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Morocco/Spain: Stalled investigations 'smacks of cover-up' six months after Melilla border carnage - new report

Protestors hold signs depicting silhouettes as they take part in a anti-racism demonstration "against the deaths at the borders" in Barcelona on July 1, 2022
Protestors hold signs depicting silhouettes as they take part in a anti-racism demonstration "against the deaths at the borders" in Barcelona on July 1, 2022 © AFP via Getty Images

Mounting evidence of crimes under international law by both Governments at the Melilla border

Shocking reports of migrants and refugees being pelted with stones and rubber bullets and beaten as they lay on the ground semi-conscious

They were being beaten by hammers in their head until they passed away’ - Sudanese boy, 17, taken by Moroccan police

Moroccan and Spanish authorities have failed to investigate the tragedy

‘This smacks of a cover-up and racism, and rubs salt into already painful wounds’ - Agnès Callamard

The failure of the Spanish and Moroccan authorities to properly investigate the deadly events that took place on the border of Spain’s Melilla enclave in June ‘smacks of a cover-up’, Amnesty International has said in a new report published today.

Six months since the tragedy, there has been no accountability for the crimes and no justice for the at least 37 people killed and 77 others still missing following the violent event.

The 64-page report – “They hit him in the head to see if he was dead”: Evidence of crimes under international law at the Melilla border - details the events that took place when migrants and refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa attempted to cross from Morocco to Spain earlier this year on 24 June.

Drawing on eyewitness testimony, video footage and satellite imagery, 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’.

Authorities on both sides have failed to ensure effective and transparent investigations to establish the truth about what happened that day. Families and expert organisations searching for the missing have been repeatedly impeded by the Moroccan authorities.

Given the lack of transparency by both governments, Amnesty wrote to both the Moroccan and Spanish governments asking them to share information about the mandate and status of the investigations. Amnesty also shared a summary of findings with both governments in November. No replies have been forthcoming.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“At this dismal six-month anniversary, the Spanish and Moroccan authorities continue to deny any responsibility for the carnage at Melilla.

“There is a growing mountain of evidence of serious and multiple human rights violations, including the unlawful death and ill-treatment of refugees and migrants and to this day the lack of information as to the identity of the deceased and the fate of the missing.

“This smacks of a cover-up and racism, and rubs salt into already painful wounds. It is essential for both governments to ensure truth and justice for what happened that day in order to prevent it from happening again.

“The unlawful force used in Melilla has left an indelible stain not just on the hands of the Moroccan and Spanish security forces, but also on the hands of all those pushing racist migration policies, predicated on the likelihood of harm and violence against those seeking to cross borders. Instead of fortifying borders, authorities must open safe and legal routes for people seeking safety in Europe.

“The Moroccan and Spanish authorities must be transparent about the mandate and scope of any existing investigations and not only ensure that they are effectively carried out by cooperating with them fully, but also ensure that their mandate is expanded to include concerns about racism.

Evidence gathered by Amnesty

The report shows that events of that day were predictable and the loss of life avoidable. It reveals that in the months and days prior to 24 June, refugees and migrants around Melilla were subjected to increased attacks by the Moroccan security forces. Many had all their belongings burned and destroyed prompting thousands to walk to the border where they were met with unlawful and lethal force by Moroccan and Spanish authorities.

As they drew close, 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.

Zacharias, 22, from Chad, told Amnesty:

“Moroccan and Spanish security forces were throwing everything at us, gas bombs, stones, rubber bullets, rubber balls…We couldn’t see anything and it was difficult to breathe.” 

Around 400 people were corralled into a small walled area by the Moroccan forces. Working with Amnesty’s Evidence Lab, an immersive 3D model and visual reconstruction of the events offers a chilling perspective of events and actions of security forces which may amount to torture and may have led to unlawful killings.

Omer, a 21-year-old man from Sudan, told Amnesty:

“It seemed that the Moroccan police gave us space to get there, then they cornered us…They started to shoot at us with gas, threw acoustic bombs at us…Everyone tried to move where they could, it was chaos.”

Salih, a 27-year-old from Sudan told Amnesty:

“The Spanish police sprayed us in eyes while the Moroccan police threw stones at our heads.”

Both the Moroccan and Spanish authorities failed to provide prompt and adequate medical assistance to the injured, including by denying a Red Cross ambulance team access to the area, while dozens were left unattended in the full glare of the sun for at least eight hours. 

One interviewee told Amnesty that Spanish security officials forced injured people back across the border to Morocco even though they were “bleeding or with open wounds”. Many of those returned to Morocco without any or full consideration of their circumstances were jailed and subjected to further abuse and violence.

One 17-year-old Sudanese boy taken by Moroccan police told Amnesty:

"All of the people captured by the police were taken by the Moroccan police to the prison, then after that in the prison they were being beaten by hammers in their head until they passed away. Others when they were beaten they also passed away".

An estimated 500 people were bussed to remote parts of the country where they were stripped of their possessions and dumped by the roadside without medical care. Some people told Amnesty that they were forcibly transferred more than 1000km away.

No results from Government investigations

Neither the Moroccan nor Spanish governments have released preliminary results of any investigations into the numbers of people who died and causes of death, nor have they at any point announced that they are investigating the use of force by border staff. Neither government has released all the CCTV footage from any of the many cameras along the border and Spanish authorities have refused to open an independent probe.

Rather than supporting them, Moroccan authorities have made it practically impossible for families and NGOs to carry out searches for the missing and dead. This has proved distressing for the families seeking trace of their loved ones. Jalal, the brother of Abdel Shakour Yehia, a 24-year-old Sudanese man, told Amnesty:

"If my brother was alive then he would have contacted us, so I think that he is disappeared".  

After months without word from him, Huwaida, the niece of Anwar - a 24-year-old Sudanese man missing since 24 June – came across videos and photos of his apparently lifeless body posted online. She told Amnesty:

“Without him, there's no laughter or action. His mother has been thinking a lot about him. She wants to know what happened. I beg you to help us get justice.”

United Nations

For more than a decade, UN experts have expressed concerns about discriminatory treatment of Sub-Saharan African people on this border. On 1 November, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance, stated that the Melilla violence “reveals the status quo of the European Union’s borders, namely racialised exclusion and deadly violence deployed to keep out people of African and Middle Eastern descent, and other non-white populations.”

Pressure on Spanish and Moroccan authorities

Whilst states are permitted to take measures to prevent unauthorised entry at the borders, they must do so in a way that does not violate human rights.

In the months since the events on 24 June, more and more details of what happened have emerged and pressure has mounted on Spanish and Moroccan authorities.

Following a visit to Melilla at the end of November, the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Migrants publicly criticised the fact that asylum seekers in Morocco have no "genuine and effective" access to asylum at the border post, leaving migrants with little choice other than to seek to cross illegally.

Further, the Spanish Ombudsperson, after a preliminary investigation and a visit to Melilla, concluded that at least 470 migrants and refugees were summarily returned to Morocco from Spain, and reminded the state of its obligations regarding prevention of ill-treatment.

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