Calls for investigation after up to 37 die trying to cross Morocco-Spain border

NGOs accuse Moroccan security forces of using indiscriminate force

Calls are growing for an investigation after as many as 37 people died on Friday, when roughly 2,000 people tried to enter the Spanish enclave of Melilla, in North Africa.

According to Moroccan authorities – who said deaths were the result of a “stampede” and people falling while attempting to scale a border fence – 23 people died, while 140 police were injured. Various NGOs say the real death toll is as high as 37, and accuse Moroccan security forces of using indiscriminate force.

Videos taken in the aftermath, which were widely shared on social media, appeared to show dead and injured people lying together on the ground and, in some cases, being hit or kicked by security guards or thrown on to other bodies.

Melilla and Ceuta are the European Union’s only land borders with Africa, and thus have become a focal point for refugees and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa who are trying to reach Europe. More than 100 people who crossed the border on Friday were being processed at a reception centre, Spanish officials said. One 20-year-old Sudanese told the elDiario.es news site he had come to Morocco after trying unsuccessfully to cross the Central Mediterranean, from Libya to Italy, three times with a friend who died during Friday’s attempt.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, the head of the African Union Commission, called for an “immediate investigation”, expressing “deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border from Morocco into Spain”.

On Twitter, Mr Mahamat also “remind[ed] 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”.

Moroccan NGOs called the deaths a “black Friday”.

A statement signed by various NGOs including Alarm Phone, which takes distress calls from refugees and migrants at sea; the Moroccan Association for Human Rights; and the Council of Sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco, said the deaths were “the tragic example of the European Union’s policies of externalising its borders, with the complicity of a southern country, Morocco”.

A resumption of security co-operation between Morocco and Spain this year escalated the border situation, they said. For 18 months, the NGOs said, migrants and refugees in Morocco have been excluded from accessing healthcare, while their camps were burned down, belongings looted and food supplies destroyed. “Those punitive expedition[s] have led to a spiral of violence on both sides,” they said.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez blamed Friday’s deaths on “mafias who traffic in human beings” and said security staff who reacted were “defending the national sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Spain”.

“The events at Melilla border crossing are deeply troubling,” tweeted EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson on Monday. “First and foremost, in the loss of life. Secondly, forced, and violent, crossing of an international border can never be condoned. This tragedy underlines why we need safe, realistic, long-term pathways that minimise desperate and doomed journeys.”

Spain and Morocco resumed diplomatic ties in March after Spain agreed to back Morocco’s plan for limited autonomy for the disputed western Sahara region under Moroccan sovereignty. The countries announced that they would reinforce co-operation on migration.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa