Morocco: 18 migrants die in attempt to enter Spain’s Melilla

Deaths occurred during attempted mass crossing into Spanish North African enclave by some 2,000 migrants, officials say.

Migrants climb the fences separating the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco on June 24, 2022
Migrants climb the fences separating the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco on June 24, 2022 [Javier Bernardo/AP]

Moroccan authorities said that 18 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.

Morocco’s interior ministry said in a statement that the casualties occurred when the refugees and migrants tried to climb an iron border fence separating the two territories. Five migrants were killed and 76 injured, and 140 Moroccan security officers were injured, the ministry said.

Thirteen of the injured migrants later died in the hospital, raising the death toll to 18, according to Morocco’s official news agency MAP, which cited local authorities. The Moroccan Human Rights Association reported 27 dead but the figure could immediately be confirmed.

Spanish officials said 49 Civil Guards sustained minor injuries. Four police vehicles were damaged by rocks thrown by some migrants.

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 incident at the border crossing was the first since Morocco and Spain mended diplomatic ties in March.

“A large group of sub-Saharans [Africans] … broke through the access gate of the Barrio Chino border checkpoint and entered Melilla by jumping over the roof of the checkpoint,” the Spanish government’s delegation in the area said in an earlier statement.

“All of them [are] men and apparently adults,” it added. The migrants arrived at the crossing at about 6:40am local time (04:40 GMT) and the crossing took place at 8:40am (06:40 GMT).

Melilla and Ceuta, Spain’s other tiny North African enclave, have the European Union’s only land borders with Africa, making them a magnet for migrants.

Morocco deployed a “large” number of forces to try to repel the crowd from the border and “cooperated actively” with Spain’s security forces, the Spanish delegation said in a separate statement.

In March this year, Spain ended a year-long diplomatic crisis by backing Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara, going back on its decades-long stance of neutrality.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez then visited Rabat, and the two governments hailed a “new stage” in relations.

The dispute began when Madrid allowed Brahim Ghali, leader of Western Sahara’s pro-independence Polisario Front, to be treated for COVID-19 in a Spanish hospital in April 2021.

A month later, some 10,000 migrants surged across the Morocco border into Spain’s Ceuta enclave as Moroccan border guards looked the other way, in what was widely seen as a punitive gesture by Rabat.

Rabat calls for Western Sahara to have an autonomous status under Moroccan sovereignty, but the Western Saharan Polisario movement wants a United Nations-supervised referendum on self-determination as agreed in a 1991 ceasefire pact.

In the days just before Morocco and Spain ended their diplomatic crisis, there were several attempted mass crossings of migrants in Melilla, including one involving 2,500 people, the largest such attempt on record.

The restoration of Spanish ties with Morocco has meant a drop in arrivals and the number of migrants who reached the Canary Islands in April was 70 percent lower than in February, government figures show.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies