Melilla: Between silence and lies

Sifting through Facebook, Huwaida stumbled upon the footage she was dreading. But it was only when further photos of her uncle Anwar’s lifeless body emerged & a human rights organization on the ground confirmed it, that she knew for sure.

Anwar was dead.

Anwar from Sudan, was just one of at least 37 people from Sub-Saharan Africa to die on 24 June, caught up in the horrific events on the border of Spain’s Melilla enclave. Six months on, she and her family are still waiting for the truth of what happened.

The families of 77 other people who were there and are still missing, are still awaiting to find out if their loved ones are alive or dead. While the families sift through the little information they have been provided with, the authorities on both sides of the border offer nothing but silence and lies.

Spain’s Interior Minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, claims that no deaths occurred on “Spanish territory” but we know that this was not the case. New research published by Amnesty International today, draws on eyewitness testimony, video footage and satellite imagery, and 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’.

The Spanish government appear to want to claim that the “joint operational zone” 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.

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.

Fernando Grande-Marlaska denies that the Spanish authorities failed to provide medical assistance to the injured, but In reality both the Moroccan and Spanish authorities failed to provide prompt and adequate medical aid to the injured, including by denying a Red Cross ambulance team access to the area. Dozens were left unattended in the full glare of the sun for at least eight hours.

One interviewee told Amnesty International 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 summarily returned to Morocco were jailed and subjected to further abuse and violence.

The Spanish authorities still claim that it is possible for people arriving at the border to apply for asylum at Beni Enzar, the only border post in Melilla. 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.

Spanish authorities also attempt to justify illegal returns despite the fact that the rights of migrants and refugees are not affected by the way in which they arrive in a country. The principle of “non-refoulement”, a cornerstone of international human rights refugee law, prohibiting anyone from being returned to a place where they are at risk of serious abuses, is not optional. And yet, both Spanish and Moroccan authorities showed a cruel disregard for this principle.

According the Ombudsperson who is conducting an investigation, Spain illegally returned up to 470 people to Morocco. Some were taken directly to Moroccan prisons, and then subjected to apparently unfair trials in Morocco, charged in relation to the events of 24 June. Many received jail sentences of between two and three years on charges ranging from “insult and violence against law enforcement officers”, “destruction of public property”, or “facilitation and organization of irregular emigration and irregular entry”.

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 International that they were forcibly transferred more than 1000km away.
Authorities on both sides have failed to ensure effective and transparent investigations in order to establish the truth about what happened that day. Families and expert organisations searching for the missing have been repeatedly impeded by Moroccan authorities.

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, and violates their human rights to truth and justice.

For more than a decade, United Nations experts have expressed concerns about discriminatory treatment of Sub-Saharan African people on this border. On 1 November 2022, 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.”

Six months after the carnage in Melilla, amid a growing mountain of evidence of serious and multiple human rights violations, the demand for truth is growing louder. The silence and the lies smack of a cover-up and for the families of the dead and the missing, rubs salt into already painful wounds. It is essential for both governments to ensure justice for what happened that day in order to prevent it from happening again.

Truth and justice are vital. But for Huwaida and her family, nothing will bring back Anwar. “Without him, there’s no laughter or action,” she told Amnesty International. “His mother has been thinking a lot about him. She wants to know what happened. I beg you to help us get justice.”

By Ana Gómez Pérez-Nievas, Amnesty International Spain’s media manager

This is an abridged version of a longer article published in El Pais here.