Along the seafront of Spain’s North African enclave Melilla, I meet Imran. A twenty-year-old from Chad, he is washing locals’ cars at €5 a vehicle. It’s early September, and the pristine Cárabos Beach largely resembles any other stretch of the Mediterranean coastline — from the open-air bars blasting reggaeton to the children playing in the waves. Yet also visible in the background is Melilla’s seven-meter-high border fence, marking one of only two land frontiers between the European Union and an African nation.
Like many Sudanese and Chadian nationals earning a living informally along the seafront, Imran is a survivor of last June’s Melilla massacre. According to international NGOs, at least thirty-seven people were killed by police when immigrants attempted to storm the Spanish-Moroccan border. But the figure of confirmed missing people, seventy-four, suggests the actual death toll could be much higher.
“We came to the wire together as a big group of 1,500 people,” Imran tells Jacobin. “But the police were ready for us. When we reached the border crossing, they surrounded us on both sides of the fence — the Moroccan police were on one side and the Spanish on the other.” He continues:
There was tear gas being fired from both sides and a Spanish [Guardia Civil] helicopter spying on us from above. People could not see or breathe [because of the gas], and they were becoming desperate. The Moroccans were also firing rubber bullets and throwing stones at us.
I was one of the lucky ones who made it across, at which point the Spanish police tried to beat me. I escaped [into the interior of the territory], but many of the others were forced back across the border.
Further along the beachfront, I talk to Magdy, twenty-two, from Sudan:
The Moroccan police killed so many people. One person died right in front of me. He was shot in the head with a rubber bullet when he was at the top of the fence. He lost consciousness and fell. We tried to pick him up, but he did not move.
I also lost my best friend on that day, who suffocated [in a crush] against the barrier. I am devastated. We had been through so much together in the last few years.
Then, as we sit waiting for his next car-washing client, Magdy adds, “The whole world knows what happened to us here but is doing nothing.”
Three months after media outlets published shocking images of the injured and dead piled up against the border fence, the Spanish and Moroccan governments continue to blame the victims for the violence while also blocking investigations. The criminalization of the immigrants involved has been rapid: seventy-five of those detained in the aftermath have already received prison sentences of between four months and three years in Moroccan courts.
In contrast, on September 13, Spain’s governing Socialist Party (PSOE) voted with the right-wing Popular Party and far-right Vox to strike down a proposed parliamentary investigation into the deadly violence. “There has been no transparency,” Jon Iñarritu MP tells Jacobin. Iñarritu, a member of the left-wing Basque party EH Bildu, says:
We still don’t even know how many people died. The government is also blocking our requests to access footage from the border cameras, as well as that of the drones used in the operation. At the same time, it is simply denying established facts, such as the presence of Moroccan police operating on Spanish territory during the violence.
“This is the worst [migration-related] massacre on any of Europe’s borders in recent decades,” the Anticapitalistas member of the European Parliament, Miguel Urbán, tells Jacobin. “Yet it did not take place under [the far-right governments] of Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Mateusz Morawiecki in Poland but instead under Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE–Unidas Podemos progressive coalition.” Continuing, he insists:
In criminal terms, the Moroccan Gendarmerie are responsible for the murders, but the Spanish government is politically coresponsible. PSOE has prioritized the outsourcing of border security to this authoritarian regime. There are also serious accusations around the actions of Spain’s security forces on the day, including the potential direct participation of Spanish officers in some of the killings.
With the massacre having largely disappeared from domestic Spanish media, the PSOE is determined to kill the story and move on. Yet the serious accusations around the Spanish authorities’ exact responsibility for the slaughter means this must not be allowed to happen.
“Showing How Far They’ll Go”
In particular, two reports on the massacre, published by the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) and Spanish NGO Caminando Fronteras, have raised important concerns around the level of complicity between the Moroccan and Spanish authorities in the June 24 killings. According to the AMDH report, the plan employed by Morocco against those who rushed the fence was specifically designed to show the Spanish government “just how far [its security forces] were willing to go to block migratory flows now that Spain was its ally [again].”
In other words, the Moroccans were aiming to make an impression as this was the first mass jumping of the fence since PSOE prime minister Sánchez’s historic foreign policy concession last March. Sánchez had sought to end a tense standoff between the two countries regarding the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara by means of a diplomatic quid quo pro. He would break with decades of Spanish policy on the territory, as well as the position of the United Nations, by backing a plan to formalize Morocco’s brutal occupation regime, despite opposition from its Saharawi population. In exchange, the Spanish government would receive a new bilateral agreement on fighting “organized crime” and “irregular immigration” that would see Morocco take a more aggressive approach to policing Spain’s southern borders.
In the wake of this new agreement, which explicitly defines irregular immigration as a criminal activity, the conditions on the Moroccan side of the Melilla border deteriorated rapidly for those from sub-Saharan nations. The camps around Gurugú Mountain, twenty kilometers from Melilla, “had been turned into a warzone by May,” according to the Caminando Fronteras report. “There were military police incursions two or three times a week, each time using more aggressive strategies and employing more military hardware.”
Survivors who spoke to Jacobin confirmed the growing state of desperation within the immigrant community leading up to June’s confrontation. “We could not even appear on the street or buy food from locals as there were police and informants everywhere,” Steven, a survivor from South Sudan, tells Jacobin. “In our final week in Gurugú, the Moroccans attacked my camp three times and stole people’s food and mobile phones.” “Three nights before [the massacre], the Moroccan police raided our camp in the mountains and shot me in the leg with a rubber bullet,” Magdy recalls. “After this we decided to attempt to reach Melilla.”
Yet according to both the AMDH and Caminando Fronteras reports, the 1,500 people who made their way to the border on June 24, “exhausted, persecuted and malnourished,” found themselves walking into a trap. Rather than try to disperse the immigrants in open territory along the six-kilometer journey to the border, the Moroccan police allowed the majority of them to reach and enter the narrow Barrio Chino border crossing unimpeded before then surrounding them. This not only ensured the immigrants “would have no escape route” but also that they had already discarded most of the stones or sticks they had brought to defend themselves by the time the Moroccans attacked (as they were concentrated on scaling the crossing).
“It is at that moment that the first casualties occurred,” AMDH insists. “The massive use of tear gas in a very tight and besieged space, an unprecedented situation at this border,” created a “frenzied scrum, lack of vision, and uncontrolled falls from high up on the fences.” Issa, a twenty-three-year-old from Sudan, remembers that “there was so much gas we couldn’t breathe or see anything. You could hardly open your eyes.”
Then, “after more than an hour of bombardment” and as reinforcements arrived, hundreds of Moroccan gendarmes directly assaulted those trapped within the border crossing, creating deadly crushes up against the Spanish barrier. This was not a question of “responding to the violence of armed immigrants” as the official Moroccan/Spanish version insists but rather of “repressing [largely unarmed people] in order to stop their advance towards Melilla at all costs,” the AMDH report concludes.
Yet as the Caminando Fronteras dossier spells out, this was also “coordinated violence,” with Spanish police using tear gas and rubber bullets against those trapped in the border crossing as well. The AMDH report concurs: “The repressive intervention from the Spanish side was undoubtedly behind the increase in the number of suffocation victims.” It also “shows the level of local coordination between the two [police forces]. Fired in opposite directions, the Moroccan tear gas mixed with Spanish gas to cause maximum harm.”
“When I visited the area fifteen days later, there were still hundreds of propulsion cartridges and gas canisters along the border that belonged to the [Spanish] Guardia Civil,” Iñarritu tells Jacobin. “The survivors I talked to described a continual cloud of gas from which there was no escape.”
Another grave allegation centers on the Spanish authorities’ decision not to open its border gate at the crossing once it became obvious that deadly crushes were developing in the wake of the Moroccan police charges. Along with asphyxiation from the gas, these crushes were the other major cause of fatalities, according to the AMDH report.
“Why didn’t you open the gate?,” Iñarritu asked interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska in the Spanish congress:
You had cameras in that area pointed in the direction [of the crush], as well as Guardia Civil officers right on the other side of the gate . . . and the drone and helicopter overhead. . . . If you [in the security forces] knew what was happening, and I believe you did, why did you not open the gate?
The minister declined to answer the question. Urbán, however, insists that “it looks likely many lives could have been saved had they opened the gate and offered people a way out of that death trap.” But as a representative from the Melilla-based NGO Solidary Wheels tells Jacobin, “When there is an attempted scaling of the fence, no orders are ever given to open gates, always to lock them — questions of protecting lives or avoiding injuries are completely foreign to their approach to managing the border.”
A further outstanding issue for the Spanish authorities was the presence of Moroccan police on the Melillan side of the border operating “shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish security forces” to push back around a hundred potential refugees across the frontier:
Minister Marlaska has refused to engage on this point, but we need to know who gave the order to allow Moroccan security forces to operate on Spanish soil, something unprecedented, and also what type of coordination between authorities was involved around these pushbacks,
The Caminado Fronteras report underlines how these pushbacks happened “despite the scenes of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment that the Spanish authorities were witnessing play out in front of them.” Indeed, the final stage of the Moroccan police operation was “the most shocking,” according to AMDH. “Asylum seekers who were on the ground, out of breath, injured, fainting, and exhausted were kicked and beaten by Moroccan agents” and then “dragged under the blows of truncheons towards a concentration zone” where they were thrown on top of each other. “I don’t remember anything,” one survivor told El Diario newspaper. “I lost consciousness, and suddenly I was in Morocco surrounded by my brothers thrown on the ground.”
As the first Moroccan ambulances arrived on the scene, the cover up began straight away — with the Moroccan authorities using the emergency services to first remove the dead rather than attend to the injured. At the same time, hundreds of survivors, including those with serious injuries, were left for hours without medical attention in the hot sun and then forced onto deportation buses that took them to cities hundreds of kilometers away in the Moroccan interior. Both El País and AMDH have confirmed at least one case of a Sudanese national, Abdenacer Mohamed Ahmed from Darfur, dying from his injuries while on one of these buses.
The Left’s Failure
Despite these serious allegations over Spanish responsibility for the massacre’s death toll, when interior minister Marlaska finally came before the Spanish parliament in mid-September to answer questions, he simply repeated the mantra that the police’s use of force had been “appropriate and proportional” while once again refusing to criticize Morocco’s actions. In the face of such intransigence, Unidas Podemos’s failure to hold its coalition partner and the state security forces to account is plain to see. It also once again lays bare the substantive limits to its participation as a junior partner in government.
The Unidas Podemos parliamentary group has openly criticized Marlaska’s comments but, beyond that, has largely concentrated on general criticisms of the “racism” and “inhumanity” of the Spanish-European border regime while passing over the specific allegations of human rights violations made against security forces under the government’s own authority. Beyond such equivocations, the Melilla massacre should be seen as a defining moment for Spain’s progressive coalition and a logical consequence of Sánchez’s disastrous pivot in North Africa.
The PSOE leader’s deep cynicism when it comes to immigration has never been more blatant than with his bargain with Moroccan king Mohammed VI. For all his grand gestures around the taking in of Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, Sanchez has consistently pursued a punitive approach to migration along the country’s southern borders. But with his betrayal of Western Sahara (a cause of great emotional importance for the Spanish left), he was betting on a renewed crackdown from Morocco as the key to Spain’s border security — a position that was always going to end in bloodshed.
“No other country in Europe has pushed the violence of militarized borders so far,” Urbán insists. “If this [massacre] is allowed to happen with no consequences, then we are in a situation in which anything goes.” Continuing, he insists on the Spanish left’s responsibility for not taking a stand over such egregious human rights violations:
Unidas Podemos and the wider parliamentary left do not want to expend their energy on this issue, and this is lending itself to a sense of complete impunity. What can the Spanish and European left say if Viktor Orbán opens fire on refugees at Hungary’s borders next year? At the very least, the Left must demand Marlaska’s resignation after what we have seen. Not doing so sets a dangerous precedent.
Rewarding the Executioners
Morocco’s prize for the carnage in Melilla has been a €500 million increase in the funding the EU sends it to fight irregular immigration, announced in August. Nor has the violence let up as Morocco continues to fulfil its role as Spain’s outsourced border guard. On September 12, Moroccan police opened fire on a group of thirty-five people seeking to embark in a wooden cayuco boat from Southern Morocco to the Spanish Canary Islands. A women in her twenties was killed from a gunshot wound to the chest, two others sustained bullet wounds, and a further two people were run over by a police jeep as they sought to flee.
Back in Melilla, Imran plans to go to the Spanish mainland once he gets his papers, as does Steven, who is another of the 130 asylum seekers who managed to stay in Melilla on June 24. Talking outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants (CETI), 150 meters from the border fence, the latter explains:
I left South Sudan six years ago, crossing Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Niger, and Algeria. I was in Libya for two years and then in Morocco for ten months, most of that time in the mountains. I now want to stay in Spain and build my future here.
But Imran’s thoughts are also with his friends who were deported to Southern Morocco. “They are exhausted and demoralized after everything that has happened to them.” “It is still impossible for them to get back to Nador [the Moroccan city at the border with Melilla],” he continues. “There is still so much security in the area. But some will try to reach [Spain’s other North African enclave] Ceuta in the coming months. Others just want to go home. They cannot continue anymore.”