Mohammed was hanging out with his friends when a silly argument over a sandwich led to a full-blown fight. As a result of that fight and their subsequent arrest, Mohammed now has to visit a centre for young offenders every week, or else he will be kicked out of Melilla – the small Spanish enclave on the coast of northern Africa, that shares a border with Morocco. Teens and children often enter Melilla hoping to be able to cross into mainland Europe.
Mohammed has spent the past four years stumbling in and out of the system that's meant to protect unaccompanied migrant children in Melilla from being deported. According to the Spanish Ministry of Interior, there are more than 13,000 kids like him in Spain – 68 percent of whom are Moroccan. They are known as "MENAS" – Menores Extranjeros No Acompañados (Unaccompanied Foreign Minors).
Only Andalusia (5,704) and Catalonia (1,870) accepted more unaccompanied minors in Spain than Melilla. But with Melilla's 1,184 registered minors making up 1.5 percent of its population, the town has the highest ratio of these kids to residents.
From 2017 to 2018, the total number of MENAS living in Spain doubled, from 6,414 to 13,012. The MENA reception system started to crumble over that time, as it struggled to provide proper care for them. As a result, many of the kids started abandoning the facilities and tried to find their own way in the local communities. This eventually led to tensions with local residents – with three attacks on centres for unaccompanied migrant children near Barcelona this year alone.
"My parents suggested that I go back to Casablanca," Mohammed admits. "They worry I'll die on the streets otherwise." When he speaks to his parents on the phone, he assures them that he’s fine and that they shouldn't be afraid, because he's being taken care of at the centre with food, a shower and a bed. "They’re going to give me the papers," he tells them.
The story he tells his parents is only partly true. They don't know that the scrawny 16-year-old lived on the streets for at least two years, sleeping under the open sky. If the police had not arrested him that day, he would probably still be on the street, like almost one hundred other minors in Melilla, according to the last record of the Department of Social Welfare.
The issue of his "papers" is a bit more complicated. According to Spanish law, the regional authorities that have migrant children under their supervision are required to grant them a temporary residence permit, which also allows them to work if they're over 16. But this procedure is not being implemented, according to the Ombudsman, who has been reporting the bureaucratic obstacles these kids face. That prevents them from having their documentation in order by the time they come of age, which in turn excludes them from economic and work programmes aimed at full integration – it also simply excludes them from being able to live and work legally.
"You didn’t see children in the streets before," says Maite Echarte, co-founder of PRODEIN, an association for the development and protection of children. "Now the authorities are not providing any documentation. If children get out of these centres with no papers, what's the point in them staying in there in the first place? What are they going to do?"
The delays and flaws in the protection system doom these kids to a life in limbo, where they’d rather take the risk of going to the Melilla port to try and sneak into trucks bound for the Spanish mainland, than having to spend the night in one of the filthy barracks at the La Purísima centre, where dozens of children are crammed, sleeping on mats on the floor.
Yassin is one of the children who decided to leave his home country and now has nowhere to live. He's so high when we meet that he is barely able to speak above a whisper. "I’m fine," he struggles to say. "I've just sniffed some glue. To forget."
His mate Salah, 13, speaks on his behalf. With their families more than 200 kilometres away, Salah tells me that getting high helps them forget how lonely they are. They sniff until dawn, at which time they try to get to mainland Spain. "I don't like the centre," he says. "I'd rather be on the street and try to sneak into a truck." He tries every night and always gets caught.
When I note that he's very young to be doing this, he grumbles. "I'm 15 in Morocco," he replies. "When I came to Melilla a year ago, I did the tests and they thought I was 12." At the gates of Europe, age is another barrier. The authorities only assume guardianship of minors whose age has been confirmed by forensic evidence endorsed by the prosecutors. If it is decided that a kid is over 18, he is immediately excluded from the protection system.
In just a few months' time, Megdoulin will no longer be a minor. She arrived in Melilla less than a year ago and still doesn't know if her residence permit will be ready before her birthday. When I meet her, she's heading for lunch at the MENA centre she lives in, after hanging in a park nearby with her friends.
Megdoulin is from neighbouring Nador, a coastal city in northeastern Morocco. She tries not to think too much about her current situation. What she really loves is dancing; she says it's liberating. "My body just automatically starts moving," she laughs as she shakes her hips to an imaginary tune. She used to suffer with addiction, but she tells me that she doesn't need to attend the sessions organised by Proyecto Hombre – an organisation that helps drug addicts with rehab in Melilla – because music is her therapy. "I'll get by on my own," she tells me. "We'll see how things go."
The Spanish government is negotiating a deal with Morocco concerning these kids. The agreement would involve establishing an exception to the Child Protection Act only for Moroccan MENAS, considering them "early migrants". By Spanish law, unaccompanied foreign minors in Spain enjoy the same rights as Spanish children. They can only be repatriated after the government has checked that they will be safe back in their home country.
With the help of Ceuta, the other Spanish enclave sharing a land border with Morocco, Melilla has gone one step further and requested that the law be amended to include the concept of "premature economic immigrant". This would not only allow the repatriation of the kids to Morocco if their parents are identified, but also to send them directly to centres on the Spanish mainland so that the central government takes care of them if they are not brought back to Morocco within three months.
"I had a lot of family problems over in Morocco," explains Megdoulin. "I couldn't be there with them". Though she doesn't want to stay in Melilla, either. Her target destination is Madrid, while Salah is hoping to end up in Barcelona. From there, he wants to go to Sweden.
Like Ceuta, Melilla is the first stage of a journey that for many children starts in Fez, Casablanca or Marrakech, by car or bus. "You gather a bit of money, take a bus for €14 or €15 and the next morning you’re in Nador," says Mohammed. "You then take a taxi to Beni Enzar and try to slip through the border."
Crossing the Spanish border in Melilla or Ceuta is less risky than trying to reach mainland Spain in one of the ferries that depart from the massive Tangier Med harbour, 18 kilometres from Ceuta. That's why you can find groups of children and teenagers playing and roaming around the motorway that leads to the border crossing of Melilla, waiting for an opportunity to sneak through, hidden between cargo containers.
Karim, 19, has been sleeping on the streets for a long time. He came to Melilla when he was ten, and belongs to the "chewing gum gang", a group of kids who made some money selling gum for €1 a pack. Today, none of those friends remain in the city. "Some of them are in jail, others in Europe," he tells me. "But most of them are in mainland Spain. I’ve tried many times to sneak under a truck."
His personal goal is Almería. He almost made it once, but police found him, still a minor, hidden on a ship in the city's port. "I make sure I can be seen," he says. "I don't hide in difficult places where I could lose a leg or die."
They sent him back to Melilla, as they keep doing.
Photographer José Colón has been documenting the lives of unaccompanied minors in Ceuta and Melilla for over a decade. Scroll down for more of his photos from several stays in Melilla over the years.
Read more stories from VICE.com's series about how the national borders dividing and surrounding Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.
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This article originally appeared on VICE UK.