Human rights groups are calling for an investigation into deaths during the Melilla-Al Jazeera crossing

Human rights groups in Morocco and Spain have called for an investigation into the deaths of 23 people during an attempt to move en masse to the Spanish enclave of Melilla in North Africa.

Authorities said individuals died Friday from the effects of the “stampede” after about 2,000 people tried to climb the iron fence that separates Morocco and Melilla, and some fell in an attempt.

The Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH) in a series of tweets on Saturday called for a “comprehensive, swift and serious” investigation into Friday’s events and released videos of the aftermath of the attempted mass crossing.

The footage shows dozens of people lying along the border fence, some bleeding, and many apparently lifeless as Moroccan security forces stood over them. In one of the clips, a Moroccan security officer appears to have used a truncheon to strike a person lying on the ground.

AMDH said many of the wounded were “left without help for hours, which increased the number of dead”.

It also gave a higher death toll than the figure given by the Moroccan Interior Ministry, saying 29 people were killed, but the figure cannot be confirmed immediately.

Five human rights organizations in Morocco and APDHA, a human rights group based in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia, also supported the call for an investigation. They urged authorities not to bury those killed before a formal investigation.

Authorities in Morocco did not immediately comment on AMDH’s allegations, but an unnamed Moroccan official told Reuters that security personnel did not use inappropriate force during Friday’s events.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, meanwhile, condemned the attempted mass crossing as a “violent attack” and an “attack on the territorial integrity” of Spain.

“If anyone is responsible for everything that seems to have happened on that border, then it’s the mafia that trades people,” he said.

A source from the Spanish police told Reuters that people who tried to cross the fence used batons, knives and acid against security forces and changed tactics to try to cross at one weak point en masse, instead of in separate attempts along the fence.

About 133 people crossed the border, while 176 Moroccan security officers and 49 Spanish border guards were injured, authorities say.

‘deep sorrow’

Ousmane Ba, a Senegalese asylum seeker from the Moroccan side who leads a group in the community to help others like him, said the violence followed several days of growing tensions in the area.

Ba, who neither took part in the incident on Friday nor testified to him, said asylum seekers living nearby clashed with Moroccan security forces several times as they tried to cross the fence earlier this week.

Many of them live hard in a nearby village and were desperate, he said. “I have never seen migrants attack so violently. We mourn the death near the fence, “he said.

Border fence in Melilla, Spain
A fence separating Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla [Jose Colon/AP Photo]

Amnesty International issued a statement saying it was deeply concerned about the events at the border.

“While migrants may have acted violently in an attempt to enter Melilla, when it comes to border control, not everything is going well,” said Esteban Beltran, director of Amnesty International in Spain. “The human rights of migrants and refugees must be respected and situations like this cannot be repeated.”

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also took part in a statement expressing “deep sadness and concern” over what happened on the Moroccan-Melilla border.

“IOM and UNHCR call on all authorities to prioritize the security of migrants and refugees, refrain from excessive use of force and respect their human rights,” the organizations said.

The Spanish Refugee Commission, CEAR, also condemned what it described as “the indiscriminate use of violence to manage migration and border control” and expressed concern that the violence had prevented people eligible for international protection from reaching Spanish soil.

The Catholic Church in the southern Spanish city of Malaga, meanwhile, said “both Morocco and Spain have decided to eliminate human dignity on our borders, holding that the arrival of migrants must be avoided at all costs and forgetting the lives torn along the way.”

Melilla and Ceuta, Spain’s second North African enclave, have the only European Union land borders on the African continent.

The attempted mass crossing on Friday was the first since Spain and Morocco repaired relations after a year-long dispute over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1976. The dispute began when Madrid allowed Brahim Ghali, leader of the pro-independence Western Sahara Polisario Front, to be treated for COVID-19 at a Spanish hospital in April 2021.

Rabat wants Western Sahara to have autonomous status under Moroccan sovereignty, but the Front Polisario insists on a referendum on self-determination under UN supervision as agreed in the 1991 ceasefire agreement.

A month after Spain allowed Ghali’s treatment in a Spanish hospital, about 10,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Moroccan border into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta while border guards reportedly looked the other way, which Rabat widely considered a punitive gesture.

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