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Living in Fear at the Morocco - Spain border

Published in: El País (in Spanish)

From the heights of Mount Gourougou, Melilla -legally, if not geographically, part of Europe- makes Europe appear within reach for migrants trying to get there from Morocco. Looking down, however, they can also see that its nearness is something of a mirage. The Spanish enclave is protected by three fences, razor wire, and constant patrolling by Spanish and Moroccan authorities.

In January, I was part of a team that hiked up the forested and rocky mountain to interview migrants desperate to reach Spain. Wary of any outsiders, the migrants checked to see if the police had followed us or if any Auxiliary Forces -a paramilitary force tasked with guarding Morocco’s borders- were in sight before they would speak to us.

Migrants try to reach Melilla by storming in large groups, climbing the fence with wooden ladders or grasping the chain-link directly. Just attempting to climb the fence can lead to serious injuries from the razor wire. And the Auxiliary Forces often throw rocks at the migrants and beat them with wooden sticks, the migrants told us during the interviews in January and February.

Migrants also risk their lives to enter the other Spanish enclave on the Mediterranean coast, Ceuta. On February 6, at least 15 drowned trying to reach Ceuta by sea. Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz confirmed that Spanish Guardia Civil fired rubber bullets into the water, and videos show Spanish agents leading survivors from the beach straight back to Moroccan territory. Minister Fernández said that was lawful because the migrants had not crossed the police line and were not considered to be on Spanish land.

In Melilla, Guardia Civil agents usually catch the few migrants who manage to enter Spanish territory before they can reach the migrant reception center. The agents take them back to the fence, open one of the gates, and expel them summarily to the Moroccan Auxiliary Forces on the other side, the migrants told us. Spanish authorities conduct none of the formal deportation procedures required by national law, nor do they give any asylum seekers among them an opportunity to seek refuge.

Back on the Moroccan side, migrants are at the mercy of the Auxiliary Forces. Migrants we spoke with in Nador and Rabat said that Auxiliary Force guards often forced them to lie face down on the ground—hands still cuffed behind their backs—while the guards beat them and searched them for money and valuables.

The migrants are then taken to the police station. Up until November, they would then be arrested, bused to the Algerian border, and ordered to leave Morocco, bypassing the administrative and judicial due process requirements for deportations under international and national law. Late last year, the police started busing them instead to larger cities like Rabat and Casablanca and releasing them.

Despite reforms in Morocco that led to an end of the expulsions at the Algerian border, migrants in the northern areas surrounding Ceuta and Melilla continue to live in fear of abuse by both Moroccan and Spanish border enforcement agents.

Spain and Morocco can and should secure their borders, but this does not allow either government to abuse migrants or absolve them from their responsibilities to respect human rights. Morocco should ensure that the Auxiliary Forces exert no more force than is necessary and proportionate against the migrants to enforce legitimate laws. And the authorities should investigate reports of any ill-treatment.  Moroccan and Spanish authorities sometimes claim they are responding to migrants resisting arrest or attacking border officials, but many migrants told me they were beaten after they were already in custody.

Spain should refrain from summarily expelling migrants and handing them over to Moroccan border officials who beat them.  Not only does Spanish law have a clear deportation procedure, but such returns also violate international and European Union law, which prohibit countries from forcibly returning anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of being subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.

Spanish authorities should also investigate all allegations of excessive force by Guardia Civil agents and adopt clear, written protocols for border operations to help prevent injury and loss of life.

In carrying out border security operations, Morocco and Spain should not forget that undocumented migrants, like everyone, have human rights. 

Katya Salmi is a fellow in the Africa program at Human Rights Watch and the author of a new report about conditions at the Moroccan border with the Spanish enclaves.

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