At least 37 people were killed in June 2022 at the Morocco-Spain border, while scores more were injured. Despite the brutality and chaos, officials praised the actions of border agents.
On 24 June 2022, around 1,700 people, most of them asylum seekers from Sudan and South Sudan, filed down the wooded slopes of Mount Gurugu in north-eastern Morocco. They were headed to the enclave of Melilla, a Spanish city of some 85,000 people, perched on the coast of mainland Africa.
At first, the migrants met no resistance. That was strange. In the months leading up to that day, Moroccan police had repeatedly raided settlements on the mountain, where thousands of people had taken refuge. The authorities had also prevented local shopkeepers from selling food to the migrants and stopped taxi drivers from transporting them to the Spanish consulate in the nearby city of Nador.
By mid-June, the migrants were feeling trapped. They couldn’t stay where they were for fear of arrest and they were being blocked from using official channels to claim asylum. The way they saw it, they had little choice but to try to cross the border illegally.
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Video footage filmed by locals, as well as Moroccan and Spanish authorities, shows that the migrants reached the Morocco-Melilla border at around 8am on the morning of 24 June. They headed to an abandoned border crossing called Barrio Chino, which had been closed since the pandemic, and began climbing the wall surrounding it. Hundreds scrambled over the wire fence on top of the wall and piled into a holding yard on the Moroccan side of the checkpoint. On one side of the enclosure loomed a locked gate. Beyond the gate: Spain.
As more and more migrants entered the enclosure, the Moroccan police formed a perimeter around the border post. They lobbed stones and fired rubber bullets at the migrants and according to the investigative organisation Lighthouse Reports, launched at least 20 gas canisters into the courtyard. Using a power saw, a few of the migrants managed to break open the locked gate. Struggling to see and breathe because of the teargas, people rushed the gap to reach the Spanish side of the checkpoint, which triggered a stampede. As some migrants stumbled and toppled, the crowd pressed relentlessly towards the gate through the teargas. Those who had fallen were trampled.
Basir, a 24-year-old Sudanese man, saw it all. He had been camped out on Mount Gurugu for several months. That morning, he was one of a small number who had scaled the Moroccan border wall, squeezed through the gate and made it over the 5.5 metre border fence, crossing into Spanish territory. He’d ended up on a main road surrounded by olive trees, cacti and unkempt grass. He could see the skyline of Melilla: high-rise apartment buildings, church spires, the sprawling port.
He had little time to contemplate the view. Basir had taken just a few steps into Spanish territory before he was caught by a member of the Spanish Guardia Civil police, who forced him back through the checkpoint into Morocco. As he was being manhandled, Basir saw migrants hanging from the Spanish border fence like wet clothes on a washing line. Others were still crammed into the courtyard, their faces pressed up against jutting shoulders, their arms pinned against sides, their chests squeezed of air. Many were groaning – and some had stopped breathing.
After Basir was dragged back across the border, his wrists were bound with plastic handcuffs, and he was forced to lie down on the road beneath the border wall. There, for around eight hours, with temperatures reaching 27C (81F) in the shade, he and hundreds of other migrants were dropped like bin bags. They were guarded by Moroccan police in riot gear. Footage shows the police beating the migrants with batons as they lay on the ground. Basir was desperate for water – his mouth felt sandy and cracked – but he dared not move. People around him lay motionless: he thought they may be pretending to be dead to escape the vicious beatings being handed out by the Moroccan police officers.
Some migrants had concussions and broken bones and many needed hospital treatment, but the few ambulances that turned up at the scene were used to transport dead bodies to the morgue, or attend to injured police. Buses arrived in large numbers. The migrants were loaded on board and driven to far-flung cities throughout Morocco.
Basir – a pseudonym given for his protection – recounted the harrowing events to me nine months later, in a cramped hotel room in Morocco’s capital, Rabat. Despite the chill of the air conditioning, he was sweating. “I suppose we weren’t human any more, we were just like animals,” he mumbled, wiping his brow.
Official figures from that day indicate that of the roughly 1,700 migrants who attempted to cross the border, 133 were able to claim asylum; 470 individuals, like Basir, entered Spanish territory, but were forcibly returned to Morocco. At least 37 people died, and 77 people remain unaccounted for. The event quickly came to be known as “the Melilla massacre.”
Spain was quick to play down news reports that the tragedy had occurred on its territory. Instead, the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, congratulated the Spanish and Moroccan forces for their work that day, declaring the 24 June attempted crossing a “violent assault on Spanish soil”. (He later admitted he’d made that statement before he’d seen any of the images from that day.) Morocco prosecuted 65 migrants for their roles in the crossing. Thirty-three of them have already been sentenced to 11 months in prison for damage to property and attacks on Moroccan officers, while the remaining 32 migrants stand charged with human trafficking. Moroccan police were also accused of trying to cover up their use of excessive force. The Moroccan Association of Human Rights reported that two days after the tragedy, Moroccan border officials had been seen nearby in a cemetery, digging about 20 graves.
Earlier this year, I flew from Madrid to Melilla, to see how the territory had processed the tragedy of last year. From the plane’s window, the territory’s 12 sq km, about twice the size of Gibraltar, appeared as an anomalous patch stitched on to the African continent by the border fence. As the plane descended, my phone began to buzz, charging me roaming fees as though I had left the EU. Once out of the tiny airport, I stepped into the dry spring heat and into a waiting taxi, a battered 1980s silver Mercedes covered in dust.
In less than 10 minutes, I was in the city centre, a mirage of shimmering marble streets, promenades, palm trees, topiary hedges and ornamental modernist buildings by Catalan architect Enric Nieto that wouldn’t be out of place in Barcelona. The city’s 15th-century fort clung to the coast’s craggy cliffs like a mollusk. The turquoise Mediterranean, mottled with ferries and cargo ships, stretched flat to the horizon.
For Spaniards from the mainland, Melilla can seem both familiar and not. The local accent is a North African-Andulasian mix. Muslim names are crossed with Spanish diminutives, producing nicknames like Kemalito. Though Spanish is the official and most-spoken language, Arabic and the Berber language, Tamazight, are common. Mint tea is as popular as beer, lamb as common as pork and minarets punctuate the skyline, alongside church spires and the occasional synagogue. (Almost half of Melilla’s population is Catholic, the same proportion is Muslim; the city’s Jewish community numbers about 1,000, while there are up to 100 Hindus, whose roots in the city go back to 1890.) Easter week processions take place in streets festooned with Ramadan light displays.
Despite the Moroccan influence on Melillan culture, the city’s residents think of themselves as Spanish. Dunia Al-Mansourim Umpierrez, vice-president of the Melilla assembly, told me that locals with Muslim names felt hurt whenever they were confused with Moroccans by Spaniards from the mainland; they resented the idea that their lives in Melilla as Spanish Muslims required explanation. People had fought fiercely for that right, she said.
Before Spain joined the EU in 1986, it introduced new laws concerning how to obtain Spanish nationality and the right to live and work there. The legislation favoured specific groups tied to Spain’s history and culture, such as Latin Americans, but excluded Moroccans and Western Saharans, who were also from former Spanish colonies. Consequently, about 14,000 Muslim Melilla residents were suddenly considered foreigners, despite having been born or living on Spanish territory. This sparked protests and calls for a strike by Muslim workers. The local press printed photos of police pointing guns at a group of Muslim women protesting in the city’s main square. Eventually, long-term residents were granted permanent residence cards and Spanish nationality.
From that moment, the city started to embrace its multicultural makeup. Melilla became the city of “four cultures”, comprising the Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus who lived there. Melilla’s tourist board logo used to be made up of four letters corresponding to four alphabets: Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit. Tania Costa, a local journalist, shared an anecdote with me that encapsulated the hybrid nature of Melilla: at a local skatepark, she had observed a young girl wearing a hijab cross herself before diving into a halfpipe.
These days, though, Melilla is less defined by its multiculturalism than by its status as a tiny sliver of the European Union in Africa. (There is another Spanish territory on the coast of Morocco, Ceuta, which juts out from Morocco’s northernmost point, across the sea from Gibraltar. Ceuta, too, has been the site of dramatic border crossings by migrants.) Melilla is a border station, a means to enter Europe without crossing the Mediterranean. In recent years, however, both enclaves have become outposts of “Fortress Europe” – the term used by critics of the EU’s harsh immigration policies – whose primary function appears to be keeping people out.
Melilla’s frontier status is unmistakable to any visitor. It has the highest proportion of public employees in any part of Spain – almost 50%, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Police cars and Guardia Civil 4x4s seem to be parked on every street. There are some 1,200 border agents and police. Then there’s the military. Melilla has about 3,000 soldiers stationed in the enclave, both the army and the Spanish Legion. My inbound flight was full of military personnel returning from leave, with their oversized khaki backpacks, buzz cuts and bulging muscles.
The business of migration is woven into the fabric of everyday life. The Red Cross has offices here, as does the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and a whole host of small NGOs. I met one lawyer, Pepe Alonso, who told me immigration has been an issue in Melilla for years, well before the international press became interested. During the late 90s and early 2000s, he’d often drive up to the border and park his car there at night, waiting for a crossing. “I worked long hours back then when I was preparing court cases and I would often drive around here at three or four in the morning to see if there had been a crossing that day,” he said. He would wait in the dark and try to help the passing migrants, taking them to the police station to process their applications. That was before a reception centre for migrants was built outside the city.
On my second afternoon in Melilla, I drove to the Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes (Ceti), a residence for newly arrived immigrants around two miles from the city centre. I was accompanied by Jesús Blasco de Avellaneda, a local journalist and photographer who has reported on migration and the Melilla border for years. Ceti backs on to a prison for young offenders and a lush nine-hole golf course. This was where Basir had hoped to process his asylum application.
The centre has a capacity for 480 people, but when I visited, just three migrants were staying there. For a long time, Spain tried to keep migrants in Melilla while their applications were being processed. Asylum seekers received temporary ID cards with the inscription “Valid only in Melilla”. These cards prohibited them from working or travelling to mainland Spain. The Ceti was often overcrowded. In 2015, UNHCR said it did not comply with international standards: “This is not a place people should be in for more than three or four days”, the Spanish representative of the organisation’s high commissioner said at the time.
In 2020, when the supreme court in Madrid ruled that migrants in Melilla could travel freely around Spain with just a passport and an asylum application, most chose to leave. Since then, the Ceti has been less busy, except during Spain’s Covid-19 state of emergency. Generally, fewer migrants have been staying in Melilla for long periods. Meanwhile, Melilla’s permanent residents have done their best to forget about the migration problem entirely.
Blasco sees Ceti’s location at the city’s edge as a metaphor for Melilla’s psyche. “It’s completely removed from city life. While the border is physically close, it’s psychologically far away for many locals,” he said. On the Spanish side of the border wall, amid the NGO offices, police stations and military bases, a parallel world exists where local businesses, teachers and town hall civil servants live like residents of any mainland Spanish city. In cafes or bars, people wanted to discuss anything but migration. “All the press ever report on is the wall, the wall, the wall, nothing else,” one resident told me, wearily. The ordinary Melillans couldn’t be expected to bear the weight of mass suffering every day, he seemed to imply. They had their own normal lives and they, no less than mainland Europeans, did not much want to think about the human tragedy looming at the border.
Melilla has been Spanish for more than 500 years, ever since Spain seized the city from the Berbers in 1497. In the 19th century, its borders were formalised in treaties between the Queen of Spain and the Sultan of Morocco. Spain now designates Melilla, along with Ceuta, an “autonomous city”. But since Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, it has disputed Spain’s claim to both cities.
In the years following Moroccan independence, a pact was established between the two territories, allowing unrestricted movement across the border for Melillans and Moroccans from the neighbouring Nador province. Many of these Moroccans found employment in Melilla, often in construction or cross-border trade and travelled back and forth daily.
In 1986, Spain joined the EU and later, in 1991, the Schengen Area, which enables passport-free travel between European countries. From then on, Spain came under pressure from Brussels to reduce the flow of migrants entering the country from outside the EU, especially after a surge of migration into Melilla from Algeria and sub-Saharan Africa in 1995. Spain’s response was to begin construction, in 1996, of a three-metre-high chain-link double fence, spanning seven miles of the border. “The Berlin Wall may just be a memory,” wrote the New Straits Times, an international newspaper published in Malaysia, in August 1998, “but Spain is building huge fences to protect itself and southern Europe from a flood of African immigrants.” The fence was operational by the end of that year.
However, Melilla’s unforgiving geography, with its rolling hills and precipitous cliffs, thwarted any attempts to erect the fence on the actual border with Morocco. The result was a mere approximation of the border, meaning that some residents of Melilla suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the wall, excluded from their own country. Few stories better sum up the strangeness of Melilla than that of Miguel Ángel Hernández. His family home, Villa Los Abuelos, used to be situated in Melilla, but when the new fence was finished in the late 90s, he found his house was now in Morocco.
In the early 00s, he moved to a house in the centre of Melilla, where he still lives. When I visited him, Hernández – a lanky man in his 70s, with wild grey hair and a long beard – showed me piles of legal papers and press clippings documenting the curious case of Villa Los Abuelos. “I remember the day the local police chief came to visit me,” Hernández told me. “He said, ‘Welcome to Morocco; we’re at your service.’”
Hernández was offered a one-metre wide passageway between his house and the border, allowing him to enter Spain via the nearest crossing, 50 metres away. Whenever he wanted to enter his own home, he had to explain himself to a guard and show his ID.
The physical evolution of the border fence tells its own story. As the number of migrants trying to get from Africa to Europe increased, so did the fence’s size and sophistication. In 2005, the fence’s height was increased to six metres. In 2014, an anti-climb mesh was installed and sections of the fence were expanded with barbed wire. In 2020, in a seemingly humanitarian gesture, Pedro Sánchez’s government announced the removal of the barbed wire. They also increased the height of the border fence to nine metres in some areas. That same year, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the right of Moroccans from Nador province to cross freely into Melilla was rescinded. It is yet to be reinstated and now all Moroccans need a visa to enter.
On my third day in Melilla, I visited the Barrio Chino border crossing with Javier Garcia, a local journalist who had witnessed the events of 24 June. Garcia had rushed there just before 10am that morning, after hearing reports from colleagues about a mass crossing. As he approached the border station, he saw hundreds of migrants – the ones who had made it into Spain – trapped in a small service road next to the fence, guarded by members of the Guardia Civil and national police.
Garcia told me that next to the migrants had been groups of local women “cleaning up the debris from the crossing: teargas canisters, rubber bullets, rocks and migrants’ clothing”. He had also seen Moroccan police. “Together with the Guardia Civil, they were catching and returning migrants to Morocco,” he said. And once back in Morocco, as videos and testimonies from that day show, the migrants were corralled and shipped as far away from the border as possible.
The EU gave Morocco €346m between 2014 and 2020, with up to €500m more to be paid until 2027, all in the name of regulating migration flows. It has similar deals with other north African countries. Once a migrant manages to cross a national border, the burden of care shifts from one state to the other. The EU’s logic is simple: as long as the migrants are kept in Africa, they are not the moral or practical responsibility of Spain and the EU.
These policies have ugly repercussions, as Basir knows all too well. His harrowing journey to Melilla began in Sudan at the age of 15, after he witnessed the murder of his father and elder brother in a tribal conflict. He escaped from his village to live with his uncle in Sennar State, but there he faced pressure to convert from Christianity to Islam. He endured five years of turmoil before saving enough money to leave for Europe. He travelled through Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. He was detained four times and left for dead in the desert by Algerian authorities. He felt he had been treated with indifference at each of the UNHCR offices he visited on his journey.
After the 24 June tragedy, Basir was bussed eight-and-a-half hours away to the central Moroccan city of Beni Mellal, along with other Sudanese migrants, where he claims he was refused medical treatment and verbally abused by hospital workers. He eventually made it from central Morocco to the west coast, where he moved from city to city, dependent on the kindness of strangers for his daily needs. Unlike many of his fellow migrants, who say they would risk scaling the border fence again, Basir wanted to attempt the legal path. He contacted local NGOs, who put him in touch with a team of lawyers based in Madrid, who could help him with his asylum application at the Spanish embassy in Rabat.
When we spoke, Basir had been waiting months without a resolution. He went through hell and made it to Spanish land, thinking that would be enough. But now he is in limbo, always on the move in case the authorities try to arrest him, constantly reliving the moment he saw his countrymen dying in the afternoon sun. He told me that after everything he has been through, he just wants to stop hiding and live a normal life. He expressed this desire in a letter to the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez: “In spite of everything, I want to have hope.”
During my stay in Melilla, I encountered several border guards: enjoying meals at local eateries, picking up their children from school, exchanging pleasantries outside Melilla’s central mosque before afternoon prayers. Some were local Melillans, while others were on rotation from the Spanish mainland.
One afternoon, in a cafe near the city centre, I met a Guardia Civil agent who had direct experience of the chaos of the mass crossings. He was willing to talk about what had happened on 24 June 2022, but wished to remain anonymous. As we talked, he sipped mint tea from a tall glass. He seemed nervous. “It’s overwhelming,” he told me. “In the heat of the moment, you can’t hear anything. It’s chaos, and all you can do is react to the situation unfolding in front of you.”
A longtime resident of Melilla, the agent recounted how the crossings had evolved recently. “Twenty years ago, they were always at night, in small groups,” he said. “But now, it’s different. They come in massive waves, armed with weapons and a plan of attack. The violence, that’s the biggest change.” (On 24 June, the crowd were armed with sticks and at least one power tool.)
In March 2022, there had been two mass border crossings in which approximately 3,500 migrants tried to cross into Melilla, with around 800 making it into Spanish territory. The agent and other officers, along with several migrants, had been injured in the crossing. “A migrant fell from the fence and crushed my leg,” he told me. The agent understood it wasn’t feasible to have thousands of officers in Melilla for “just three mass border crossings a year”. But the border guards felt that the government had abandoned them to deal with this new reality. “There needs to be clear protocol for all the Spanish security agencies that legally protects us,” he said.
The Spanish government claims to respect the basic rights of foreign nationals who enter the country illegally. But special legislation enacted in Ceuta and Melilla allows Spanish border officers to expel refugees and migrants without due process and without considering the risks they may face upon return. This is against international law – specifically, it violates the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning individuals to jurisdictions where they may face persecution or human rights violation. According to the Spanish Ombudsman, an office responsible for protecting the rights and freedoms of citizens, on 24 June 2022, the Spanish authorities illegally returned 470 migrants to Moroccan territory.
Representatives of the Guardia Civil and the national police told me that their actions on 24 June were “beyond reproach”. They pointed to the state prosecutor’s investigation, published in December 2022, which noted that “the intervening agents’ actions did not increase the risk to the life and physical integrity of the migrants, so they cannot be charged with the crime of involuntary manslaughter”. The prosecutor claimed that the officers were unaware of the stampede, “so at no time could they have imagined the possibility that there were people in a risky situation requiring their assistance.”
In the aftermath of the fatal crush, the Spanish interior minister claimed that the closed border post was a “no man’s land,” beyond Spain’s jurisdiction. Yet the Spanish land registry record shows that 13,097 sq metres of the Barrio Chino, including the esplanade on the border crossing and the fence on which some migrants perished, falls within the Spanish domain and is the state’s property. Nonetheless, Spanish authorities continue to claim that no migrants had died on its territory. In other words, it wasn’t Spain’s – or the EU’s – problem.
On my last day in Melilla, I stood on a hill on the enclave’s western edge, above the Ceti, above a minaret rising from the Moroccan neighbourhood of Farhana and above the nine-hole golf course. The morning call to prayer rang out from Morocco and meandered over the velvety green fairways and among the rustling palm trees. The view brought to mind a famous photograph taken near here in 2014. In the photo, two individuals are playing golf, while just a few metres away, a dozen migrants are straddling the border fence, a border guard in pursuit. One golfer can be seen casting a sidelong glance at the migrants while her playing partner focuses on her game. The photograph captured the essence of Melilla: a place perched on the cusp of two jarring realities, trying to block out its disquieting role, keeping the rest of the world out of Europe.