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Morocco/Spain: Horrific Migrant Deaths at Melilla Border

Investigate Fully, Preserve Evidence, Ensure Dignified Treatment of the Dead

Migrants hold placards during an anti-racism demonstration in the Moroccan capital Rabat on June 28, 2022. © 2022 AFP via Getty Images

(Milan, June 29, 2022) – The deaths of at least 23 African men at the Melilla-Morocco border on June 24, 2022 requires an independent, impartial investigation capable of determining what occurred and who bears responsibility for such loss of life, Human Rights Watch said today.

The deaths occurred during an attempt by as many as 2,000 people to enter Spain by climbing the high chain-link fences surrounding Melilla, one of two Spanish enclaves in North Africa. An independent, impartial investigation should identify 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.

“Video and photographs show bodies strewn on the ground in pools of blood, Moroccan security forces kicking and beating people, and Spanish Guardia Civil launching teargas at men clinging to fences,” said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Officials in Spain, Morocco, and the European Union should condemn this violence and ensure effective, impartial investigations to bring justice for those who lost their lives.”

Human Rights Watch echoes the calls by Moroccan and Spanish organizations, UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, and the African Union for an inquiry. The African Union Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, called for “an immediate investigation” and recalled obligations under international law “to treat all migrants with dignity and to prioritize their safety and human rights, while refraining from the use of excessive force.”

Freshly dug graves at Sidi Salem cemetery, Nador, Morocco, where local activists believe authorities plan to bury the bodies of the migrants who died during an attempt to scale the fence dividing Spain and Morocco. June 26, 2022. © 2022 AMDH Nador

Reports that the authorities in Morocco may be organizing hasty mass burials are deeply concerning, Human Rights Watch said. On June 26, the Association Marocaine des Droits Humains (Moroccan Human Rights Association or AMDH) posted two photographs on Twitter of what it estimated were between 16 and 21 graves being dug in the Sidi Salem Cemetery, on the outskirts of Nador, the Moroccan town across the border from Melilla. The first of these photographs was posted on Twitter by AMDH at 1:01 p.m. local time on June 26.

From reviewing these photographs, Human Rights Watch could identify at least 10 freshly dug individual graves. The Spanish daily El País obtained a photograph of the same grave site that it published on June 26. By matching the shape of the perimeter of the cemetery, as well as buildings, trees, and landscape seen in the background with satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch independently verified the exact location of the graves to be in the Sidi Salem Cemetery.

Satellite imagery collected on June 27, 2022 shows recent soil perturbation in the location of the freshly dug graves identified in the photographs verified by Human Rights Watch. Those observations were not visible on satellite imagery recorded on June 23, the day before the incident. The preservation of evidence is crucial to ensure a full investigation. To this end, it is vitally important for the Moroccan authorities to make every effort to preserve the bodies in a dignified and appropriate manner to allow for autopsies and verification of cause of death, Human Rights Watch said.

The authorities should do all they can to identify the dead and inform their families, Human Rights Watch said. Following collection of forensic evidence of injuries and cause of death that may be relevant to the investigation, it is incumbent on Morocco to organize transfer of the deceased to their families for burials in accordance with their wishes. Survivors deserve appropriate health care and psychosocial – mental health – support.

Early in the morning of June 24, between 1,300 and 2,000 men, most of them Sudanese and South Sudanese, media reported, attempted to scale the 6- to 10-meter chain-link fences separating Moroccan and Spanish territory. Moroccan authorities, as well as some independent observers, claim that some of the men were armed and violent, and that people died in a stampede or after they fell while climbing the fence.

However, videos show Moroccan security forces using excessive force, including beatings, and there are also concerns about the Guardia Civil actions on the Spanish side.

Video footage taken by AMDH in Morocco and analyzed by the New York Times shows a Moroccan security agent beating obviously injured men prone on the ground and another agent throwing a limp body onto a pile of people.

Credible investigations into what happened should involve international experts and monitors to enhance, both in practice and perception, impartiality, independence, and effectiveness, Human Rights Watch said.

The local authorities have confirmed that 23 people died, while AMDH puts the number at 27, but expressed concern that the death toll could rise. Caminando Fronteras, a Spanish organization, calculates that as many as 37 people lost their lives. Dozens were reportedly injured.

There are also indications that Spanish Guardia Civil summarily returned as many as hundreds of people who had managed to scale the fences and reach Melilla, which is Spanish territory. Official sources said that about 500 people managed to reach Spain, but that only 133 remained in Melilla. The Interior Ministry confirmed that “rejections at the border took place” without specifying how many. “Rejections at the border” is the term in Spanish legislation for summary returns, through doors in the fences around Ceuta and Melilla, without any procedural safeguards or chance to apply for asylum. This practice violates EU and international law.

Video footage taken on the Spanish side of the fences shows Moroccan security forces milling around among Guardia Civil agents and migrants. One Moroccan agent is seen marching a man off camera, while the videographer narrates that Moroccan agents were arresting people on Spanish territory.

While Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of Spain blamed “mafias,” the horrific events on June 24 were a foreseeable consequence of Spain’s emphasis on deterrence and outsourcing of border control while turning a blind eye to Morocco’s abuses against migrants and refugees. In April, Spain and Morocco renewed their migration cooperation commitments following a period of diplomatic tension between the two countries. The agreement entrenches an abusive model that has served as a blueprint for the EU’s approach to migration and asylum.

The borders around Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s two enclaves, are among the most heavily fortified in Europe. Over the years, African migrants and asylum seekers have resorted to attempts to scale, en masse, the fences surrounding the enclaves due to the lack of safe and legal migration channels and obstacles to reaching official border posts.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, including border guards, to apply nonviolent means before resorting to force, to use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The principles also provide that governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under their law.

The European Court of Human Rights has made clear in several cases involving border control that while states can take measures to prevent unauthorized entry into their territory, including the use of force, the need for border control cannot justify resorting to practices or using force in a manner that violates human rights protections, including right to life and freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment.

“On the other side of Europe, Ukrainian refugees are rightly welcomed with open arms but here and elsewhere along Europe’s borders we see a total disregard for Black lives,” Sunderland said. “Large-scale attempts to climb over the fences around Melilla pose security concerns but in no way justify the violence we have seen. The men who died, and the survivors, deserve a credible investigation and to see those responsible held to account.”

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