Melilla: bloodbath on the Africa-Europe frontier

About the author
Nicholas Mead is a freelance journalist working in Spain.
Ceuta crossing - Image from bookCeuta crossing. From the book "A life full of holes: the Strait Project", by Yto Barrada

The shooting of six Africans trying to reach the Spanish enclave of Melilla (Malila), on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, on 6 October marks a chilling new development in the human catastrophe developing at Africa’s only land border with Europe.

The killings occurred when a combined Spanish-Moroccan force responded to a surge by around 500 would-be immigrants (mostly from from sub-Saharan Africa) towards the six-metre-high, double-layered barbed-wire fence that separates Melilla from Morocco. They followed a related incident a week earlier in the neighbouring Spanish enclave of Ceuta (Sabta), when an apparent combination of police gunfire and a mass stampede of 600 people led to the death of five immigrants.

Also in openDemocracy on “people flow” and political crisis at the frontier between Morocco and Spain, Africa and Europe:

Nelcya Delanoe, “Morocco: a journey in the space between monarchy and Islamism” (February 2003)

Nelcya Delanoe, “Morocco and Spain: united by tragedy?” (March 2004 )

Ivan Briscoe, “Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco” ( May 2004)

Yto Barrada, “A life full of holes: the Strait Project” ( October 2005)

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After Ceuta, both governments denied their forces were responsible for the bullet-wounds found in the dead bodies; the Spanish interior minister, José Antonio Alonso, claimed that his country’s forces “did not use live ammunition”. But no such denial was forthcoming after the Melilla incident, and the concern of both states involved seemed to be to solidify their own cooperation rather than to guarantee the rights and lives of the immigrants; Melilla’s governor, Juan José Imbroda, says: "Moroccan forces collaborated, which is what we expected of them”.

Charities and NGOs have condemned the eleven deaths and the readiness to use maximum force against unarmed immigrants; Spain’s SOS-Racismo says the military intervention “sends a dangerous message to society”. But the main focus of government and media attention now is the issue of what to do with the immigrants who got through, rather than who was responsible for the shootings.

Spain plans to deport Moroccan and Algerian immigrants directly to their home countries, but the majority of the approximately 700 people that have broken into Melilla in recent weeks come from poor sub-Saharan African countries such as Mali, Senegal, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea – with which Spain has no repatriation agreements. The Spanish government has circumvented this by resurrecting a dormant 1992 agreement allowing it to return all illegal immigrants to Morocco and leave authorities there to repatriate them.

Spain’s socialist government led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero – already being criticised by its domestic political opponents and some European partners for its three-month amnesty offer in February 2005 which benefited 700,000 undocumented immigrants – has confirmed that it has transferred 100 immigrants to Malaga on their way to deportation to Morocco. But Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) declared on 9 October that it had discovered 500 more immigrants stranded in the Sahara desert, apparently abandoned by the authorities of both countries in an unofficial and usually unreported practice.

Meanwhile, Morocco itself is repatriating refugees by plane and bus; a flight to Dakar left Oudja in northeast Morocco, today, 10 October, carrying 140 would-be immigrants back to Senegal.

A continental divide

The Melilla shootings are the first time that Morocco and Spain have united to use maximum force against unarmed immigrants seeking to enter the two enclaves as a route to sanctuary and opportunity in Europe. For many Africans, Ceuta and Melilla – retained by Spain, to widespread Moroccan discontent, even after the 15th-century “reconquest” and expulsion of the “Moors” from Andalucia – offer their best chance of escaping the poverty and injustice in their homelands. Each year, thousands converge on the frontier of the two tiny territories in the hope of claiming asylum; others risk the even more hazardous sea crossing to mainland Spain or the Canary Islands.

The overland route for African migrants can involve a trek of thousands of kilometres from their countries of origin to Morocco, where they hide in forests – often with virtually no food or water – before attempting to breach the fence around the enclaves.

What has changed in recent weeks is that in their desperation, aspiring migrants have massed together in groups of approximately 500 to try to penetrate the enclaves’ defences. The crisis has prompted Zapatero to announce a series of measures aimed at securing them including: use of the army, the construction of a third layer of fencing in Melilla, and completing the heightening of the two existing fences. It is likely that this heightening, already nearly finished, prompted the latest surge.

At the same time, the Spanish government has blamed Moroccan authorities for not properly protecting the borders – a posture that has been strongly condemned by Spanish NGOs. “It means the task of keeping African immigrants out of Europe is, in effect, being sub-contracted to people who are ready to kill on our behalf … we want Morocco to do the dirty work for Spain and Europe”, said migration NGO worker Jose Palazon.

For its part, Morocco claims that it lacks the resources necessary to patrol Europe’s borders and has pleaded for a "modern Marshall Plan". Some NGOs and politicians support such a financial aid programme in principle, but say it would be better aimed at the whole sub-Saharan African region from where most immigrants arrive in Morocco. They argue that the money spent on "militarising" the borders should go towards increasing development aid to Africa. More importantly, they urge the European Union to open its markets to the products of Africa, in order to help raise living standards and thus decrease the need to emigrate. As Bernard Kouchner, MSF founder and France’s former health minister, says: "To close the door does nothing. They go through the window. They break the door".

Zapatero acknowledges that the best way of stemming the immigration flow is “to work rapidly to reduce the gap in prosperity between Spain and Morocco and countries to the south of Morocco”, adding that the extreme scale of disparity (by a factor of five) between the neighbouring countries is matched by few other national borders in the world.

The deaths in Ceuta and the shootings in Melilla reveal an urgent, immediate humanitarian crisis that demands practical cooperation and sensitive handling on a European and African as well as bilateral level. The crisis needs short-term alleviation, but the problems are systemic and the only solutions long-term.

In particular, the relentless poverty in Africa – reinforced by unjust terms of trade, a crisis in public facilities like health care, environmental damage, and authoritarian politics – creates a permanent momentum for young people in particular to flock northwards in search of a sustainable life. World leaders have trumpeted the 2005 Commission for Africa report and the G8 summit in Scotland as the “year of Africa”; but until they properly address Africa’s structural problems over the long term, the tragedies of Ceuta and Melilla are likely to be repeated.