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EU’s ‘Racist’ Migration Policies Spurred African Deaths, New Report Says

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Video still from footage shot by a Spanish drone at around 9 A.M., June 24, 2022, showing Spanish law enforcement agents having formed a cordon to prevent African migrants from advancing and to expel them back across the border fence, resulting in the death of “at least” 27 asylum-seekers and more than 70 that went missing, a new report documents. BORDER FORENSICS  

A deadly clash between African migrants and security forces on the Moroccan-Spanish border in 2022 occurred because of decisions by Moroccan authorities and the European Union’s “racist” migration policies, says a report released on June 18.

At least 27 asylum-seekers died and more than 70 went missing after 2,000 migrants, mostly from Sudan, tried to climb over a fence separating the Moroccan city of Nador and the Spanish autonomous city of Melilla on June 24, 2022. Human rights organizations and experts denounced the unlawful, discriminatory approach, which led to the deadliest event in the history of this border region.

All migrants who attempted crossing that day were Black Africans, the report said.

Released by Border Forensics, the study highlights the racism that it says is embedded in EU migration and immigration policies. The asylum-seekers killed in 2022 were fleeing simmering tensions related to the coup in Sudan a year before. Since then, a civil war that broke out in the country in April 2023, called by the International Rescue Committee the “largest internal displacement crisis in the world,” has left more than 9 million people displaced.

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Despite dire humanitarian situations in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa, the EU strives to prevent Black African migrants from reaching the continent, while the UN seems to do little to deter the practice. Neither the UN Human Rights office nor Amy Pope, head of the International Organization for Migration, responded to PassBlue’s request for a comment.

“When it comes to mass movements of people in humanitarian crises across Global South, and particular conflicts in Africa, the UN regularly invited states and humanitarian partners to respond to them by cooperation and allowing access to humanitarian needs,” said Jelena Aparac, Border Forensic’s head of operations and former chair of the UN human rights commissioner’s working group on the use of mercenaries. “But the security council has never made this call to the EU regarding the migrants coming to EU. It never requested the EU to open borders, to protect migrants and asylum seekers and ensure their safety.”

Human rights violations have been documented since the fatal clash, but two years later, no country or party has been held accountable. Less than two weeks after the massacre, the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, renewed its partnership with Morocco on migration and its fight against what it calls “human trafficking.” A month later, the EU announced a 500,000-euro (approximately $530,000) package to Morocco for border control, including Melilla.

After dubiously held trials, many survivors of the massacre were sentenced to years in Moroccan prisons for accusations related to illegal border crossings and violence, according to the Border Forensics report.

The violence on the border between Morocco and Melilla “reveals the status quo of the European Union’s borders, namely racialized exclusion and deadly violence deployed to keep out people of African and Middle Eastern descent, and other non-white populations,” E. Tendayi Achiume, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance, said in November 2022 in a statement with the UN working group of experts on People of African Descent and the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. (Achiume no longer holds this post.)

Border Forensics, a Geneva nonprofit organization, specializes in using spatial and visual analysis to investigate practices of border violence, its website says. For its recent report, it collected accounts from dozens of survivors of the massacre and reconstructed the events of that day and those leading up to it. It found that Moroccan security forces directed the migrants to the fence on the Barrio Chino border crossing — at Melilla — and violently repressed them, leaving them with no choice but to storm it to survive, resulting in the deadly clash.

Charles Heller, a researcher with Border Forensics who worked on the inquiry, said that evidence suggests Moroccan forces were prepared for the clash and had the “desire to humiliate, to hurt, to wound” the migrants.

The events leading to the massacre started with violent raids by Moroccan security forces on migrant camps in Morocco a few days before June 24, the report said. The migrants defended themselves, even capturing a Moroccan soldier — and letting him go — to try to negotiate an end to the physical abuse. On June 24, migrants passed dozens of cars belonging to security forces on their way to the border, but no one stopped them.

“They were allowed to approach the border fence,” Heller said. “Once they arrived close to the border fences, the repression exercised by the Moroccan forces channeled them towards the Barrio Chino point posts.”

As the migrants headed to the border, the military presence grew, based on satellite imagery that the investigation studied.

“The Moroccans knew how we were moving and when we were moving. They wanted to direct us towards the border fence where we had no way to escape,” Mahamat Daoud Abderassoul, a 27-year-old Sudanese survivor of the clash, said in a series of video interviews the NGO conducted.

“That was exactly what they needed in order to make a larger number of murders,” he added. “They were preparing the trap. We also spoke with them the days before the massacre, and they gave us no alternative but to move from the mountains to their trap.”

An earlier investigation by Lighthouse Reports, a nonprofit investigation newsroom, found that gas canisters were used that day in the border area, blinding and choking migrants trying to make their way to the Spanish territory. Amnesty International found that Moroccan security forces also failed to offer even minimal first aid and didn’t allow the Red Cross to help the injured after the fatal clash. They were left in the sun for eight hours, Amnesty International 2022 report said.

“They transported us in buses despite all our injuries. They transported us without any medical help. There was one person on the bus with us who was bleeding a lot, too much in fact, and when they took us off, he died. Some people even died two days later in Beni Mellal. We didn’t get the care we needed in the hospitals,” a Sudanese survivor told Border Forensics, referring to a city in Morocco.

The investigation by Lighthouse, done with The Washington Post, released in May this year exposed how the EU and individual European countries are letting North African governments, such as Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania, to mistreat tens of thousands of migrants passing through their borders. Migrants are detained and forced into remote, often deserted areas, such as Niger. The goal is to keep migrants from making their way to EU territory and trying to claim asylum, according to the joint report. The tactic appears to have been used in the Morocco-Melilla case.

Morocco is indeed benefiting financially from the EU to prevent migrants from heading to the continent, the Lighthouse investigation found. Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania together received more than 400 million euros (about $428 million) through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa between 2015 and 2021 to stem migration.

Lighthouse found that Morocco uses vehicles provided by the EU to round up Black migrants and take them to detention centers in Morocco. Over the years, racial profiling, racism and brutality against Black asylum-seekers have been documented.

Border Forensics analyzed Europe’s influence on Morocco’s border policies, finding that Morocco’s treatment of migrants worsened in April 2022. That is when Morocco and Spain mended their relationship after a yearlong diplomatic rupture.

“As of that moment, Moroccan forces began repressing migrants in the border area much more intensely, once again, so they were harassing migrants in the forests where they set up their former camps,” Heller said.

Moroccos migration policy has alternated between repression of migrants and encouraging their presence, the report shows. Without migrants flowing through Morocco, it “cannot exercise its migration diplomacy,” Heller said, referring to its deal with the EU.

“It’s constantly moving back and forth between enabling crossings and repressing them in the name of forwarding its migration diplomacy,” he added.

Morocco didn’t respond to PassBlue’s request to comment in time for the publication.

Spain has been consistent in its messaging since 2022: no migrants have died on their territory that day, allowing the country to shift responsibility to Morocco.

The Border Forensics report, however, argued that all border posts near Morocco are built under Spanish jurisdiction. So, although the deaths occurred under Moroccan control, the deaths took place on Spanish territory. Spain is also responsible for the deaths of the Sudanese migrants and could have prevented them, Border Forensics contended.

A spokesperson for the Spanish Ministry of the Interior referred PassBlue to 2022 remarks by Fernando Grande-Marlaska, minister of interior or Spain, emphasizing that the country’s stance on the events haven’t changed since 2022.

“The Civil Guard acted proportionally and legally, with absolute respect for human rights and that the deaths of the migrants occurred entirely in Moroccan territory,” the spokesperson wrote in Spanish and translated by PassBlue into English.

Since the Melilla border massacre, criticism of the EU’s hostile treatment of migrants and its growing militarization of its borders has intensified.

“We are seeing the process of brutalization of the management of European borders, across Europe,” Heller said. “Right from the borders of Melilla to the borders of Poland, Hungary, Greece, and others.”

“Those practices would have been unthinkable only a few years ago,” he added.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the EU migration policy?

Photo of Anastasiia Carrier

Anastasiia Carrier is a Detroit-based freelance reporter. She earned an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and her work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Wire China and The Radcliffe Magazine.

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EU’s ‘Racist’ Migration Policies Spurred African Deaths, New Report Says
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