A data-driven documentary produced for the BBC's "Africa Eye" program reveals details on the deadly events that took place on the border of Spain's Melilla enclave on June 24, leaving at least 23 migrants dead and many others still unaccounted for. The film raises some serious accusations against both the Spanish and Moroccan governments.
The documentary titled "Death on the Border" highlights not only various shortcomings on part of local authorities on June 24, 2022 but also suggests that the governments of both Spain and Morocco acted in ways that resulted in a stampede, in which many were killed and many more injured.
Official numbers say that 23 people died that day, while UN experts put the death toll at 37. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), which acts as the main independent human rights association in Morocco, says that at least 77 people are dead or missing.
In addition to countless deaths being documented, the footage used in the film also shows dozens of migrants being beaten with sticks, restrained on the ground and hurled verbal abuse at. In the aftermath of the stampede on June 24, 13 migrants were given two-and-a-half year jail sentences in Morocco over their irregular border crossing attempts. Other trials are likely to still take place.
The documentary film pieces together "dozens of public and private videos," collating this data with geo-location maps and several eyewitness accounts, painting a harrowing picture on what happened that day.
The video comes with a warning that from the onset, graphic images of death and violence are shown.
Backed into a deadly corner
On June 24, roughly 2,000 migrants approached the multiple border fortifications between Melilla and Morocco, according to official figures, in hopes of scaling fences and walls and thus getting into the Spanish enclave -- which measures only 12 square kilometers but is part of the EU.
As authorities on the Moroccan side tried to control the unprecedented situation using tear gas and smoke guns, hundreds were pushed into corners along the intersecting walls of a courtyard along the border, trying to escape the irritants in the air.
The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) says as many as 27 migrants were killed in the ensuing stampede, while the Moroccan government ruled "mechanical asphyxiation" as the official cause of death. The death toll was the highest ever during attempted crossings into Melilla, which occur several times annually in Melilla as well as in Spain's other enclave in Morocco, Ceuta.
The bodies of those migrants meanwhile have not been returned to their families. The BBC says that according to their sources, they are still being kept in a morgue in Nador, a Moroccan city about 15 kilometers south of the Spanish enclave.
Omar Naji, the vice president of AMDH, meanwhile told the BBC that his teams had witnessed authorities in Nador digging 21 graves.
"The authorities wanted to bury the bodies without making the necessary investigations and without identifying them," Naji said.
Violence and abuse
In addition to revealing details about the stampede, the documentary also shows in detail what happened to dozens of other migrants who were still outside the courtyard area. The migrants are seen on the ground with their hands restrained, while security officials beat them randomly.
An anonymous eyewitness, who survived the event, said that they were among the injured and the dead. In its press release, the BBC says that the survivor "claims they received no medical care and security forces stopped medics from helping the injured."
After hours of abuse, the migrants were sent to Morocco's major cities on chartered buses, moving them hundreds of kilometers away. One eyewitness highlights how one injured migrant died during the hours-long journey.
Pushbacks in Morocco
The majority of the migrants trying to reach Melilla that day were ultimately overpowered by Moroccan authorities, with many instances of brute forces being documented in the documentary.
However, hundreds migrants are assumed to have actually made it past the fences and walls and into Spanish territory in some shape or form. But only 133 out of that group officially managed to lodge asylum claims in Spain, according to information obtained by the BBC from the Spanish interior ministry.
Video evidence shown in the documentary suggests that several individuals were dragged back by Moroccan border guards and security forces, who crossed over into Spanish territory while chasing after migrants.
These actions would qualify as so-called pushbacks, which deny asylum seekers the chance of filing their application despite being in the territory where they wish to seek refuge.
One migrant told the BBC team conducting the investigation into the events on June 24 that after he was returned to Moroccan authorities, he was beaten into losing consciousness for hours.
Read more: Activists say Morocco used 'unjustified' force against Melilla migrants
No 'no man's land'
Both the Spanish and the Moroccan governments have been defending the actions taken on June 24, claiming that they were merely protecting the border and saying that the migrants had shown signs of violence.
In the documentary, many of the migrants are seen with sticks; however, one of the eyewitnesses explains that these sticks were intended to be used to scale the border fences and not to attack guards.
Both governments have also sought impunity in regards to the deaths, with Spain even saying that the events happened in "tierra de nadie" -- which translates as "no man's land."
Spanish MP Jon Inarritu in parliament pressed Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska to answer what that term is supposed to mean, as no such entity exists under international law.
"It's Spanish territory. Tell it like it is," Inarritu is seen as saying in the BBC report, which also shows that at least three of the deceased migrants were on Spanish-controlled territory when they suffered death.
The documentary also shows images of bodies being moved mere meters away from Spanish territory and back into Morocco.
UN divided over wording in statement
The United Nations has denounced the use of "excessive force" by authorities on June 24, saying that it was "alarming there is still no concrete accountability months after" the deaths on the border.
"Dozens more have been injured as a result of excessive and lethal use of force by Moroccan and Spanish authorities," the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism said.
The UN International Independent Expert Mechanism (IIEM) stressed that "(a)ny use of force by law enforcement officials must be guided by principles of legality, precaution, necessity, proportionality, accountability and non-discrimination."
However, despite such condemning language, the UN failed to reach an agreement in the Security Council shortly after the Melilla tragedy. A draft statement on these migrant deaths calling for further investigations was rejected by at least one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, reportedly on account of the wording of the proposed statement.
In order for resolutions to be passed and binding statements to be released by the Security Council, there has to be unanimity.
Hours of video evidence unreleased
Both the Moroccan and Spanish government have meanwhile launched their own investigations into the June 24 tragedy; however, neither of those investigations is independent of government oversight. In Spain, a separate investigation run by the ombudsman was launched later as well, which is not under direct government control.
While dozens of videos were published on social media in the immediate aftermath of the event, showing migrants being beaten and verbally abused, neither of the governments have released CCTV footage from any of the many cameras along the border.
One of the survivors speaking in the "Death on the Border" documentary said that if authorities disclosed that material as evidence, the remaining questions would be answered.
"The whole border area in Melilla is covered by surveillance cameras, there are cameras along almost the entire fence and in the area where we were trapped and some of us died," he told the BBC.
The Spanish interior ministry meanwhile claims that "(a)ll CCTV recordings have been handed over to the Spanish judiciary and Ombudsman as part of their investigations."
However, that statement later turned out to be false.
Spanish government found to have lied
In October, the Spanish Ombudsman released some of its initial findings of its investigation, stressing that not all available CCTV footage had been made available to investigators. It also stated that Spain's previous attempts to paint the alleged pushbacks of hundreds of asylum seeking migrants as a falsehood were also factually wrong.
The ombudsman said that 470 migrants were pushed back across the border. While there are no details revealed so far on whether any Spanish forces were actively involved in those pushbacks, it is evident that nevertheless they failed to allow those migrants who had reached Spanish territory to assert their right to file asylum applications.
In response to the airing of the BBC documentary, Spain's interior ministry said it was "disappointing and surprising" that such serious accusations had been raised "without any evidence."
The BBC said in response: "We stand by our journalism."
Read more: EU, Morocco announce joint anti-trafficking effort after migrant tragedy
with BBC, AFP, EFE, UN