The Spanish Interior Minister defended the behavior of the police officers who were filmed hitting and pepper spraying a young sub-Saharan African man as he climbed the border fence between Morocco and the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla, insisting that the use of force by the officers was “proportionate”.
The video emerged last week as around 3,700 people attempted to scale the six-metre (20ft) fence over two days. An unprecedented 2,500 people attempted to cross the border on Wednesday, 491 of whom succeeded. The following day, 1,200 people attempted to cross, of whom 380 made it.
The incident, which happened as Spain set up an express system to accommodate people fleeing war in Ukraine, was criticized by human rights groups and drew attention of the Spanish public ombudsman.
The Spanish government, however, said the “level of aggression” displayed by some of those trying to enter Melilla was unprecedented, adding that around 60 Guardia Civil and Policía Nacional officers, and 52 migrants, had were injured on Wednesday and Thursday. His delegate in the enclave said some people had bolted bolts to their shoes to help them cross, posing “a huge risk” to police.
Footage of the incident, filmed by Spanish national TV channel RTVE, shows the man struck as he descends and then again as he reaches Spanish soil and is beaten to the ground and attacked by at least five policemen.
Virginia Álvarez, refugee and migration specialist at Amnesty International Spain, said the images were particularly shocking as Spain prepared to help Ukrainian refugees.
“Meanwhile, migrants at our own borders are being punished with extreme brutality,” she said. “Is this the image we want to project? Is this how we are going to welcome people who could also flee possible conflicts and persecutions? »
Andalusian Human Rights Association said the Spanish government must provide an explanation for the incident and “the pushbacks [summary returns] which are taking place”.
Spain’s public ombudsman, Ángel Gabilondo, said he had asked the government for more information about “what appears to be a disproportionate use of force by officers”. He added: “Border control must be carried out with respect for the guarantees and fundamental rights of everyone, whether they are law enforcement officials or people trying to enter the national territory”.
But speaking during a visit to Melilla on Saturday, Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska called the border violations “extremely violent” and said meat hooks, sticks and hammers had been used at the crossings.
The minister also said the level of violence suffered by the police was evident in the cracked helmets and damaged ballistic shields he was shown.
Grande-Marlaska said while the officers were still bound by law, they had shown a “proportionate” response to the situation.
“A democratic state with the rule of law cannot allow its borders – which in this case are the borders of the EU – to be violently attacked,” he said. “Nor can it allow its civil servants in the Guardia Civil and the Policía Nacional, who provide the space for all of us to exercise our rights and freedoms, to be attacked.”
In May last year, around 10,000 people – including 2,000 minors – crossed into Spain’s other North African enclave, Ceuta, in a matter of days. Their arrival has led the Spanish government to accuse Morocco of playing politics with its borders after Madrid allowed the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement to enter Spain for Covid treatment.