(Brussels) – There has been no credible investigation or justice for the victims of the horrific violence and deaths of asylum seekers and migrants at the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla a year ago, Human Rights Watch said today.
“Both Spain and Morocco have exonerated their security forces following flawed or insufficient investigations into the violence at the Melilla enclave border,” said Alice Autin, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “And what happened to dozens of the people who attempted to cross on that day is still unknown.”.
The borders around Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s two enclaves, are heavily fortified. 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 Moroccan government says 23 people died on June 24, 2022, when between 1,300 and 2,000 men, most of them from Sudan, South Sudan, and Chad, attempted to scale the 6- to 10-meter chain-link fences around Melilla, one of two Spanish enclaves in North Africa. UN experts estimate that at least 37 people died, and the nongovernmental Moroccan Association for Human Rights in Nador (Association Marocaine des Droits Humains, AMDH Nador) says 77 people are still missing.
Media and nongovernmental organizations documented use of excessive force by Spanish and Moroccan police and border guards, including launching tear gas, firing rubber bullets, and throwing rocks. Hundreds of injured people were left for hours without medical assistance on both sides of the fence.
People searching for relatives described to Human Rights Watch a lack of access to official information and support that has been devastating for the families. The brother of a 24-year-old man from Khartoum who has been missing since that day said that he’s been searching without success. “I saw the videos on social media, but for me I couldn’t tell if that was the place where my brother was, or if it happened at the moment he was there,” said the brother who, like others, is not named for his safety. “It’s not clear enough to know anything at all. Everyone is very sad.”
A man from Sudan, said he also has not heard from his 23-year-old brother Ahmed, who told him he was going to cross on that day. The man wondered whether he could be in a prison in Morocco. “What I am experiencing with Ahmed, it’s the same for everyone who lost track of people on that day,” the brother said.
While Moroccan authorities conducted autopsies and DNA tests of 23 bodies that were taken to the Nador morgue on June 24, AMDH Nador said only one person has been identified and buried. People searching for missing relatives who are able to travel to Morocco are not allowed to enter the morgue to view the bodies, including in the three months following June 24, which is contrary to normal practice, and are shown photographs instead.
In March 2023, Moroccan authorities asked families in Sudan to share DNA samples to match with the remains. Ahmed’s brother said the armed conflict in Sudan made it difficult for his family, who lives far from the capital, Khartoum, to travel and take the test.
The Moroccan government has not facilitated access to the country for some people looking for their relatives. Three men living in Sudan and Europe said they had faced lengthy and complicated administrative procedures to request visas, and in two instances, the Moroccan embassy in Sudan simply refused to take their applications.
Both Spain and Morocco deny responsibility for the deaths and disappearances. The Spanish Public Prosecutor Office closed its six-month investigation in December 2022, exonerating Spanish security forces and calling only for disciplinary measures against agents of the Spanish law enforcement, Guardia Civil, who threw rocks.
Just days after the events and before any autopsies had been conducted, the prosecutor general of the Nador Court of Appeals told Morocco’s National Human Rights Council (Conseil National des Droits de l’Homme, CNDH), a government-appointed body, that Moroccan security forces had not used excessive force or firearms and that people had died of suffocation in the stampede. CNDH published preliminary findings in July 2022 largely echoing the authorities’ version of events.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Moroccan government on June 15 to inquire about efforts to ensure an independent, effective investigation into the events, accountability for violations, and to further understand what kind of support it had provided to families looking for relatives. The Moroccan government has not responded.
UN experts concluded that the “lack of meaningful accountability” reveals the “racialized exclusion and deadly violence deployed to keep out people of African and Middle Eastern descent and other non-white populations” at EU borders. Nongovernmental organizations have reported a recent crackdown on migrants in Morocco, building on years of abuse against sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco and at the EU’s external borders.
According to AMDH Nador, Moroccan courts convicted at least 87 people, on charges including, among others, “illegal entry into Moroccan territory,” “armed gathering,” and “violence against public officials.”
Amid the violence and death, the Spanish Guardia Civil summarily and unlawfully returned to Morocco 470 people, according to the Spanish Ombudsperson and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
A 23-year-old Sudanese man who also lost his uncle that day, said that he was beaten on both sides of the border and returned to Morocco without having the chance to ask for protection: “We were laying down with our face on the ground, if you tried to raise your head, they [the Guardia Civil] beat you.… They dragged me to the ground through the [border] road.”
Such summary returns without any procedural safeguards violate both EU and international law, Human Rights Watch said.
Despite the June 2022 carnage and a history of deaths and violent deterrence, Spain and Morocco announced in February 2023 an “intensified” cooperation, including on “the fight against irregular migration, border control.” The European Union has allocated €234 million since 2015 to migration cooperation with Morocco, 77 percent of it spent on border management; a further €150 million was allocated for 2022-2026.
The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights recently emphasized that Spain “should not directly or indirectly contribute to human rights violations through its migration cooperation.”
Spain and Morocco should agree to an independent, impartial, and comprehensive investigation of the June 2022 event at the Melilla border to bring those responsible for serious human rights violations to justice and to ensure that violations are not repeated, Human Rights Watch said. The violations include the use of excessive force, collective expulsions, and pushbacks. The authorities on both sides of the border should cooperate to help the families find missing relatives and provide them with timely information about the investigation.
Moroccan authorities, with support from Spain and Sudan, should work diligently to collect and analyze DNA samples from relatives, identify the dead, inform the families, and organize the transfer of the deceased to their families for burials in accordance with their wishes.
The authorities in Morocco, if they haven't done so already, should share all information at their disposal with families looking for their relatives, enlist them to help identify whoever is still under their custody, and guarantee them access to prisons, hospitals, or morgues. Everyone detained for their participation in the events of June 24 should be able to communicate their whereabouts to family members.
The anniversary comes at a crucial moment as Spain takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU and will have a leading role in steering negotiations with the European Parliament for an EU wide reform of its migration and asylum system.
“Spain, Morocco, and the EU can no longer ignore the suffering caused by harmful migration policies,” Autin said. “Spain should take the lead in pushing a rights-respecting approach that includes safe and legal routes, accountability for border abuses, and strong human rights conditionality for cooperation with other countries.”