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Outrage boils year after deadly Spain-Morocco border crush

A Sudanese man at a centre for migrants and asylum seekers in Melilla, June 2022
A Sudanese man at a centre for migrants and asylum seekers in Melilla, June 2022 - Copyright AFP Mandel NGAN
A Sudanese man at a centre for migrants and asylum seekers in Melilla, June 2022 - Copyright AFP Mandel NGAN
Daniel Silva with Ismail Bellaouali in Rabat

The death of at least 23 migrants during an attempt to cross into Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla from Morocco one year ago prompted an outcry over police actions, but advocates say no-one has been held responsible.

Some 2,000 migrants — many from conflict-torn Sudan — stormed the metres-high fence that seals off Melilla from Morocco on June 24, 2022, and clashed with border officers, according to Spanish authorities.

Despite the clamour over the way Moroccan and Spanish police repelled them, no authorities in either country have been officially accused of wrongdoing. 

“There is total impunity,” Miguel Urban Crespo, a far-left Spanish member of the European parliament who has pushed for greater accountability in the case, told AFP.  

“It’s a terrible precedent for Europe, for Spain.”

The death toll from last year’s tragedy — at least 23 according to Morocco, at least 37 according to Amnesty and independent experts — was the worst in years of attempted migrant crossings into Melilla.

At least 76 other migrants were missing, according to rights groups.

Morocco said some migrants died after falling from the fence while others suffocated as people panicked and a stampede started.

But an Amnesty International report based on testimony from the scene said migrants were hit with tear gas, pelted with stones and beaten as well as kicked while on the ground.

Both Morocco and Spain have denied using excessive force, and have accused the migrants of being violent.

– Closed ‘prematurely’ –

Spanish opposition parties have called for the resignation of Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska over the affair.

But Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who faces an early general election next month, has said the minister has his “full confidence”.

Spain’s public prosecutor’s office closed its investigation into the incident in December, saying investigators found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Spanish security forces. 

“We cannot conclude that the actions of the security forces increased the risk to the life and physical integrity of the migrants, so they cannot be charged with reckless homicide” it said.

Jon Inarritu — a Spanish member of parliament from Basque separatist party Bildu who visited Melilla shortly after the tragedy — said the probe had been closed “prematurely”.

It was still not clear how many people died, what the cause of their death was, and if the tear gas used by police contributed to the fatalities, he said.

“It’s obvious that the Spanish government does not want to anger the Moroccan authorities,” Inarritu told AFP.

Spain fears Morocco could retaliate by allowing migrants to pour into Spain as it has done in the past during times of tension between the two nations, Inarritu said.

Morocco launched a judicial inquiry but has not named anyone responsible.

It has instead prosecuted dozens of migrants who took part in the mass attempt to cross into Melilla.

– Migrants jailed –

So far 87 migrants have been sentenced to jail terms of up to four years for illegally entering Morocco or belonging to a human trafficking ring over the mass crossing attempt, according to the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH).

The head of the AMDH’s branch in Nador near Melilla, Omar Naji, said an independent probe was needed since there were many “unanswered questions”, such as what happened to the 76 disappeared.

A video released by AMDH following the tragedy showed dozens of men lying piled alongside each other as Moroccan police stood over them. 

Some migrants were bleeding and a few can be seen making feeble movements or not moving at all.

Only one of the migrants who died has been identified and buried, according to AMDH and Moroccan authorities.

The rest were awaiting the results of DNA tests on their family members to be identified.

Hassan Ammari, the president of a Moroccan association called Help for Migrants in Vulnerable Situations, said their deaths “could have been avoided if ambulances had arrived earlier”.

Activists continue to push for answers.

Five Spanish rights groups filed a lawsuit last week in Melilla over the border deaths.

“This lawsuit is the only option left to the survivors, victims and their families to know the truth and obtain justice,” said Helena Maleno of migrant rights group Walking Borders.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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