28th Sep 2023

Spain accused of Melilla migrant death cover up

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Spanish authorities are being accused of a cover up over the deaths of dozens of refugees at its Melilla enclave with Morocco.

Some 23 young men were confirmed dead and another 77 remain missing after around 1,500 tried to enter the enclave from the Moroccan side on 24 June. Experts from the UN human rights body say at least 37 were killed.

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  • Video footage shows arrested migrants on the Moroccan side of the Spanish enclave. Some appear lifeless (Photo: AMDH Nador)

Spain claims the deaths took place on the Moroccan side, a view sharply contested by human rights organisations.

It has also refused to open an independent probe, amid claims that Spanish CCTV cameras had been switched off during the deadly crush.

"At the most crucial moment of the tragedy, the images recorded were broken off," said Estrella Galan from the Spanish Council for Refugees.

Speaking to MEPs in the civil liberties committee on Thursday (17 November), Galan said that Civil Guard cameras at the border crush were also off.

This happened despite the Civil Guard being forewarned of the large number of approaching people, she said.

"The [Spanish] public prosecutor and the public defense are trying to get all of the images because they haven't received all of those available or they're missing," she said.

"This lack of providing information could be interpreted as an intent to hide," she said.

Most of the 1,500 were of Sudanese or Chadian origin, she said, noting that many would have been entitled to international protection in Spain.

But their deaths also points to a larger geopolitical game between Morocco and Spain as the EU continues to offshore its border policing to foreign states.

That game is steeped in the Western Sahara, an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom.

It was invaded in 1975 by Morocco, triggering a brutal conflict with the local Saharawi that ended in a shaky ceasefire in 1991.

The United Nations does not recognise the Western Sahara as part of Morocco, yet the European Union has cut trade deals with Rabat to exploit the region's resources.

Spain has historically supported the Saharawi and declared Rabat's hold over the territory as an occupation.

Last year, a diplomatic spat erupted between Rabat and Madrid after a Saharawi leader left Algeria for medical treatment in Spain.

And in March, some three crossings saw 2,500 migrants enter the enclaves without any fatalities.

But that same month, Spain's prime minister dramatically reversed its stand on the Western Sahara, and declared the region autonomous and under Rabat's control.

The Moroccans then shored up their border force police, and intensified the crackdown on the migrants, most of whom were living out of view in the forests on a nearby mountain.

The 1,500 then trekked some 6km from the mountain to reach the Melilla enclave on 24 June.

Naji Omar, of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, said that the Moroccan forces did nothing to disperse the crowds before reaching the Barrio Chino border crossing.

But once at the enclave entrance, some 2,000 Moroccan police surrounded the 1,500, concentrating the migrants in a confined space where they were then met with a barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets, also from the Spanish side, he said.

A Spanish MP said Spanish police had launched 86 tear gas projectiles, as well as 28 smoke projectiles, fired 65 rubber bullets and 41 [pepper] sprays.

"They simply waited for the migrants to arrive at the fence before launching an attack on the group," Omar said. "That was designed to send a message to Spain to see what they [Moroccan police] were capable of," he said.

"In fact, people paid with their lives for this message," he said.

In October, Spain announced €30 million to support Moroccan migration and border controls, bringing the total to over €123 million since 2019.

At €360 million, the country is also the second biggest financial recipient of migration linked EU funds. Of that, just over €100 million is used to help the Moroccan interior ministry stop migrants from reaching Europe.

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