Human rights activists in Spain and Morocco have called for investigations in both countries after a massive attempt to breach the border fence between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla caused at least 23 dead.
Spanish officials said around 2,000 Africans headed for the iron fence at dawn on Friday, and more than 500 managed to slip through a border control area after cutting an opening with shears.
Moroccan officials first said five people died in what they described as a “scramble”. Late Saturday, Moroccan state television said the death toll had risen to 23 people.
NGOs on the ground have said the death toll could be higher. “We have confirmed 37 deaths in the Melilla tragedy,” said Helena Maleno Garzón, whose organization Walking Borders is in constant contact with Africans seeking to cross to Spain from Morocco.
Walking Borders has joined more than half a dozen others, including Amnesty International Spain, in calling for an investigation into what is believed to be the deadliest day in recent memory along the section of the only border land EU with Africa.
Videos shared online by the Moroccan Association for Human Rights appeared to show dozens of people crammed into an area next to the border fence – some bleeding and many standing still – as Moroccan forces in riot gear watched them the day after the crossing.
“They were left there unaided for hours which increased the death toll,” the group said on Twitter. In another video shared by the organization, a Moroccan security guard appeared to use a truncheon to attack a person who was lying down.
A young man who tried to cross said those trying to cross and the police threw stones at each other, but noted that the police had the advantage of wearing protection. “Moroccan agents were very violent, more aggressive than other times, and people panicked,” he told Spanish newspaper El País. “That’s what caused the stampede.”
In the previous days, police had carried out several raids on the camps where migrants and refugees were sleeping on the streets waiting for their chance to cross into Spain, he said. Police confiscated food and whatever cash they could find, leaving migrants anxious and exhausted as they grappled with higher levels of precariousness.
He said Moroccan forces threw stones and fired tear gas directly at those trying to cross. “Normally they throw it in the air, but this time it was aimed directly at people. And they were so weak they fell at the slightest touch,” he said. “So many people died because ‘they were weak and hungry.’
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Moroccan forces had worked in cooperation with Spanish police to “repel” what he described as a “violent aggression” and “attack against the territorial integrity” of Spain.
Spanish officials said 49 Guardia Civil officers were lightly injured, while Morocco said 140 of its security forces were injured. A total of 133 people crossed the border.
“If there is anyone responsible for everything that seems to have happened at this border, it is the mafias who traffic in human beings,” Sánchez said.
His comments, however, were contested within the senior ranks of the coalition government. “No one should die like this,” said Yolanda Díaz, one of five ministers representing junior coalition partner Unidas Podemos, on Twitter. “It’s time to clarify what happened.”
The Spanish Refugee Commission said asylum seekers fleeing armed conflict in Sudan were among those trying to cross, and that “the indiscriminate use of violence to manage migration and control borders” had prevented people eligible for international protection to reach Spanish soil.
The deadly crossing was the first since Spain and Morocco patched up relations after a year-long dispute centered on Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1976.
Several NGOs, including Walking Borders and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, have established a direct link between this renewed cooperation and the events at the border, in a joint letter who described the dead as a “tragic symbol of European policies of externalizing EU borders, with the complicity of a southern country, Morocco”.