Massacre in Melilla: Europe's deadly borders in Morocco
On 24 June, more than 2,000 people attempted to cross the border of Melilla, a tiny Spanish enclave in Morocco, hoping to apply for asylum in the European Union.
The migrants, the majority coming from a number of African countries, were met with extreme violence by Moroccan authorities, who beat those attempting to enter, killing at least 37 men. The hundreds who were injured were left in piles on the ground without help for hours.
The incident is already the deadliest in the history of the Morocco-Spain border, and it is likely the death toll will continue to rise. Melilla and Ceuta, the other Spanish enclave, are the only two European land borders on the African continent, making them popular sites for attempted border crossings.
While migrants coming from across the continent hoping to cross into Europe are regularly met with violence by Spanish and Moroccan authorities, the severity of the recent confrontations was uniquely horrific, and accompanying graphic videos and images have exposed the brutality of Europe’s border policies.
"While migrants coming from across the continent hoping to cross into Europe are regularly met with violence by Spanish and Moroccan authorities, the severity of the recent confrontations were uniquely horrific"
“We had first-hand footage showing Moroccan forces beating already injured and perhaps even already dead migrants. If you understand the Moroccan dialect you can even hear the police officers insulting the migrants… it's just this scene of utter and sheer violence,” Samia Errazzouki, a scholar of Moroccan history and former journalist, told The New Arab.
In the immediate aftermath of the Melilla massacre, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez praised Moroccan authorities for the handling of the situation and thanked them for their support in helping Spain secure its borders, an announcement that was met with outrage by activists and the public.
“The contrast of those two things was very shocking,” Errazzouki added.
Melilla's colonial history
Just a few kilometres away from the border crossing on the Nador-Melilla frontier is where, until last year, the last remaining statue of the dictator Francisco Franco on Spanish soil stood, near the headquarters of the civil guard. Its final location was a stark reminder of Franco’s rise to power, whose authoritarian rule included the violent repression of anti-colonial resistance.
A 2007 law banned public displays of Franco in Spain, but his statue in Melilla remained until 2021, a testament to the enduring right-wing leanings in both the enclaves. In many ways, they are remnants of the Spanish colonial era and legacy.
Incidents of border violence serve as a reminder of the “nostalgia for European colonialism and maintaining that stronghold over the continent,” explained Ezzarrouki, rhetoric which has seen a resurgence in Spain in recent years with the rise of right-wing ideology.
In both Melilla and Ceuta, Spain’s right-wing party Vox has found success, relying on anti-immigration rhetoric that won it 35% of the vote in Ceuta and 18% in Melilla in the 2019 elections.
However, Ezzarrouki notes that while Spain’s colonial legacy cannot be denied, the dynamics that exist between Morocco and the rest of the continent are also deeply embedded in racial and colonial histories.
“The dynamics between Morocco, and generally North Africa, and the rest of the continent are very much embedded in the history of the slave trade and the global proliferation and dissemination of anti-blackness,” she said.
“Those in power in Morocco have always seen themselves as distinct from Africa…It’s definitely a history of racism that Morocco is not completely innocent or absent from.”
Moroccan authorities have yet to identify those killed or to conduct an investigation into the excessive use of force. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights has released images of alleged mass graves and claimed that the Moroccan authorities are rushing to dispose of the bodies to avoid accountability. Meanwhile, survivors have been arrested and face criminal charges.
"In Morocco and other North African countries such as Libya and Tunisia, human rights organisations have documented severe human rights abuses against migrants by state and non-state actors"
Externalising Europe's borders
Morocco, like many countries that border the European continent, has signed several bilateral agreements over the past several decades with both Spain and the EU, in which it agrees to police the borders of Melilla and Ceuta in exchange for technology, training, and resources.
This externalisation of Europe's borders, through which European countries outsource their border patrol operations to neighbouring states, has become one of the central pillars of the EU’s migration policy, explained Ahlam Chemlali, whose doctoral research focuses on migration and border management.
“Since the late 1990s, the EU has sought to outsource ‘migration management’ to third countries to prevent irregular migrants, including asylum seekers, from reaching EU territory,” she explained to The New Arab.
The consequences of this externalisation are often the strengthening of authoritarian regimes in partner states, forcing migrants into more dangerous routes and increasing the prevalence of smuggling and organised crime operations. In Morocco and other North African countries such as Libya and Tunisia, human rights organisations have documented severe human rights abuses against migrants by state and non-state actors.
“Mass arrests by law enforcement, forced displacement, detention of migrants, even in regular circumstances, and collective expulsions are on the rise,” said Chemlali, adding that many North African countries including Morocco do not have legal provisions for asylum and refugee status.
“The already poor protection standards for migrants and asylum seekers have only been further degraded.”
Despite this, Morocco is still recognised by the EU as a ‘safe country’, and Spain and the EU continue to funnel millions into border security agreements, in ways that are “often hypocritically disguised as a life-saving endeavour to tackle smuggling and human trafficking and to prevent people from embarking on dangerous journeys,” explained Michela Pugliese, a migration researcher at the NGO Euro-Med Monitor.
These bilateral externalisation agreements thereby allow European countries to shift their asylum responsibilities and obligations under international law far from their physical borders, skirting accountability.
"Morocco handles and deals with migration depending on what is convenient for its foreign policy interests"
“These violent incidents like we saw in Melilla are convenient for the EU because they can say well this is not our fault, we’re not the ones who inflicted this violence, even though we applaud it,” said Ezzarrouki. “It allows the EU to uphold this benevolent Western liberal image of human rights.”
Meanwhile, Ezzarrouki explained, the Moroccan government has amassed an arsenal of policing that includes weapons, training, and surveillance technology that it has used to enforce borders as well as turned against its own citizens, including those who speak out about asylum seeker’s rights.
Political power games
The death of migrants in Melilla comes just weeks after Spain and Morocco resolved a long-standing diplomatic rift when the former announced its support for Morocco’s autonomy plan in the disputed Western Sahara, leading analysts to speculate that the incident is a direct consequence of a renewed cooperation between the two nations.
“Morocco handles and deals with migration depending on what is convenient for its foreign policy interests,” said Ezzarrouki.
In May 2021, one month after the leader of the Western Saharan separatist group Polisario Front arrived in Spain for Covid-19 treatment, thousands of migrants entered Spain through the Moroccan border at Ceuta, in what many believed was a deliberate power play by Rabat, which has a history of using migrants as leverage in diplomacy.
“Fast forward to now [after Spain and Morocco’s deal] and we see this very stern and forceful policy against migrants,” Ezzarrouki continued.
“Essentially, migrants and asylum seekers end up as bargaining chips and are taken hostage in the political power games played between the EU and their ‘partners’,” Chemlali said, explaining that in a diplomatic sense, migrants have become the EU’s ‘Achilles heel’ that neighbouring countries leverage for their own national interests.
A racial hierarchy of asylum seekers
In addition to condemning the use of extreme force, many commenting on the violence at Melilla’s borders, including migrants themselves, have pointed to the stark difference in Europe’s treatment of African asylum seekers compared to those from Ukraine.
Spain has welcomed more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion, and protests across the country have sharply criticised the double standards applied to those fleeing similar violence in Africa, many of whom have already endured a dangerous and exhausting journey across the Saharan desert before arriving in Morocco.
“The reception and welcoming we have seen of Ukrainian refugees could and should set a precedent for how we tackle refugee crises… but Europe’s schizophrenic refugee response, which separates those fleeing into deserving and undeserving, reveals the racism that is integral to Europe’s border policies,” said Chemlali.
"Spain has welcomed more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia's invasion, and protests across the country have sharply criticised the double standards applied to those fleeing similar violence in Africa"
The UNHCR estimates that in 2021 more than 3,000 migrants and asylum seekers died while trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, a number many activists believe is likely to be higher. In just the last week, the bodies of 20 migrants who likely died of thirst were found in the Libyan desert, while 53 migrants from Central America were found dead in a truck in Texas, in concurrent incidents that demonstrate the deadliness of global border regimes.
“These levels of violence are ever-present for people on the move all around the globe… Borders always harm, damage and kill those who are seen as ‘unfit’ or ‘unwanted’,” said Pugliese, emphasising that there is no such thing as an irregular migrant or asylum seeker.
“All people, no matter who they are or where they come from, can leave their country and seek asylum in another state. The right to seek asylum is an internationally recognised and legally binding human right,” she concluded.
Nadine Talaat is a London-based journalist writing about Middle East politics, human rights, migration, and media studies. She is also part of The New Arab's editorial team.
Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat