Migrant Casualties on the Spanish-Moroccan Border

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Jess Diez
Managing Editor & Research Associate, Middle East Policy Council

June 28, 2022

On Friday, June 24, approximately 500 African migrants crossed into the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco via a cut fence, resulting in 23 confirmed deaths. Melilla and Ceuta, Spain’s other African enclave, are the only European Union land borders in the entire continent of Africa, making them a migrant magnet. Moroccan and African officials expressed shock and criticism towards Spain for the migrants’ deaths, while many Spanish officials placed the blame on migrant traffickers. This is the first mass incursion since Spain’s endorsement of Morocco’s autonomy plan of Western Sahara on March 18, 2022. 

Writing for Morocco World News, journalist Safaa Kasraoui highlights Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s public opinion over the territory, leading to his endorsement this past March. Sanchez stressed that “‘Spain considers the Moroccan autonomy initiative presented in 2007, as the most serious, realistic, and credible basis for resolving the dispute.’ Sanchez further described the extensive Moroccan efforts to work within the UN’s framework to find a peaceful solution to the decades-old conflict. Sanchez commented on Spanish-Moroccan relations, saying that the ‘two countries are inextricably linked by affections, history, geography, interests and a shared friendship,’ adding that he is ‘convinced that the destinies of the two peoples are also.’ ‘Our goal is to build a new relationship,’ Sanchez wrote, adding this would be based on ‘transparency and permanent communication, mutual respect and the agreements signed by both parties and refraining from any unilateral action, living up to the importance of everything we share.’”

Historically, thousands of migrants have attempted to gain entrance to either of the two enclaves by climbing the barriers, hiding in cars, or swimming along the coast. Marking the first mass incursion since Spain’s endorsement, Friday’s events invoked a multitude of public remarks among African and European politicians. Al-Monitor features reactions from the International Organization for Migration and the UN refugee agency, both of whom expressed “‘grave concern at the lives lost and the number of injured.’ The agencies reminded member states of the ‘need in all circumstances to prioritise the safety of migrants and refugees, to avoid excessive use of force and to respect their fundamental rights.’”

France 24 cited Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s reaction to the mass casualties, specifically analyzing his argued cause of the crisis. Sanchez “told journalists in Madrid that ‘if anyone is responsible for everything that happened at the border, it is the mafias that traffic in human beings…’ Sanchez warned earlier this month that ‘Spain will not tolerate any use of the tragedy of illegal immigration as a means of pressure.’ Spain will seek to have ‘irregular migration’ listed as one of the security threats on the NATO’s southern flank when the alliance gathers for a summit in Madrid on June 29-30.”

A number of similar accusations arose among other Spanish politicians, especially MPs who sympathize with the Polisario Front. Algeria also followed suit with their accusations of Moroccan mismanagement of the migrant crisis leading to Friday’s event. According to Morocco World News, various Algerian news outlets accused Morocco of disproportionately using violence to stop migrants from crossing to the Spanish enclave. In response to the accusations, “a group of African ambassadors in Morocco have emphasized Morocco’s important contribution to Africa’s quest for an efficient and humanitarian management of the migration crisis under the leadership of King Mohammed VI, who has notably earned the title of ‘the leader of migration in Africa.’ The African diplomats made their remarks following a meeting on the migration issue with Morocco’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and officials from the Moroccan Ministry of Interior. ‘We stand, as in the past, alongside the Moroccan authorities to curb this situation which does not honor our countries and which does not honor Africa,’ said Mohamadou Youssifou, Cameroon’s ambassador to Morocco. ‘The African diplomatic corps is ready to work with Morocco to create a synergy of cooperation actions with African countries.’”

Ahram showed Morocco’s perspective first-hand on the deaths. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (MDH) retaliated Sanchez’s accusatory statement; the human rights group said it was “‘a true catastrophe that shows the consequences of the latest Moroccan-Spanish entente,’ just weeks after the two sides resolved a year-long diplomatic rift…The AMDH demanded a ‘comprehensive, quick and serious enquiry,’ while the Democratic Labour Organisation (ODT) trade union urged the Moroccan government ‘to investigate this tragedy and do what is needed’ both for migrants and police.”

Written in African Insider, the African Union (AU) Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat responded similarly. On Sunday, June 26, Mahamat tweeted: “‘I express my deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border from Morocco into Spain…I call for an immediate investigation into the matter and remind all countries of their obligations under international law to treat all migrants with dignity and to prioritise their safety and human rights, while refraining from the use of excessive force.’”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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