African immigrants sit at the top the border fence, as Spanish Civil Guard officers climb to reach them, during an attempt to cross into Spanish territories, between Morocco and Spain's north African enclave of Melilla, August 14, 2014.

(Milan) – Spanish authorities should investigate the beating and pushback of a man by Guardia Civil officers in Melilla on October 15, 2014. Spain should immediately halt summary returns to Morocco from its enclaves.

The migrant rights group Prodein captured the violence on video, which shows the agents carrying the man, who appears unconscious, through a gate in one of the fences that separate the two countries.

“The images could not be clearer or more appalling,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Spain needs to call an immediate halt to these abusive returns, and the public prosecutor’s office needs to investigate this horrific case. Until the case has been fully investigated, the Guardia Civil should remove these officers from border duties.”

The video shows the man, whom Prodein identified as a 23-year-old Cameroonian named Danny, climbing alone down a ladder propped up against the Spanish side of the fence as several Guardia Civil officers beat him with their batons. He falls to the ground and appears to be unconscious as officers prod him with their batons, try to put him in a sitting position, and struggle to move him several times. 

The video shows the Guardia Civil officers carrying Danny through a gate in the fence complex back toward Morocco. Just behind them, other officers are seen walking two other migrants through the same gate. The video does not show what happens on the other side. Prodein has verified that Danny is in a makeshift migrant camp near Nador, though at this writing his health condition is unknown.

The Government Delegation in Melilla claimed the young Cameroonian was not unconscious when he fell from the ladder but rather was exercising “passive resistance.” Five other migrants injured the same day were taken to a hospital in Melilla and then transferred to the city’s reception center for migrants and asylum seekers. 

In an October 17 news release, the Melilla representatives of the Spanish government criticized the Prodein video as partial and justified the Guardia Civil’s actions as proportionate in the context of their work “in securing and defending Europe’s southern border.” The Melilla authorities described the events on October 15 as “an extremely tense massive assault” marked by violence by the migrants, adding that five Guardia Civil officers were treated for injuries sustained that day.

Concerns about violence by Spanish border guards have sharpened as Spain enhances border control in Melilla and Ceuta, Spain’s other enclave in North Africa. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks called the October 15 incidents “another disturbing illustration of flaws in Spain’s treatment of migrants in its enclaves.”

Video footage shot by a journalist on August 13 and obtained by Human Rights Watch shows two incidents of Guardia Civil officers beating migrants on the middle section of the fence and forcibly returning two migrants to Moroccan territory.

“Even when faced with difficult situations, Guardia Civil officers are required to exercise restraint and take all possible steps to minimize injury,” Sunderland said. “Officers who engage in unjustified and disproportionate use of force should be disciplined, and where appropriate, prosecuted.”

Human Rights Watch, Spanish rights groups, and Spain’s independent human rights institute, the Defensor del Pueblo, have documented unlawful summary returns to Morocco from the Spanish enclaves.

Spanish immigration law prohibits such returns and guarantees irregular migrants the right to legal counsel and an interpreter during deportation proceedings. The Spanish government claims the procedure it is following is “rejection at the border,” contending that the area between the fences is not Spanish territory and that migrants are not in Spain until they have crossed “the police line.”

In September a Melilla judge charged a Guardia Civil colonel, Ambrosio Martín Villaseñor, in his capacity as ranking officer in Melilla, with violating national and international law for summary returns on June 18 and August 13. Prodein and two other Spanish nongovernmental organizations, Andalucia Acoge and SOS Racismo, brought the case. In the indictment, the judge affirmed that the Spanish border begins at the outside fence and that all areas between the fences are on Spanish territory. The Defensor del Pueblo supports this view.

“The government’s idea of a flexible border based on where a Guardia Civil officer is standing is a convenient and dangerous legal fiction,” Sunderland said. “But what is very real is that Spain is denying people their rights, including the right to seek asylum.”

Attempts to enter Spain through Melilla and Ceuta, often in large groups, have increased in 2014. Some 1,250 migrants and asylum seekers are currently accommodated in the reception center in Melilla, which has a capacity of 480. An estimated half of those in the center are from Syria.

Under international human rights and refugee law and European Union law, Spain is obliged to refrain from refoulement – the forcible return of anyone to a place where he or she faces a real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment – and to guarantee the opportunity to seek asylum to anyone claiming they have a well-founded fear of persecution if returned. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, expressed concern on October 20 that violence in the context of border control in Melilla could prevent asylum seekers from reaching Spanish territory.

The European Commission should take action against Spain for failure to abide by EU law, Human Rights Watch said. In an October 20 reply to members of the European Parliament, first reported by El Diario, the commission made it clear that Spain has decided not to apply the EU Return Directive to migrants intercepted at the enclave borders. While article 2.2 (a) of the directive gives member states the prerogative to do so, the commission stated in its reply that even if they do so, member states must still comply with the minimum guarantees laid out in the directive, as well as to ensure respect for the principle of non-refoulement and effective access to the asylum procedure.

The commission said it was in a dialogue with Spain about the situation and “would not hesitate to take appropriate measures when there is evidence that a member state is violating EU law.” The commission is nonetheless not considering a mission to the enclaves, according to the October 20 reply.

“I’m not sure what more evidence the commission needs,” Sunderland said. “Unless the dialogue leads to a clear and prompt change in policy and orders to the Guardia Civil at the borders, the commission should keep its pledge and open infringement proceedings against Spain.”