Melilla: Never again

The death toll continues to rise. At least 23 people died last Friday trying to reach the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco. Some organisations working on the ground have put the death toll at 37.

Their bodies await burial in hastily dug graves. But as far as we know, none of them have been formally identified or had autopsies performed, nor have had their remains returned to their loved ones for a dignified farewell.

The images and the footage is shocking. Bundles of people – dead and alive – piled up on the ground while Moroccan police walk among them, shaking and beating them with truncheons and batons. Daniel Canales, Amnesty Spain’s researcher, has seen unpublished footage of Spanish police handing over potential refugees – most of whom come from Sudan – to Moroccan police officers, without any kind of enquiry or procedure to determine whether they are in need of protection. Once handed over, they are beaten again by these policemen.

Amnesty International has called for an independent and thorough investigation into what happened on this border: a border that has seen dramatic events stretching back decades.

In 2005 at least 13 people died at the hands of Moroccan and Spanish police, and in February 2014 another 15 people drowned on Tarajal Beach when Spanish police used anti-riot equipment against them.

These latest human rights violations come just weeks after an agreement between the Spanish and Moroccan governments to re-establish friendly relations, following the Spain’s change of policy on Western Sahara.

This agreement perhaps explains why, when news first starting to emerge about the deaths on the border, Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, congratulated the coordinated action of the Spanish Civil Guard and the Moroccan security forces.
When it became clear that at least 13 people had died, Pedro Sánchez blamed the mafias for the deaths. But who let people die on the ground without proper medical attention? Who handed over potential refugees from Melilla to the Moroccan police knowing they would be ill-treated? Who is keeping the asylum and refugee offices in Melilla closed knowing that there is no way to seek protection in Spain if you come from Sudan or Mali except by risking death jumping the fence?

In an unprecedented act solidarity, Spain has welcomed more than 124,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion and yet we allow potential refugees fleeing other wars to die. Instead, those fleeing the war in Sudan are prevented from seeking asylum in our country in violation of international law. This position can only be described as racist.

It is time to put an end to this policy which allows and encourages serious human rights violations. A ‘business as usual’ approach is no longer valid amid the blood and shame.

In the last few days, media from all over the world have questioned the effectiveness of the migration policy of both the Spanish and Moroccan governments and highlighted the cruel treatment of people seeking protection or a better life. It is time for the migration policy between these two countries to abandon batons and truncheons and breaches of international law. Re-establishing good relations cannot be achieved at the expense of people’s human rights, whether it is sending minors to Ceuta or pushing refugees back only for them to be beaten with impunity by Moroccan forces.

The first step to change the situation requires the truth about what happened in Melilla last week. Dozens of organisations have demanded it, including the African Union.

It will not be comfortable for either government, but it is essential to put rights at the centre of our migration policies. The Moroccan government must change its approach the next time refugees and migrants approach this border.

It is also essential to find out what happened on the border in order to understand our double standards and ensure that all refugees have the opportunity – as Ukrainians have had – to escape war and repression by seeking asylum through legal and safe channels.

The situation is a complex one, but compliance with human rights norms and the rule of law provide the essential routes to ensure that the horrific events of recent days are not repeated.

This article by Esteban Beltrán, Director of Amnesty International Spain, was first published here by Publico.