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Society

Death and Despair on Europe’s African Frontier (Photos)

They piled pebbles on the fringes to stop the shiny golden covering from blowing away. Two burly men in white coveralls then arrived with a plastic coffin. Their boots scrunched on the shingle as they carried the corpse away: yet another body, picked up off yet another European shore.

After beaches in Greece, Italy and elsewhere, a fleck of Spanish territory on the northern coast of Africa this week became the latest deadly flashpoint in Europe’s battle to stem migration flows from less fortunate regions of the world wracked by conflict, poverty and other miseries.

In an unprecedented 48-hour siege that quickly overwhelmed Spanish authorities, more than 8,000 people clambered around border fences and swam from Morocco to the Spanish-governed enclave of Ceuta.

Spanish authorities recovered two bodies from the waves, both young men from Morocco.

Some swimmers knelt down in prayer before wading from Moroccan beaches into the Mediterranean, hoping to make land in Ceuta and, from there, make new lives in mainland Europe.

Some swam with packages of belongings. Weaker swimmers struggled in the waves and marine currents. A rictus of pain contorted the face of a young migrant as he flailed through the final meters (yards) to shore.

A barefoot swimmer reached Ceuta seemingly so exhausted that he couldn’t immediately drag himself from the surf. He lay face down, grimacing, his right hand clutching the wet sand. The man later bear-hugged a Spanish Red Cross worker who comforted him. With a tender hand on the back of his head, she held him to her shoulder.

Other migrants piled aboard flimsy boats. One small craft with 14 tightly packed young men aboard floated dangerously low in the water. They used empty bottles to bail it out. Another man swam along behind, clutching the stern.

Rushed in to plug the holes in the porous border through which people streamed, Spanish troops in flak jackets and with long truncheons rounded up young men in Bermuda shorts, tracksuits and soccer jerseys bearing the names of the sport’s biggest stars.

Soldiers chased across the pebbles after migrants in sandals and flimsy shoes. At night, alleyways in Ceuta echoed with the patter of migrants running and hiding.

On the Moroccan side, more young men streamed toward the enclave, on well-trodden paths through tall, flowering shrubs.

Posted along a towering border fence, Spanish soldiers watched through the mesh as migrants gathered on the other side, on a boulder-strewn seafront and on arid hills overlooking Ceuta.

Spanish forces rained down tear gas canisters onto the swelling crowds, the acrid smoke trailing curly white plumes.

Spanish armored vehicles parked along the beach, their wheels digging into the shingle that was strewn with discarded clothes and other debris left by migrants who swam around the fence to Ceuta.

For the vast majority, its shores were as close as they came to the possibility of a new start in Europe.

The bulk — more than 7,000 — were quickly sent back. Soldiers escorted them to a gate in the border fence, expelling them into Morocco.

But how long before the waters beckon them back?

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