Morocco activists seek probe after 18 migrants die in surge to enter Spain

The latest deadly drama on the doors of the European Union took place at dawn on Friday when around 2 000 migrants approached the Moroccan border with the tiny territory.

Picture: Moroccan flag

MOROCCO - Moroccan rights activists on Saturday demanded an investigation into the deaths of at least 18 African migrants who were among hundreds that tried a mass crossing into the Spanish enclave of Melilla.

The latest deadly drama on the doors of the European Union took place at dawn on Friday when around 2 000 migrants approached the Moroccan border with the tiny territory. More than 500 managed to enter a border control area after cutting a fence with shears, Melilla authorities said in a statement.

Moroccan officials said late Friday that 13 migrants had died of injuries sustained in the incursion, in addition to five confirmed dead earlier in the day. "Some fell from the top of the barrier" separating the two sides, a Moroccan official said.

On Saturday calm returned to the border area, with Moroccan security forces lightly deployed along the frontier, in a forested area where no migrants were to be seen.

A local resident said several buses had passed through to take migrants away. Others "have probably moved away for fear of being displaced by the Moroccan authorities," Mohamed Amine Abidar of the AMDH rights group told AFP.

The AMDH has 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.

Images on Spanish media on Friday had showed exhausted migrants lying on the pavement in Melilla, some with bloodied hands and torn clothes.

Speaking in Brussels, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez condemned the "violent assault", which he blamed on "mafias who traffic in human beings".

Migrant magnet 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. Friday's was the first such mass incursion since Spain and Morocco mended diplomatic relations last month.

The AMDH said it was "a true catastrophe that shows the consequences of the latest Moroccan-Spanish entente".

In March, 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. Sanchez then visited Rabat, and the two governments hailed a "new stage" in relations. The row 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 Moroccan border into Spain's Ceuta enclave as border guards looked the other way, in what was widely seen as a punitive gesture by Rabat. Rabat calls for the Western Sahara to have an autonomous status under Moroccan sovereignty but the Polisario Front wants a UN-supervised referendum on self-determination as agreed in a 1991 ceasefire agreement.

In the days just before Morocco and Spain patched up their ties, there were several attempted mass crossings of migrants into Melilla, including one involving 2,500 people, the largest such attempt on record. Nearly 500 made it across.

Means of pressure
The mending of ties has meant a drop in migrant arrivals in Spain, notably in the Canary Islands. The number of migrants who reached the Canary Islands in April was 70 percent lower than in February, government figures show.

Sanchez warned earlier this month that "Spain will not tolerate any use of the tragedy of illegal immigration as a means of pressure". Spain will seek to have "irregular migration" listed as one of the security threats on the NATO's southern flank when the alliance gathers for a summit in Madrid on June 29-30.

Over the years, thousands of migrants have attempted to cross the 12-kilometre (7.5-mile) border between Melilla and Morocco, or Ceuta's eight-kilometre border, by climbing the barriers, swimming along the coast or hiding in vehicles.

The two territories are protected by fences fortified with barbed wire, video cameras and watchtowers.

Migrants sometimes use hooks and sticks to try to climb the border fence, and throw stones at police.