A Visit to Melilla

Links to sections below: Taking care of the elder - From the suburbs - Comparison to the U.S.-Mexican border.

Melilla is a Spanish town in Africa, six hours by ferry south of Malaga

Buildings in Modernista style in the centre of Melilla

Melilla and Ceuta are Spanish territories that have belonged to Spain for about 500 years. In Spanish, the name is pronounced "Me-LI-yah"

Melilla is a harbour town with a territory of 3 x 4 kilometres and 86,000 inhabitants. There is a mix of cultures and religions. Half the inhabitants are Muslim Berbers, the other half are Catholics of Spanish origin. Melilla observe the Eid as an official holiday.

The main mosque in Melilla. Architect Enrique Nieto.

Melilla has a Jewish minority with 1,200 members, several synagogues and a school. Some of the Jews moved to Melilla from Tetouan around 1860. Tetouan is a Moroccan town near Ceuta. In Tunisia and Turkey I have seen the local police guarding Jewish schools and synagogues, but that is not necessary in Melilla.

There has also existed a Hindu minority in Melilla, but it is not visible anymore.

Earlier there have been Jewish settlements in all larger towns in Morocco. George Orwell spent the winter 1938-1939 near Marrakech, Morocco. He described how the Jews in the ghetto there lived in squalor. By now the Jews have emigrated from Morocco.

A mix of cultures and religions: At the central square, a jazz band is playing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas". A muslim woman passes by Jehova's Witnesses. In the background the main Catholic church. To the right is a tree with ripe oranges, so it's unlikely that it will be a white Christmas.

At the "Place of the Four Cultures" (Spanish, Berber, Jewish, and Hindu).

Melilla has Spain's second-largest number of buildings in Secession style, here called "Modernista". Barcelona is the town with most buildings, and the architect Enrico Nieto moved to Melilla from Barcelona. He designed the largest mosque, the largest synagogue, and the largest Catholic church in Melilla, as well as a series of large buildings at the central square. In Melilla, the Modernista style continued until the 1940s. Elsewhere, Secession was mostly built from 1900-1910.

Newer buildings in Modernista style

Melilla is unique in that way that it is a Spanish coastal town with a comfortable climate, but there are only few tourists. Also, only a few of the inhabitants speak English or German. 

Melilla's economy is also unique, as there are neither agriculture, fishing nor any particular industry. Many are working in the public sector, especially in the military and the three police services.

The medieval castle seen from the north

Melilla seen from the outskirts

The climate is so dry that it is difficult to grow anything. Trees and palms will only bloom with irrigation. The landscape is dominated by military camps and an airport.

The income level is lower than in the rest of Spain. Among other signs it is visible by that the cars are older in Melilla than in the rest of Spain, and that there are no migrants in Melilla.

The Spanish state subsidies Melilla's economy by exempting Melilla from Spanish VAT rules. Spanish VAT is 21, 10 or 5 per cent, depending on the goods. In Melilla, there is a local tax amounting to 1-2 per cent. The Melilla price level is 10-15 per cent lower than in the rest of Spain.

Spain and the EU spend much money guarding Melilla's border, maintaining buildings and supporting the economy. Melilla is a town with an interesting cultural history, but how is the business case? 

Local police and national police cars

The border fence seen from near Melilla's airport. Two fences on the Moroccan side and three on Melilla's side of a border trench.

As a Spanish enclave, Melilla is very attractive for Africans who want to go to Europe. If they can get to Melilla, they can apply for asylum. Hence, the border line is the best secured I have ever seen. Spain and the EU pay Morocco to supervise access to the border, mostly because of the threat from people from other African countries, not so much from Moroccans. 

In August 2023, 37 died when 1,700 Sudanese would-be immigrants attacked the border fence to Melilla, see the Guardian: "The Melilla massacre: how a Spanish enclave in Africa became a deadly flashpoint".

Melilla is not completely independent from Nador in Morocco. The two ports share common breakwaters. This GNV ferry has just left the port in Nador. The cranes to the left are in Melilla's harbour, the cranes to the right are in Nador's harbour.

Morocco maintains a formal claim on Melilla and Ceuta. The Spanish position is that the two territories have been parts of Spain since 1498, where Morocco only has been an independent state since 1956. Many Moroccans from Nador have access and work permits for Melilla. Morocco closed the border crossing to Melilla for several years "because of covid".

Spain claims the Gibraltar area and has done so for many years. General Franco closed the border to Gibraltar in 1969, and the border was closed until 1985. Many Spanish workers cross the border every day and work in Gibraltar.

Spain is a member of NATO and the EU, but Melilla and Ceuta are not covered by NATO's paragraph 5, and Melilla and Ceuta are not covered by EU's agricultural and fishery treaties.

Melilla has a nice marina that is not afflicted with ostentatious yachts. But where do you want to go - apart from on a fishing trip? The distances are 150 kilometres to the Spanish mainland and 200 kilometres to Ceuta.

Both in Gibraltar and in Melilla I have heard young people complaining about the small size of the territories and that they were longing to go elsewhere. 

Christmas celebration at the centre. An occasional hailstorm is the only frost ever experienced here.

Easter celebration at Plaza de Espana

Drivers show a lot of consideration for pedestrians in Melilla. This is a huge difference from the nearby town Nador in Morocco where you want to carry a crowbar while crossing a street.

Taking care of the elder

Unlike the rest of Spain, there are no migrants in Melilla and no new immigrants. The Berbers have always been here, the Spanish at least since 1500, and the Jews at least since 1860. There are only a few black Africans to be seen in the streets.

Elder people are mostly taken care of by the family or by hired help, not in care homes. In other parts of Spain, that means that Filipino or South American women take care of the elderly, and that is very visible in the streets. In Melilla there are no such migrants, so it is done by either family or hired, local help.

From the main city park in Melilla

For comparison: Filipino woman as a helper in central Barcelona

From the suburbs

In general, the Spanish and the Jewish parts of the population live in the centre, and the Berber population live in the suburbs. Women with Muslim scarves are common everywhere, and one often sees Jewish men wearing kippas in the town centre.

Mercedes in Melilla and Morocco

Older Mercedes cars are preferred by the Berbers in Melilla and are very visible in the suburbs where the Berbers live. The climate is so dry that rust is not a problem, the distances in the town are so small that gas consumption and mechanical wear is not a problem, hence 20-30 year old Mercedes cars dominate all other makes. Maybe the great number of Mercedes in Melilla may be an influence from Morocco?

In Melilla

In Melilla

In Melilla

"Grand taxis" in nearby Nador, Morocco.

Comparison to the U.S.-Mexican border

One can compare the relation between Melilla and Morocco to the relation between the U.S.A. and Mexico. I have visited the American towns Presidio and Marfa in the desert in western Texas. There are many similarities: 


From the port in Nador, Morocco. The languages are Arab, Tmazixt (Berber), and French.

Street in Ojinaga, Mexico

Battered taxi sign in Nador, Morocco

Battered taxi sign in Ojinaga, Mexico