'Unprecedented violence' leaves 23 migrants dead in Morocco-Spain border chaos

Some of those injured tell of bloody clashes with guards on journey to reach EU territory

A Sudanese man at a temporary centre for migrants in Melilla, Spain. AFP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Migrants have told how they were beaten with sticks by Moroccan soldiers while trying to cross into the Spanish enclave of Melilla.

About 2,000 people stormed the boundary separating the northern Nador region of Morocco and the Spanish autonomous city, leading to violent clashes with border guards.

At least 23 migrants were killed and 140 police officers injured, Moroccan authorities said, the heaviest toll in years following such attempts to breach the border.

The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) said the crossings resulted in the worst level of violence it had seen.

Speaking at a detention centre in Melilla after illegally crossing into the territory, a Sudanese migrant, 20, described Friday's scenes.

"It was like a war, we were holding rocks, little rocks, to fight the Moroccan military, who beat us by any means, and with sticks," he said.

Another man said he had lost consciousness after being beaten by guards.

"I climbed up the fence but a Moroccan guard hit my hands,” he said. “I fell unconscious on the Spanish side, where I was beaten up by Spanish forces.”

A Moroccan border guards patrols the heavily fortified boundary with Melilla. AFP

Many of the people who regularly attempt to illegally cross into Melilla and Ceuta, another Spanish enclave bordering Morocco, are from sub-Sahara nations.

Moroccan authorities on Sunday said they had foiled a latest plot by migrants to cross the border into Ceuta, making 59 arrests.

Scores of migrants spend months or even years living in precarious, dangerous conditions in the forests of Gourougou close to the Melilla-Morocco border and make repeated attempts to cross into Spanish territory.

But observers say the level of violence used against the migrants on Friday was unprecedented.

"It's the first time that we see this level of violence by migrants themselves against security forces," said Omar Naji from the Nador office of the AMDH.

Moroccans living in the area have also been alarmed by the aggressive nature of border guards.

"We're terrorised by what happened," said Issame Ouaaid, 24, from Barrio Chino district of Melilla. "It's the first time that we've seen migrants carrying iron rods to fight with the police."

Mr Naji linked the level of violence to a recent mending of ties between Spain and Morocco, leading to renewed co-operation on migration and stricter enforcement.

Morocco is the only African country to share a land border with the EU. Migrants seeking a better life in one of the 27 member states routinely use Morocco as a passage to reach their destination of choice.

Spain has accused Rabat of using migration as a tactic to exert political pressure.

In May 2021, about 10,000 migrants rushed across the border into Ceuta as Moroccan border guards looked the other way. It was widely seen as a deliberate move by Rabat to respond to Spain over its decision to offer medical treatment to Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, who wants independence for Western Sahara.

The two countries' resumption of ties this year has led to "an intensification of pressure" on migrants living rough in the forested hills near the border, Mr Naji said.

"The Moroccan authorities treat migrants very harshly, raiding their camps," Mr Naji said.

"There's no doubt that this pressure has generated the unprecedented violence we're seeing."

Madrid, meanwhile, has reported a fall in the number of migrants reaching Spanish territory in recent months.

Updated: June 27, 2022, 9:08 AM