Thursday, August 11, 2022

Rights groups call for probe after more than 20 migrants killed at Spanish enclave

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‘Stampede’ said to have happened as 2,000 tried to breach fence separating Morocco and territory of Melilla, as reported by the Financial Times.

Human rights groups have called for government investigations after more than 20 people died when about 2,000 migrants tried to breach the perimeter fence separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla. The migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, attempted to scale a barbed wire-topped fence on Friday, leading to violent clashes with Moroccan police and Spanish security forces around the perimeter of the territory on the north African coast. Morocco said that 23 migrants were killed and scores injured in what it described as a “stampede”, with some crushed and others falling from the top of the fence. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) put the death toll at 29, citing local medical officials.

The deaths mark the most serious incident at Melilla, which together with Ceuta, another Spanish enclave on the coast of Morocco, have attracted thousands of African migrants trying to enter Europe over the past decade. Spanish police estimate that more than 13,000 immigrants crossed the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain last year. More than 140 mostly Moroccan police officers were also injured, five of them seriously, in the two-hour clash between predominantly young male migrants, some armed with sticks and stones, and security forces in riot gear who fired tear gas into the crowd. Video footage, which AMDH said was shot by members and sympathisers, showed dozens of migrants lying on the ground by the border fence with Moroccan security forces standing over them. Many appeared injured and some were apparently lifeless. Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, blamed “mafias that traffic in human beings” for what he called “a violent and organised assault” on the Spanish enclave. He said Spanish and Moroccan police had co-operated in “repelling this violent attack”. 

Esteban Beltrán, head of Amnesty International in Spain, called on authorities in Spain and Morocco to “promptly investigate the serious human rights violations” that occurred “on both sides of the border”. He said Amnesty had seen images showing Moroccan security officers using “excessive force against migrants and refugees”, saying they used “batons to beat people who were already totally under their control and who did not offer any resistance”.  Beltrán also accused the Spanish authorities of forcibly ejecting migrants from Melilla, a practice he said was prohibited under international law because it prevented possible refugees from making requests for international protection. He said most of the migrants trying to enter the Spanish enclave were fleeing conflict in South Sudan and should be treated like war refugees. “It is essential to create a legal and safe route for people to ask for asylum,” he told reporters. Human rights organisations in Morocco have also called for an inquiry.

Morocco has on occasion turned a blind eye to migrants attempting to storm the border fences at Ceuta and Melilla as a way of putting pressure on Spain over its stance on the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Friday’s mass attempt to enter Melilla was the first since Spain moved to mend frayed diplomatic relations with Morocco by announcing last month that it supported Rabat’s plan to offer autonomy to Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. The UN has tried and failed since the 1990s to organise a referendum to determine whether Western Sahara should become independent or part of Morocco.

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