Migrants pay the deadly cost of Spain’s harsh approach
The deaths of migrants at a recent attempt at a mass crossing of the Spain-Morocco border have brought criticism from the international community and calls for an independent investigation. The official death toll provided by government is now being questioned, and shocking videos show security forces using heavy force against people trying to cross the border. With migration likely to increase due to a growing food crisis, the governments of Morocco and Spain must ensure they uphold the fundamental rights of migrants and refugees.
The deadly costs of European governments’ anti-migrant policies were laid bare in the Spanish enclave of Melilla recently.
On 24 June, an estimated 2,000 people attempted to cross the border between Morocco and Melilla. At least 23 people are reported to have died in the attempt, and 76 were injured. Moroccan authorities reported that 140 border agents sustained injuries while Spanish officials put their injured numbers at 49.
Morocco’s state-backed National Human Rights Council (CDNH) has said the migrants likely died due to suffocation, but investigations are continuing. Images circulated in the media show migrants lying bloodied and exhausted on the ground, being beaten by border officials.
The incident has brought heavy criticism from the international community with calls for a thorough investigation.
Crisis at the border
Melilla and Ceuta are autonomous Spanish cities located in North Africa. Bordered by Morocco and facing the Mediterranean Sea, these Spanish enclaves are the only African land territories that are part of the European Union, making them major hotspots for migrants seeking to gain entry into Europe.
Spain has responded to a surge in migrants over the years by fortifying the border fence and increasing patrols.
The consequence is that the sad events of June 2022 are by no means the first instances of multiple fatalities. In 2005, at least 23 people died during attempted crossings. In 2014, 15 people drowned at Tarajal Beach after migrants attempted to swim around the Ceuta border and were fired upon with rubber bullets and teargas.
In seeking to control migration Spain has also relied on the cooperation of the Moroccan government. The recent tragedy comes at a time when Morocco and Spain have only just mended diplomatic relations. These have often been fraught: Spain is the former colonial power and Morocco continues to claim Ceuta and Melilla.
In 2021, relations were disrupted when the Spanish government allowed Brahim Ghali – leader of the Polisario Front, Western Sahara’s independence movement – to receive treatment for COVID-19 at a Spanish hospital. This allegedly involved the use of fake travel documents provided by Algeria, an ally of the Western Sahara independent movement. Morocco occupies Western Sahara and controls most of its territory, having illegally annexed it in the 1970s.
During the dispute, Morocco loosened border controls around the Spanish enclaves, allowing thousands to cross: almost 12,000 people are reported to have crossed into Ceuta on 17 and 18 May 2021, overwhelming the local authorities. On 22 July 2021, over 300 African migrants tried to scale the Melilla border fence, with most of them successfully managing to enter Spanish territory.
This pattern continued into 2022 with arrivals increasing by 12 per cent in the first five months compared to 2021. Crossings continued even after Morocco and Spain restored normal relations in March 2022 when Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, backed Morocco’s plan to give more autonomy to Western Sahara but for it to remain under Moroccan control.
In this politically charged context, migration is only going to keep happening.
Following this, the countries ushered in a new phase of relations where in exchange for Spanish support for Morocco’s plans, Morocco agreed to tighten control at its borders. Migrants had in essence been used as bargaining chips by Morocco to extract concessions from Spain.
The 24 June tragedy is the first major incident since Spain and Morocco re-established diplomatic ties. According to the CDNH, the migrants – most of whom were Sudanese – were equipped with sticks and stones when they attempted to make the crossing. They split into two groups: one stormed a post closed since 2018 and the other scaled nearby barbed wire fencing. Official reports are that the fatalities occurred in the buffer zone, which only allows the passage of one person at a time, but was packed full of people, causing some to suffocate and die, while others were trampled upon and injured.
Official reports paint a picture of chaos, but with little liability for either government. Yet video evidence indicates a more damning scenario.
A sizeable border force was deployed to repel the crowd on both sides. Footage taken at the scene shows injured men sprawled on the ground being beaten by Moroccan security agents while limp bodies are tossed onto a pile of people. The official death toll is 23 but other estimates, such as that of Caminando Fronteras, a civil society organisation (CSO), put the number closer to 37.
Human Rights Watch has described unreleased footage of Spanish police handing over detained migrants to Moroccan security forces without full examination of potential asylum claims, something that breaches international refugee law. Several migrants face jail after being arrested and charged with joining a human-trafficking gang, abuse of public officials and detention of a public official.
Civil society response
International organisations are calling for an impartial investigation into the circumstances of 24 June and full accountability for victims. Those doing so include the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Committee on Migrant Workers and the African Union.
As well as pushing for transparency, civil society is trying to share accurate information with the public. It is because of investigations by Caminando Fronteras and another CSO, the Association Marocaine des Droits Humains (Moroccan Human Rights Association, AMDH) that the official death toll is being questioned and arrested migrants have a potential defence against the charges they face. ADMH has also found and contacted families of victims, both those who died and were injured, helping to bring about reunions.
Online sharing of videos and photos has been key, demonstrating the reality of how border officials are treating migrants and exposing apparent government attempts at cover-ups.
CSOs in both Morocco and Spain have organised protests denouncing the deaths and the conduct of border officials. In Rabat, Morocco’s capital, AMDH protesters formed part of a group that gathered to demand accountability from the Moroccan government. In Spain, protesters in cities including Barcelona and Madrid held signs reading ‘Borders Kill’ and ‘No human being is illegal’, calling on their country’s centre-left government to take a more progressive stance on migration.
A ticking timebomb
This issue is by no means resolved. While Spain has repaired ties with Morocco, it’s at the expense of its relations with Algeria, which recalled its ambassador to Spain in protest. Algeria also suspended a bilateral treaty that included cooperation on migration. Domestically, the government has come in for considerable criticism over its new relationship with Morocco.
In this politically charged context, migration is only going to keep happening. A global food crisis driven by rising prices of essentials, further fuelled by the impacts of Russia’s war on Ukraine, can only further increase migration as people flee desperate circumstances. In Sudan, where most of the migrants involved in 24 June’s events came from, people are facing an accelerating hunger crisis. Twelve million Sudanese people are expected to face food insecurity between June and September 2022. Some will try to make their way to Europe.
As it stands, neither government is ready to deal with an expected increase in migration. Both governments need to work together to find a lasting solution that recognises the reality of migration and upholds the rights of migrants. The alternative is that 24 June won’t be the last border tragedy.
OUR CALLS TO ACTION
The governments of Morocco and Spain must conduct an independent and transparent investigation to establish the circumstances of the 24 June events and ensure that those responsible for human rights violations are held to account.
The authorities should work with local CSOs to ensure that the deceased are identified and returned to their families so they can be properly buried.
Both countries must ensure their border policies are designed to fulfil all their human rights obligations, including freedom from inhumane or degrading treatment.
Cover image by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images