The 37 People Killed in Melilla Are Victims of Europe’s Murderous Border Regime

On Friday, Moroccan police murdered at least 37 migrants at the border with Spain. The massacre shows how the European Union relies on authoritarian regimes to police its borders — and the shallowness of the Spanish government’s “progressive” image.

A member of the Moroccan security forces on the border fence separating Morocco from Spain’s North African Melilla enclave, near Nador in Morocco, on June 26, 2022. (Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images)

“The Moroccan police beat us and killed our friends,” recounts Amir, one of the survivors of last Friday’s massacre along the border of Spain’s North African enclave Melilla. The death toll remains disputed, but according to international NGOs at least thirty-seven people were killed as Moroccan security forces beat, stoned, and tear-gassed the approximately 1,500 immigrants that rushed toward the border fence — one of the European Union’s only land borders with an African nation. Some were killed in a crush along the border perimeter, as police executed a pincer movement that trapped hundreds in a trench; video footage shows dozens more falling from the six-meter-high fence as Moroccan police tear-gassed and shot rounds of rubber bullets at those climbing it.

According to the local Nador Human Rights Association, a number of further fatalities occurred because the critically injured were left for up to ten hours in the sun and heat without medical attention. Shocking video released on the organization’s social media platforms shows hundreds of crammed bodies piled up against each other and surrounded by riot police, in which it is difficult to distinguish the injured and exhausted from the dead. Some are handcuffed, others lie motionless, while in another video the police repeatedly beat those lying on the ground.

Further footage published by Público newspaper shows Spanish military police and Moroccan security services working together in coordinated baton charges against groups of immigrants who had managed to scale the fence. The latter raised serious questions over the exact involvement of the Spanish police and interior ministry in the management and oversight of the operation. It also opened up yet another rift in the country’s ruling broad-left coalition, not least given that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), defended the police’s response.

In contrast, the Spanish Refugee Aid Commission (CEAR) condemned “the use of indiscriminate violence” as means to “once again control borders and to prevent people who could be eligible for international protection from arriving on Spanish territory.” The largest national group involved in scaling the fence were from war-torn South Sudan, whose citizens overwhelmingly receive refugee status in Spain (92 percent of all applicants) but can only access Spanish territory to make such a claim by risking their lives. For members of Madrid’s Mantero Union, a collective of immigrant street-sellers, there is also a clear racial element at play too. In a written exchange with Jacobin, it insists:

Europe welcomes with open arms people fleeing the war in Ukraine but meets those escaping from other wars, or from famine, on the African continent with night sticks and death. For Spain’s government, Black lives don’t matter, they are simply disregarded.

Sánchez’s Shame

This was nowhere more evident than in Prime Minister Sánchez’s response to the violent deaths, which contained no words of sympathy for the victims’ families. Instead, he blamed “mafias” for what he claimed was a “well-organized and violent assault” that constituted “an attack on the integrity of Spanish territory” — terminology largely indistinct from that used by far-right Vox when it invokes fears of an immigrant invasion. In comments described as “shameful” by Barcelona’s left-wing mayor, Ada Colau, Sánchez claimed the “assault” had been “well resolved by the two security forces, both Spanish and Moroccan.” “I would also like to thank the Moroccan government for their work,” he added.

Yet the director of the NGO Walking Borders, Helena Maleno, who works with immigrants on the ground in Morocco, rejected any talk of organized traffickers as being responsible:

What do the mafias have to do with people desperately running [toward the border] with nothing. The attempt to storm the valley was out of pure desperation. These people are exhausted, having suffered daily attacks and intimidation since the signing of the [new Spanish-Moroccan bilateral immigration] agreement [in April].

“Since the new agreement, raids on immigrant camps, arbitrary arrests, racial profiling, and other repressive measures against the migrant population have multiplied,” she explained in a recent article in El Diario.

“It is horrible that the government would congratulate the Moroccan police,” tweeted progressive MP Íñigo Errejón. “Is this what the abandonment of the Saharawi people bought us?” Here he referred to Sánchez’s historic foreign policy shift this February with respect to the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, which saw him back a plan to formalize Morocco’s brutal occupation regime in exchange for the normalization of diplomatic ties with the authoritarian monarchy. The move broke with decades of Spanish foreign policy and goes against international court rulings and the position of the United Nations General Assembly that recognizes Western Sahara’s right to self-determination.

In this respect, outsourcing its border security to Morocco has left Spain open to repeated blackmail as Mohammed VI’s government has sought to leverage the issue of irregular immigration against its European neighbor. In May 2021, Morocco opened the border at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, allowing eight thousand people to cross in just forty-eight hours. This was, in part, retaliation for Spain’s condemnation of Donald Trump’s unilateral recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Then in March this year, Sánchez chose to sue for peace after one thousand migrants unsuccessfully tried to scale the fences in Melilla. Spanish intelligence believed that this could be the start of further mass incursions — and in the context of the Ukraine war, a destabilized border was not something Sánchez wanted to countenance.

Although it pulled out in 1975, Spain remains, under international law, the administrative power in Western Sahara, legally responsible for completing the decolonization of this resource-rich territory the land area of Britain. In exchange for selling out the Sahrawi people and turning his back on his country’s historic mandate, what Sánchez got from Morocco was an increased crackdown against irregular immigration, stopping people reaching Spain, with Morocco’s cooperation formally secured in a bilateral agreement on immigration in April. The immediate background to Friday’s killings was the violent dismantling of an immigrant camp close to Melilla on Thursday night by Moroccan police while Spanish and Moroccan police operated together on Spanish soil to immediately remove the vast majority of the five hundred people who scaled the fence. PSOE’s own electoral program contains the promise to end these types of migrant pushbacks, which deny those arriving any due process over the right to seek asylum.

Government Tensions

PSOE’s junior coalition partner Unidas Podemos has struggled to respond to the killings. Yet former party leader Pablo Iglesias, who is no longer a frontline politician, did not hold back: “It would be hard for thirty-seven people to die if not in a context of actions [undertaken] by Moroccan security forces that aimed to kill,” he insisted. “[These people] did not die because of mafia but rather because they were killed by Moroccan police units who were being supported by Spanish police and civil guard units.”

Iglesias also criticized Spanish media coverage, noting that the phrases “mass” and “mass incursion” are being

used constantly when we are talking about immigrants who are black. But there were 1,500 (who tried to reach Melilla) and only 120 actually managed to stay [in the Spanish territory]. In contrast there are 130,000 Ukrainians in Spain who have been treated as they should be as war refugees.

Similarly Unidas Podemos’s parliamentary spokesperson, Pablo Echenique, tweeted:

37 dead. If they were blond and European, there would be emergency meetings at the highest level, television news specials on their life stories and their families, and a total severance of relations with the country whose police action has caused this tragedy.

Yet all five Unidas Podemos ministers have avoided condemning the Moroccan police’s actions, limiting themselves to calls for a public inquiry and respect for human rights. Deputy prime minister Yolanda Díaz’s weak response has especially angered many of the Left’s supporters — and further complicates her strategy focused on delivering material benefits rather than engaging in broader issues over which Unidas Podemos holds no ministerial powers. Resigning from the government would have no real-world impact, but so far it has been unable to push Sánchez to even apologize for his statements or get the PSOE to agree to an inquiry, let alone advance wider reforms in immigration policy.

The number of deaths along Spain’s southern borders has in fact risen sharply in recent years. Walking Borders calculate the total number for 2021 at just over 4,400 — the vast majority taking place along the perilous Atlantic route from northwestern Africa to the Spanish Canary islands.

European Hypocrisy

Yet beyond Sánchez’s grotesque cynicism and the Spanish left’s impotence is the broader “Fortress Europe” border regime around which EU states have converged. In an open letter, a coalition of international and Moroccan human rights organizations insisted “the deaths and the injured are a tragic symbol of the European policies to externalize the EU border.” The type of violence witnessed in Melilla exemplifies the European Union’s wider model: outsourcing border security to brutal authoritarian states (whether in Morocco, Libya, or Turkey) and thus converting the continent’s southern frontiers into extralegal spaces where basic human rights protections are largely suspended. According to the activist and academic Marcos Suka, this border regime is designed around “a politics of dissuasion. The more black people who are killed, the fewer who will attempt to come.”

Yet in reality, “migration flows are impossible to halt,” as activist Ana Rosado Caro notes. “If you block one route, another more dangerous one will just open up.” Most of the immigrants who sought to reach Melilla last Friday were from South Sudan and Chad, countries from which immigrants would usually seek to cross to Europe via Libya. But according to Helena Maleno, “The level of repression in Libya meant they were crossing into Algeria and going on to Morocco.” The UN Human Rights Commission has repeatedly criticized the EU and Italian financing of Libya’s coast guard as well as their cooperation over the forced return of migrants to that country, where they face “inhuman” conditions in migrant detention centers.

Meanwhile back in Morocco, graves have been hastily dug in the local cemetery in Nador, with authorities looking set to bury the dead without any attempt to identify the victims or undertake autopsies. At the same time, most of the thousand immigrants who were detained on Melilla’s frontier have been forcefully displaced more than six hundred kilometers away from the Spanish enclave toward Southern Morocco, some with fractures and serious injuries. It is clear that for both the Moroccan authorities and Sánchez, the plan is to move on without acknowledging the gravity of the events — something especially sickening from a supposed “progressive” social democratic leader. Yet with the blockade of grain exports from Ukraine set to exacerbate food shortages across many African nations, there is no guarantee that last Friday’s massacre is a one-off.