louder in protesting about gross inequalities .. I’m hopeful .. a bit …

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