This article appears in VICE Magazine's Borders Issue. The edition is a global exploration of both physical and invisible borders and examines who is affected by these lines and why we've imbued them with so much power. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.
I have family who have lived on the Rock—or Gibraltar, as it’s formally known—for more than 10 years. It’s a quirky place, one that, I presume until recently, few people outside the EU knew or heard much about. Indeed, a common misconception is that Gibraltar is an island in the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, it’s a peninsula—a towering mountain of limestone jutting out from the bottom of Spain and, since 1713, the only part of British territory located on mainland Europe.
Once you get over the novelty of walking about in what appears to be a small British town—with its iconic red mailboxes and telephone booths—while people around you speak a mix of Spanish and English, you begin to appreciate the nature of its quirkiness. The people living here are not “Brits abroad,” nor are they simply defined as British. Though physically the territory could be argued to be part of Spain, its residents are proud of their British heritage. In a referendum on the issue back in 1967, more than 99 percent voted to remain under British sovereignty.
The relationship between Gibraltar and Spain is, understandably, complicated—swinging wildly between indifference and outright hostility. Franco closed the border from 1969 until 1985. As a result, some families were split apart, with relatives on both sides of the border; the cost of food and other basic goods went up; many Spanish workers lost their jobs; and Gibraltarians were boxed in. Many fear Brexit may trigger another border crisis with dire consequences for those living on either side of the fence.
My project aims to document Gibraltar’s heritage and, with Brexit looming, the challenges it may face if it leaves the EU.
The immediate concern is freedom of movement across the border. More than 750,000 people cross the border each month, according to a report from 2018. Currently, this is an easy and often casual affair. On a trip last year, I entered from the Spanish side and the officer “checking” passports didn’t even look up from his mobile phone. (A Gibraltarian told me this was because, for the officer, checking my passport would mean acknowledging the border and Gibraltar’s existence as a country.) However, this isn’t always the case—Spanish officers sometimes bring border traffic to a standstill by thoroughly checking each vehicle passing through.
For many Spanish locals, Gibraltar provides vital jobs, such as construction work, in an area where employment options are limited. The areas of Spain surrounding Gibraltar suffered greatly during the 2008 recession and remain economically depressed—the bordering town of La Linea has an unemployment rate of around 30 percent. For citizens on both sides, money can be made illegally by taking advantage of Gibraltar’s low tax on goods; for example purchasing cigarettes cheaply there and selling them for profit in Spain.
But it’s not only the land border that is causing problems—Gibraltar’s coastline is also an area of contention. The territory is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and its population keeps growing. Because of the impracticality of building on the sheer rock face, the Gibraltarian government has resorted to reclaiming land from the sea to build on. To Spain, this is Spanish water, and in retaliation, it has threatened legal action against future developments.
Despite these issues, the two entities have a working relationship, with police forces collaborating to intercept drug smugglers making the journey from Morocco. The hope is that this spirit of cooperation can continue at all levels. In March this year a tax treaty was signed between Gibraltar and Spain, and further concessions on both sides will be needed to ensure continued stability on either side of the border.
If you want more border stories, check out this additional package which explores how the borders that divide and surround Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.