Moroccan authorities said that 23 migrants were killed, and dozens of migrants and police officers were injured in a “stampede” of people trying to cross into the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla.
A spokesperson for the Spanish government’s office in Melilla said about 2,000 people attempted to enter the North African city on Friday morning and during a violent two-hour skirmish about 130 successfully breached the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave. In addition to the 23 deaths, 140 Moroccan people and 49 Spanish security personnel were also injured.
Images on Spanish media showed exhausted refugees and migrants laying on the pavement in Melilla, some with bloodied hands and torn clothes. Those who succeeded in crossing went to a local migrant centre, where authorities were evaluating their circumstances.
The mass crossing was the first attempted from Morocco into one of Spain’s two North African enclaves since Rabat and Madrid agreed this year to bolster cooperation on border control.
That deal, which ended months of frosty relations, came after Spain backed Morocco’s stance over Western Sahara, a disputed territory that Rabat says is its own, but where an independence movement is fighting for a separate state.
NGOs on the ground said the number of deaths could be higher. “We’ve confirmed 37 deaths in the Melilla tragedy,” said Helena Maleno Garzón, whose organisation, Walking Borders, is in constant contact with Africans seeking to cross into Spain from Morocco.
Walking Borders joined more than half a dozen others, including Amnesty International Spain, in calling for an investigation into what ranks as the deadliest day in recent memory along the section of the EU’s only land border with Africa.
Morocco’s AMDH human rights group demanded a “comprehensive, quick and serious enquiry to determine responsibilities and shortcomings” and warned against burying the migrants’ bodies until their deaths had been properly investigated.
In the days before, police had carried out several raids on the camps where the migrants and refugees slept rough as they waited for the chance to cross into Spain. The police confiscated food and any cash they could find, leaving migrants anxious and exhausted as they grappled with higher levels of precariousness. This is overt aggression was a catalyst for the chaos that followed.
The Spanish prime minister, Sanchez, described the incident as an attack on Spain’s “territorial integrity” and that “if anyone is responsible for everything that happened at the border, it is the mafias that traffic in human beings.”