The closure of the border between Gibraltar and Spain

in Features

Despite the numerous sieges Gibraltar has undergone, there was no border fence between Spain and Gibraltar until the year 1910. The demarcation lines were the batteries and walls themselves, between them, the Neutral Ground (No Man’s Land.)

Before this date there were just two lines of British and Spanish sentries in their boxes looking at each other from a distance inside the Neutral Ground. 

Contraband from Gibraltar into Spain has always been rife with tobacco being the prime item. This used to be carried across the Neutral Ground strapped to the bodies of specially trained Contraband Dogs. In trying to stop these dogs, sentries from both sides would take shots at them and in so doing were sometimes in danger of shooting each other.

The Spanish Government was very anxious to stop this practice and suggested to the British Government that some sort of fence or barrier be constructed to put an end to it. A two metre high chicken wire fence was erected from shore to shore but soon enough mysterious holes started to appear, ending with a full iron fence being installed. Thus was the border fence born. People would walk to and from Spain without passports but had to go through customs only and this went on for years without harassment. 

Things begin to change!

I will begin with the visit to Gibraltar in 1954 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth which was seen as an insult by Spain’s Dictator Francisco Franco and from then on Gibraltar started to suffer a string of restrictions and harassment. Any Spanish worker in Gibraltar who retired or lost his job would not be replaced; there was also the threat of the confiscation of property in Spain belonging to Gibraltarians. My grandmother who had a lovely villa in Campamento had to sell it quick to the first offer she got. 

In the years 1963 and 1964 Spain begins its campaign for the recovery of Gibraltar at the United Nations. This was headed by Spain’s Foreign Minister Fernando Maria Castiella with his famous Red Book which he presented to the UN with Spain’s evidence (according to Spain) that Gibraltar was Spanish. Our leaders Sir Joshua Hassan and Peter Isola both went to the UN to put our case before them, why we wanted to remain British. On 10th September 1967, we had our famous Referendum which showed the whole world Gibraltar’s desire to remain British. 12,138 voted in favour against 44 votes.

They started to intensify the restrictions with the French nationals who were going back to France from Morocco via Gibraltar’s ferry. They were kept in the sun for hours in a queue before they were allowed to cross. The next move was to make every Gibraltarian who wanted to cross into Spain apply for a special pass; the British Gibraltar Passport was not recognised and only those who lived across the border applied. When the UN rejected Spain’s claim, the Spanish Government warned all Spanish workers in Gibraltar that they would close the border with Gibraltar and they would not be going back. To compensate for this massive job loss, Franco promised the Spanish workers that they had built a refinery in the bay which would give the men work and a large textile factory called “Confecciones Gibraltar” for the women. The truth was that the refinery could only employ 200 men whilst the textile factory lasted for a short period and came to an abrupt halt when the Director disappeared with all the funds for its creation (Very typical). The great majority had to immigrate to other European countries like UK, Germany, Holland, and France. 

Plenty of work was still available on the Rock and many Spanish workers who were not given work permits for Gibraltar by their government bypassed this by coming to work via the Algeciras-Tangier-Gibraltar ferry. The only problem was they had to stay and live on the Rock. Many local families hired spare rooms for these poor unfortunate people. They used to send their earnings home with friends who could still go through the border daily. These workers used to be known as “Trabajadores de Pasaporte” in other words passport workers. The first batch who went back to visit their families had their passports confiscated by the Spanish police in Algeciras for having the Gibraltar immigration stamp on them. Word soon reached the Rock’s authorities and the stamp was no longer used. 

In 1967 all the Spanish women working on Gibraltar were withdrawn for their own protection under the pretext that they were being insulted and molested by Gibraltarian men. Some of them appeared on Spanish television saying so. A propaganda campaign by Spain’s television, radio and press was constantly slagging Gibraltar with their famous slogan “Gibraltar Español”.

In December 1968 the UN instructs Britain to end the colonial status of Gibraltar by 1st October 1969. Britain responds by implementing the Gibraltar Constitution Order on the 30th May 1969, which infuriates Franco and the border is closed on 8th June 1969.

Many Gibraltarians who lived across the border had to leave their homes and come into Gibraltar. Most of them who could not be taken by their families were put into old empty barracks which were used as transit centres until proper accommodation could be found. 

Despite the Spanish gates which had been closed, Gibraltar’s were kept open all the time as if nothing had happened. Suddenly overnight, Gibraltar lost its Spanish labour force. Luckily contingency plans had been made for this foreseeable turn of events by making contact with the Government of Morocco who covered the shortage of labour by sending hundreds of Moroccans in their stead. In the meantime all Gibraltarians mucked in to cover whilst the shortages were filled. The most essential services like the hospitals and old people’s homes were covered very effectively. Fresh fruit and vegetables as well as fish came from Morocco whilst meat and other essentials were imported from UK and other countries. Nothing came from Spain who was trying to strangle Gibraltar’s economy. 

In 1968 the UN made a recommendation to the UK that it should try by all means to decolonise Gibraltar by the end of 1st October 1969. Franco interpreted this believing Gibraltar would be returned to Spain and if not he would take it by force. I found myself involved in this conflict which could have turned into a nasty incident short of war. I was doing military service at the time when we were sent to the border together with the Black Watch Highland Regiment, armed to the teeth. The Spanish military forces were re-grouping with tanks and artillery in the vicinity to make an armed assault. 

The British Forces retaliated, three days later we had a task force arriving with aircraft carriers, helicopters and Royal Marine Commandos. Gibraltar became a hive of activity involving military personnel. On seeing the British response the Spanish troops withdrew and dispersed to whence they had come. I was very happy and relieved at the outcome of this episode where no shot was fired more so because I was right in the front line! Then Franco died and we were all expecting a drastic change in Spain’s government and a possible opening of the border gates. It was believed since they had now become a democratic government things would start to look better for us. No way, it was the same dog with a different collar. Years went past and nothing happened. Then as Spain was very anxious to join the EEC, the UK took advantage of telling them that unless they opened the border UK would veto their entry. Talks commenced for the opening of the border, but what happens? The start of the Falklands War! The talks were suspended pending the result of the war. The truth of the matter was that Spain was anxious to see what Britain’s reaction to the invasion of the Falklands would be? Would Britain fling its military might to aid the Islanders or not. I personally think that if they had not aided the Islanders as they did, today we would be telling a different story. Once that war was over talks commenced once again which led to the opening of the border. The Spanish Premier at the time Felipe Gonzalez, told congress that he had opened the border on humanitarian grounds. (Not that they wanted to join the EEC!) 

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