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Refugee deaths on the Spanish-Moroccan border must not be disregarded

Over six months on from 37 deaths and a subsequent ‘cover up’ at the Melilla border, Olivia Millard explains the need for authorities to be held accountable

Anja Schwegler / Panoramic

On June 24th 2022, at least thirty seven people died during a mass border crossing between Morocco and the Spanish enclave Melilla. All were refugees and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. On top of recorded deaths, another seventy seven people who attempted the crossing remain unaccounted for. The tragedy at Melilla is yet another example of the brutalities faced by migrants seeking to enter Europe. However, there was and continues to be limited coverage of the event that has since been called the Melilla ‘Cover Up’.

To this day, neither Spanish nor Moroccan authorities have faced the necessary consequences for potentially unlawful use of excessive violence when forcing migrants back across the border. Instead of investigating the security forces involved, the Moroccan authorities have prosecuted migrants for attacking the border force.

Six months after the event, Amnesty International released a report aiming to bring clarity and justice to the shadowy course of events at the Spanish enclave. Despite this, serious questions remained unanswered, and accountability has not been claimed by either side.

Ceuta and Melilla are the only piece of European territory on mainland Africa, making them a hotspot for conflict. Spanish sovereignty over the territories is firmly contested by Morocco. Beyond controversy over their very existence, there is little possibility for sub-Saharan Africans to access avenues to seek asylum at the official international crossing point into Melilla, the Beni Enzar border post. Consequently, border violence, pushbacks and violent containment are common. It’s perhaps unsurprising therefore that there have been many allegations of human rights violations at the Ceuta and Melilla border areas over the years, with major examples in 2005, 2014 and 2021.

"These precarious, informal camps are located in the forests in Nador, not far from Beni Enzar, and are subject to frequent raids by Moroccan security forces."

A November 2022 joint investigation by four newspapers including El País and Lighthouse Reports has pieced together the events of June 24th.Their findings suggest migrants and refugees were backed into a corner and shot at close range with rubber bullets, tear-gassed, beaten until unconscious and denied medical care. Witness accounts suggest serious abuses of power, with suggestions that less lethal weapons (e.g. rubber bullets) were misused with punitive effect.

Looking for the catalyst for the 2000-strong border crossing, the Amnesty report points to increased attacks by the Moroccan police on camps inhabited by people from sub-Saharan Africa looking to enter Spain. These precarious, informal camps are located in the forests in Nador, not far from Beni Enzar, and are subject to frequent raids by Moroccan security forces. In the days leading up to 24th June, raids occurred ‘almost daily’. Eyewitnesses have described how, during these raids, belongings were burnt or confiscated, food supplies destroyed and migrants arrested. A correlation between increased raids and attempts to cross the border into Spanish territory has been identified.

The tragedy also followed the signing of a security agreement between Spain and Morocco in March 2022. Provisions included reinforcing border securitisation policies in line with Europe’s growing approach of criminalising the migration process. But ambiguous language like that in Article 1 (2), equating “criminal actions” with “trafficking in human beings and illegal immigration”, goes further, blurring the distinction between trafficking and immigration. Unlike human trafficking, migration is not a crime in European countries. Language such as this compounds an already complicated situation.

"Both authorities must ensure that asylum avenues are not simply fabrications of political rhetoric, but real, safe and accessible."

So-called ‘pushbacks’, the forcing of refugees and migrants back over a border with no consideration of individual circumstances (for example the right to apply for asylum), have long been a polemical issue in Europe. Through their use of violence to indiscriminately force refugees back into the hands of the Moroccan authorities, Spanish police may have committed a ‘collective expulsion’ and violated the non-refoulement principle in international human rights and refugee law. As a rule under customary law prohibiting the transferral or removal of anyone to territories where their life or freedoms would be threatened, such a breach could have serious repercussions.

After a six-month probe into the migrant deaths, a Spanish prosecutor has dismissed a criminal case against the Spanish border police, finding no evidence of criminal activity. The prosecutor urged Spanish authorities to improve the procedure enabling migrants to apply for asylum, rather than attempting to cross the border illegally. The available evidence points to one conclusion: instead of fortifying borders in a pressure-cooker environment, both authorities must ensure that asylum avenues are not simply fabrications of political rhetoric, but real, safe and accessible.

Transparency and accountability is needed from both countries. If active collaboration is unrealistic, cooperation at least is essential to bring justice to the victims and their families, as well as comprehensive investigations addressing factors like the role racism against Black and racialised people may have played.

The Spanish interior ministry rejected Amnesty’s report on the grounds of its ‘false assertions’. Certainly, there is no single, objective account of what happened on 24th June, but the fact is that lives were lost, and many people, border forces included, sustained serious injuries. This tragedy demands not only proper investigation, but a more general evaluation. The events of that day must be considered a wake-up call: they were the result of wider, cumulative issues concerning European immigration law and the avenues available to migrants seeking asylum.


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