At least 37 lives were lost and hundreds injured as around 2,000 people attempted to enter the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco. The tragedy has sparked protests across Spain and in Morocco and local and international calls for an investigation. Meanwhile, deaths toll continues to rise on the Atlantic route.

Spanish Moroccan diplomatic relations have been volatile over recent years but improved in the spring when Madrid offered its support for Rabat’s “autonomy plan” for Western Sahara paving the way for a strengthening of the “cooperation on irregular migration”. The deterrence measures took on a new extreme form on 24 June when an attempt by around 2,000 people to scale the fences separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla, according to NGOs on the ground cost at least 37 lives and hundreds were injured. A survivor, described the horrible scene to media of injured people with broken bones, beatings by Moroccan police using batons and guns and allegedly killing people including a close friend in front of him. According to Democracy Now Video documentation: “shows hundreds of people lying on the ground, many motionless, near the border fence as Moroccan security forces looked on. The Moroccan Human Rights Association said the bodies of both the injured and the dead were left on the ground for hours…” In a joint statement a broad section of Spanish and Moroccan human rights and civil society organisations state (translated): “Migration policies, embodied by police brutality and border militarization, have resulted in the deaths of at least 37 people on the move. The bodies are being buried in Nador without carrying out autopsies essential for a possible investigation, without identification and without informing the families. Likewise, more than 300 people were hospitalized, with insufficient resources to care for them at the El Hassani hospital in Nador. All this, as a result of cruel and inhuman treatment and the failure to provide assistance”. According to the statement, 133 people made the crossing while others were violently pushed back by Spanish authorities.

Demonstrations broke out in cities across Spain with thousands of protestors denouncing the deaths and demanding a full and independent investigation of the tragedy. In the Moroccan capital of Rabat, protestors held placards covered with red paint symbolising the blood of the dead. “The least we can do is voice our outrage and demand that the Moroccan state stops acting as Europe’s border police, because through this nefarious activity it is accountable for what occurred last Friday,” said Al-Tayeb Madmadh, a member of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights and one of the protest organizers. After initially blaming the deaths on “international human trafficking rings” and migrants and defining the tragedy as “an attack on Spain’s borders,” prime minister Pedro Sánchez, later promised his country’s full cooperation with Moroccan authorities on an investigation. However, a local Moroccan NGO has warned of the lack of investigation, autopsies and identification of the dead. ECRE member CEAR and other key-Spanish civil rights organisations published a joint letter addressed to Sánchez on 5 July demanding that the facts are investigated and prosecuted noting that “The fact that the operations at the border have been carried out by the security forces” from Spain and Morocco, should not prevent accountability.

The local NGOs are not alone in denouncing the violence and demand a full investigation. On 25 June the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Council (UNHCR) stated: “These violent events highlight more than ever the importance of finding durable solutions for people on the move, in the spirit of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact for Refugees”. On 26 June African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, called for: “an immediate investigation into the matter” and reminded “all countries of their obligations under international law to treat all migrants with dignity and to prioritise their safety and human rights, while refraining from the use of excessive force”. On 28 June, the UN Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) urged: “the Moroccan and the Spanish Governments to conduct prompt, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into these deaths and to determine the corresponding responsibilities. In addition, measures should be taken to ensure access to justice for victims and their families. The authorities should also provide full reparation for the human rights violations, including breaches of the non-refoulement principle by arbitrary pushbacks”. On 4 July, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson stated: “The priority is now to provide medical care, and fully establish the facts. I strongly support calls by the United Nations and African Union for investigations into this tragic loss of life”.

Meanwhile, more lives have been lost on the Atlantic route. On 27 June a boat carrying at least 140 people hoping to reach Spain’s Canary Islands capsized off the coast of Senegal after a fire broke out on board. According to local Red Cross officials, at least 13 people lost their lives. On the same day, Spanish rescuers from Salvamento Marítimo rescued 106 people including six children off the Canary Islands – one person had died falling overboard during the crossing. In a third incident on 27 June, another 110 people were rescued on the high seas off the island of Fuerteventura. On 4 July 39 people were rescued off Gran Canaria after nine days at sea – 19 of them were later hospitalised. The Canary Islands have seen 8,741 irregular arrivals between January and June 2022, representing an increase of 25 per cent compared to the same period of 2021, according to the Ministry of the Interior. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 311 people have lost their lives en route to the Canary Islands in 2022 so far.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.