The human rights organization Amnesty International has accused the governments of Spain and Morocco of using "unlawful and lethal force" at the border between Melilla and Morocco in June this year. Amnesty holds them responsible for the deaths of at least 37 people and 77 missing.
On June 24, 2022, around 2,000 migrants attempted to cross the border from Morocco into the Spanish enclave Melilla. On that day, at least 37 people from sub-Saharan Africa died, and according to the human rights organization Amnesty International, 77 people are still missing.
Anwar, says Amnesty, was one of those who died. Huwaida is his niece. She found footage of his lifeless body on the ground after sifting through Facebook, stated Amnesty as it released a new report entitled 'Melilla: Between silence and lies' on Tuesday, December 13.
The report "paints a detailed and harrowing picture of what happened when 2,000 migrants and refugees attempted to cross into Melilla through a border crossing known as 'Barrio Chino'," Amnesty said.
Although Spain's Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska has stated that no deaths occurred on Spanish territory and has said that the Spanish authorities were not at fault, Amnesty claims to have "new research," including "eyewitness testimony, video footage and satellite imagery" that disproves Grande-Marlaska’s statement.
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'A detailed and harrowing picture'
According to Amnesty, "the Spanish government appear to want to claim that the 'joint operational zone' [between the two countries] is a no mans' land where human rights don’t apply. In reality it is a strip of land that is internationally recognized as a land border of the European Union, and therefore subject to European laws, including the set of rules that protect and regulate the right to asylum."
Loss of life on that day was "avoidable", says Amnesty. Moreover, the events that unfolded when the large group tried to storm the border were also "predictable;" in the months and days prior to June 24, refugees and migrants around Melilla were reportedly subjected to increased attacks by the Moroccan security forces.
Many of those in the area say that migrants' belongings were burned or destroyed, which, according to Amnesty, "prompted thousands to walk to the border where they were met with unlawful and lethal force by Moroccan and Spanish authorities."
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'Police pelted them with stones'
As the group drew closer to the border "police pelted them with stones, firing tear gas at them in enclosed spaces. Many of the injured continued to be beaten and kicked as they lay on the ground, semi-conscious, unresponsive, or struggling for breath," writes Amnesty.
Medical assistance was not provided quickly enough, states Amnesty, a charge that the Spanish authorities also deny. Amnesty claims that authorities denied a Red Cross ambulance team access to the area and "dozens were left unattended in the full glare of the sun for at least eight hours."
One migrant present on the day said that Spanish security officials were forcing injured people back across the border to Morocco "even though they were bleeding or with open wounds." Many of those who were summarily returned, writes Amnesty, "were jailed and subjected to further abuse and violence."
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Spain says that if asylum seekers approach the border at Beni Enzar, the only border post in Melilla, they can apply for asylum. However, Amnesty contends that "in reality, avenues to seek asylum are in effect blocked at every turn, and there is no meaningful possibility for people from sub-Saharan Africa to get access to Spanish officials to seek asylum."
Amnesty also accuses Spain of operating "illegal returns" and then seeking to justify them by the way they arrived in the country. Amnesty points out that under the principle of non-refoulement, states are prohibited from returning anyone to a place where they are at risk of serious abuses. Amnesty says that both Spain and Morocco showed a cruel disregard for this principle.
'Spain illegally returned 470 people to Morocco'
An investigation is currently underway, being conducted by the Ombudsperson for Human Rights in Spain. According to that Ombudsperson, "Spain illegally returned up to 470 people to Morocco." On arrival in Morocco, some of these people were taken to Moroccan prisons and "subjected to apparently unfair trails in Morocco, charged in relation to the events of June 24."
Many of those people who were tried received jail sentences of between two and three years. They were convicted of charges like "insult and violence against law enforcement officers," "destruction of public property" or "facilitation and organization of irregular emigration and irregular entry."
Around 500 people are estimated to have been driven to remote parts of Morocco; Amnesty alleges they were stripped of their possessions and "dumped by the roadside without medical care." Some of these people were driven more than 1,000 kilometers away from the border.
Neither the Moroccan or the Spanish authorities, according to Amnesty, have carried out "effective and transparent investigations" into what happened on June 24, or sought to establish the truth of what actually happened on that day. Some relatives who are still searching for missing family members say that their efforts are "regularly impeded" by the Moroccan authorities.
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'Discriminatory treatment of sub-Saharan African people'
United Nations experts have long expressed concerns about "discriminatory treatment of sub-Saharan African people" on the Morocco-Melilla border too, says Amensty.
In fact, on November 1 this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance said that what happened on the Melilla border on June 24 "reveals the status quo of the European Union’s borders, namely racialized exclusion and deadly violence deployed to keep out people of African and Middle Eastern descent, and other non-white populations."
Amnesty says that six months after the events of June 24 "the silence and the lies smack of a cover-up." They say that both governments need to face up to what happened "in order to prevent it happening again."
For the families waiting to know what happened, or mourning those who died, like Huwaida, knowing exactly what happened and who is responsible is important. Huwaida told Amnesty that without her uncle Anwar "there is no laughter or action." She said Anwar's mother has been thinking a lot about him and "she wants to know what happened." Huwaida begged Amnesty to "help us get justice."