Melilla and Ceuta, Spain’s other tiny North African enclave, are the European Union’s only land borders in Africa, which makes them a target for people hoping to cross into Europe from the African continent.
On June 25, 2022, between 1,500 and 2,000 migrants who had been camping in the Moroccan foothills surrounding Melilla descended on the city’s border, a number of them carrying sticks, hoping to scale the border fences and therefore reach Spanish territory.
In the chaos that followed, many of them were crushed between the six-meter-high fences and Moroccan border guards, who used tear gas and batons on the migrants.
While Moroccan authorities said that 23 migrants and two police were killed, local NGOs have reported a higher migrant death toll of 37, dozens more were injured, with many reported to be in Moroccan hospitals.
A total of 133 migrants managed to reach Melilla, where they are being housed in the city’s migrant temporary stay centre while their legal status is examined.
Video footage recorded shortly after the incident and posted on social media by the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) showed several dozen migrants packed together on the ground near the border, with bodies piled on top of each other and bloodstains and articles of clothing nearby. Many of the migrants appeared injured while many others showed no signs of movement.
They were left there without help for hours, which increased the number of deaths,” the human rights group said on Twitter. Other videos, circulated on social media, documented a Moroccan security officer appeared to use a baton to strike a person lying on the ground.
Controversial shift in relations influenced border controls
The mass crossing attempt was the first since Spain and Morocco mended relations after a year-long dispute related to Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1976.
The thaw in relations came after Spain backed Morocco’s plan to grant more autonomy to the territory, a reversal of its previous support for a U.N.-backed referendum on the status of Western Sahara.
However, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez blamed traffickers for the incident and defended the response of Spanish and Moroccan security forces. He told The Associated Press that some migrants attacked the fence with axes and hooks.
Rights concerns raised
Thousands of people took into the streets in several Spanish cities and in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, in protest against the Melilla incident, to denounce the police brutality towards immigrants, chanting “No human being is illegal” slogan.
Global Rights Watch (GRW) along with a number of human rights groups called on the two countries to open an investigation into the causes of death and whether security forces were responsible for the loss of life with a view to ensuring accountability and justice for families of the victims.
GRW also stressed the need to identify the dead and inform their families.
For his part, African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat expressed his deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of the African migrants.
The UN Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) deplored the incidents as well. It urged the two States to carry out immediate and thorough investigations and to hold those responsible accountable.