With Spain witnessing an increase in migrant arrivals, especially via the enclaves Ceuta and Melilla, human rights activists and lawyers are warning of illegal pushbacks by police forces and a border policy that is breaching human rights.
In early February, a tragedy occurred five miles off the coast of the Spanish enclave Melilla. More than twenty bodies were recovered from the sea after migrants drowned when their boat was shipwrecked during an attempt to reach the coast.
Apart from Italy and Greece, Spain is one of the main countries of arrival for migrants wanting to reach Europe. Last year, 22,103 migrants and refugees arrived on Spanish shores, the Spanish Commission for Refugees (CEAR) reported.
The number is three times higher than in 2016. According to CEAR, migrants are increasingly arriving on Andalusian shores via Ceuta and Melilla and the Alboran sea. 'We can see it in places like Motril, Almería and Malaga," says Esteban Velazquez, the former head of the migration delegation of the archbishopric of Tangier in Nador, Morocco.
Vulnerable on both sides the border
Velazquez now lives in Granada, Spain, where he is witness to tensions concerning migrant arrivals. "Recently, the police left a group of migrants at Granada's bus station hoping an NGO would pick them up, but nobody did," he adds.
Velazquez spent three years in Nador, where he saw firsthand the vulnerable situation of migrants on Spain’s southern border. "Migrants' rights are violated on both sides: Morocco and Spain," he says.
On January 31, he spoke at the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed) in Barcelona. "The full story is not being reported. We hear about Mount Gourougou [a mountain overlooking Spanish Melilla], where people are waiting to cross the border," he says. "But on other nearby mountains, women migrants are forced into prostitution." This, he says, is not being made public.
Helping migrants who failed to cross
Velazquez's religious organisation offers health care assistance to migrants who attempted to cross the border. "Since late 2012, Moroccan Special Forces — a type of police — have been taking migrants who failed to cross the border, and were injured in the attempt, to hospitals. Before they're fully recovered, they're discharged and left to their fate in Morocco's city streets and parks," he says.
"We buried people who died due to police brutality after they tried to cross the border," says Velasquez. "I saw around 20 or 40 people aged between 15 and 23 bleeding, with their feet and shoulders broken, their brains cracked open. Some had lost their eyes because the Spanish police (Guardia Civil) used rubber bullets until the Tarajal tragedy happened," Velazquez says.
The tragedy of Tarajal
The Tarajal incident on February 6, 2014, is considered as one of the darkest moments for the Spanish-Moroccan border region. Fifteen African migrants drowned while trying to swim from a beach in Morocco to Ceuta. Human rights groups demanded an investigation after witnesses accused Spanish security forces of firing at the migrants in the water. While admitting its forces used rubber bullets, the government denied they had targeted the migrants directly.
"There's impunity at the border," says Virginia Rodriguez, Research Coordinator at porCausa, a foundation focused on journalism and research on migration issues. "Four years later [after Tarajal], the Spanish justice system refuses to investigate what happened in Ceuta despite the evidence," says Rodriguez.
The incident caused migration policy changes. It legalized pushbacks. "Human rights organizations have been denouncing such activities for years. But the Spanish government denies it," says Marta Valladaura, lawyer from IRIDIA, a Barcelona-based association that works for the defence of human rights.
"The change in policy states that 'Foreigners who are detected at the border of the territorial demarcation of Ceuta or Melilla while trying to overcome the elements of border contention to cross the border irregularly may be rejected in order to prevent their illegal entry into Spain,'" says Valladura.
Human rights activist on trial
The day of Velasquez's talk, Helena Maleno, a Spanish human rights activist, was being tried in Morocco for allegedly fomenting human trafficking in an investigation opened by Spanish police. Maleno has been living in Morocco for 15 years, and constantly receives distress calls from migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean.
In Spain, Maleno’s supporters have mobilized to show their support. "Her case is a clear example of how the pre-eminence of protecting the border is imposing on human rights. Not only the rights of migrants, but also of human rights defenders. They are convinced that they have to defend the dignity of those trying to cross the border. But they can end up in a court for that," says Rodriguez.
The judge’s decision in Maleno’s case is still pending.