MELILLA, Spain – They perched atop a barbed-wire laced fence for more than seven hours, hands and feet bloodied, buffeted by chill winds whipping the epic cliffs of Africa's Mediterranean coast.
The 27 sub-Saharan African migrants were literally on the edge between Africa's economic misery and the long-dreamt riches of Europe: On one side of the fence was Morocco, on the other the Spanish enclave of Melilla.
Thirst, hunger and exhaustion wore the migrants down. One by one, they shakily climbed down the ladder that Spanish authorities had propped up on their side of the fence. Spanish police led the Africans back to Morocco — and into the hands of their waiting Moroccan counterparts.
The men are part of a spring migration offensive from Africa to Europe, with record numbers of desperate people risking death in their quest for a better life. They use perilous routes such as sea-crossings on rickety boats to the Italian island of Lampedusa or treks through desert, jungle and mountain that culminate in attempts to scale fences erected to keep them out of Melilla and Spain's other North African enclave, Ceuta.
Official data for 2013 is not yet available from Spain — but already in the first three months of this year, the number of migrants making it into Melilla has surpassed the estimated 1,000 who made it last year. On March 18 alone, a record 500 made it over while weeks before the Moroccans blocked another 700 — numbers unheard of in the past. The increasing pressure of African immigration is felt across Europe, with the U.N. reporting a 300 percent rise in migrants this spring attempting boat crossings to Lampedusa compared to the same period the previous year.
For the Melilla migrants, most of whom spent at least two years traveling from their destitute homes in central and west Africa to get here, the climb-down will be a temporary setback. In weeks, they will likely be back, trying once more to enter Europe. Dozens are wounded with every attempt. There are often fatalities, including 15 who drowned in waters outside Ceuta on Feb. 6 after Spanish guards fired at them with rubber bullets.
Spain's Supreme Court banned the use of rubber bullets after the drowning deaths caused an outcry. That may have just emboldened the migrants. "They feel less threatened," said Anke Strauss of the International Organization for Migration.
Melilla and Ceuta offer the only land route between the world's richest and poorest continents. Nearly every week, hundreds of migrants sneak down from mountain camps to throw themselves at Moroccan police and try to clamber over three layers of fences, using poles to pull down the rolls of barbed wire and boosting themselves over each other's bodies.
"As long as there is such a big difference in wealth and there are problems in Africa, there will always be immigration," said Adil Akkid of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, which works with the migrants camped around the Moroccan city of Nador, outside Melilla. "Europe is the richest and closest continent."
Along the Spanish enclaves, the rise is partly due to success by Morocco and Spain in discouraging sea routes between the two countries. In February, Morocco announced that it had reduced illegal immigration to Spain using boats by 93 percent.
Spain has sounded a cry of alarm on illegal migration, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy asking last week for "greater commitment" to deal with the pressure on Ceuta and Melilla. Moroccan and Spanish authorities have estimated that there are no less than 30,000 illegal immigrants in Morocco — most hoping to get into Europe.
Under such pressure, the countries are resorting to increasingly brutal tactics, human rights groups warn. In February, Human Rights Watch slammed the countries' security forces for beating migrants, as well as expelling those who had made it over the fence without considering asylum claims.
Rough treatment doesn't deter the migrants.
While African migrants shuffling along on crutches with broken legs from failed attempts can be seen in the streets of Nador, there are many more waiting to try.
Mount Gourougou looms over Nador and Melilla, and its wooded, often fog-shrouded slopes are home to thousands of African migrants. They live in makeshift camps as they prepare to creep through the night for dawn assaults on the fences.
For all of them, it is the final stage of a years-long journey through treacherous terrain.
"I don't even know how long ago I left home," said a young tired-looking Senegalese man carrying empty plastic bottles up the mountain after a day of scavenging for food in nearby Moroccan villages.
"When I think of the place I left behind, I can't go home — to go back empty-handed after all this? Not possible."
His companions, including a 16-year-old youth from Cameroon, nodded before trudging up cactus-laden slopes as a light rain began to fall. None gave their names for fear it would harm their chances of getting to Spain.
The sound of sirens and men shouting erupted in the distance. Migrants said it was the racket of Moroccan police forces carrying out a daily comb of the mountain to flush out migrants.
Despite the police efforts, several hundred migrants clambered down for an assault later that night. Of those, 27 ended up stranded on the fence the next morning, while their rest were repulsed.
"We only have five minutes to cross the wire because then security calls for reinforcements — and if we get across before they come, we can make it," said Aba, a muscular young man from Cameroon outside the temporary camp for refugees in Melilla.
In contrast to the grim expressions of those on the mountain, the migrants at the Melilla camp are quick to smile — for they are now in Europe.
After a few months wait, they will be transported to mainland Spain where they will either be processed for repatriation — a difficult process if they lack documents and lie about their nationality — or more likely eventually turned loose.
"Nothing in the world is as hard as that fence and there is always a loss of life," said Jackie Mefire, an aspiring rapper from the Central African Republic, who was kicked back to Morocco three times before finally reaching Melilla.
Behind him, affluent Spaniards could be seen putting on the nearby Melilla golf course.
Associated Press writers Harold Heckle and Ciaran Giles contributed to this report from Madrid.