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Why Violence Is Flaring at Europe’s Border Crossings

Map of Ceuta and Melilla
The Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, which sit on the coast of Morocco, are the only two places where the European Union shares a land border with an African country.

The Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, which sit not in Spain but on the coast of Morocco, are the only two places where the European Union shares a land border with an African country. As such, these Spanish enclaves have the most heavily guarded borders in the EU to keep out African migrants.

On occasion, large groups of African citizens—most of them fleeing war and poverty—will attempt to reach Spanish soil through Ceuta or Melilla. It was such an attempt one year ago that ended in an easily preventable tragedy.

On February 6, 2014, several hundred migrants from sub-Saharan Africa launched themselves off the coast of Morocco in an attempt to make their way around a breakwater and onto Ceuta’s El Tarajal beach. For us at Caminando Fronteras—a rights group based at the borders that has advised the Open Society Foundations on migration issues—this was just another day of monitoring the crossings and documenting any rights violations. We had no idea what we were about to witness.

“Three hundred of us left early that morning,” says E., a Cameroonian national who was part of the attempt and wishes to remain anonymous. “We wanted to get to the water en masse. We all had floatation devices. … About a hundred of us were stopped by the Moroccan forces before we reached the water, but the rest of us made it. We got into the water, and then all hell broke loose.”

E. says the migrants were attacked by security forces as they desperately tried to make their way toward Ceuta. “The Civil Guard lobbed smoke grenades, but even worse, they shot at us with rubber pellets, aiming at our rafts and our bodies,” he says. “The water turned into an inferno.”

When all was said and done, 15 were dead and many more injured.

The two entryways—from land and sea—make Ceuta and Melilla a preferred gateway for migrants trying to get from Africa into Europe. Crossing the land border does not require the costly involvement of a facilitation network, and the seemingly accessible seaway allows migrants to use cheap rubber boats to reach Spanish shores. According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2013, around 4,200 irregular migrants entered the enclaves. The number exceeded 5,000 last year.

The victims hold that the Civil Guard’s anti-riot tactics caused the tragedy at El Tarajal. Additionally, all of the migrants who reached Spanish territory were returned immediately to Morocco, even the wounded—a departure from the regular administrative procedure that would typically give them access to humanitarian and legal assistance.

According to N., another of the migrants, 23 of them actually made it onto the El Tarajal beach in Ceuta that day. “We had already reached the Spanish beach, and we thought they would attend to us and we would stay in Spain,” he says. “I thought I had reached the Europe of rights, but no. I was only met with violence, brutality, and then … the bodies of the dead floating in the water and strewn over the beach.”

The chaos that day at Ceuta exemplifies the increasing violence occurring on Europe’s southern border as externalization agreements take effect between Europe and its so-called partner countries. These agreements seek to outsource the responsibility for enforcing border control to North African countries with dubious human rights records such as Morocco and Algeria.

“We are subjected to ongoing institutional violence when we reach the border,” says M., a female refugee from Liberia who has tried to scale the fence surrounding Melilla. “This can range from denial of access to basic rights, to torture, physical abuse, and even sexual violence. What you see on the Melilla fence is only a fraction of what we suffer in transit.”

An example of this suffering took place on October 15, 2014, when Spanish border authorities again employed excessively violent tactics. During an attempt by about 200 people to cross the 20-foot razor-wire fence into Melilla, border guards beat at least one man unconscious. Social organizations that work on the southern border are concerned with the deterioration of human rights in the zone, where migration control takes precedence over respect for basic rights, even the right to life.

This lack of respect can be seen in the way the Spanish government has portrayed the events at El Tarajal. Spain’s Interior Minister has normalized the violence by describing the southern border as being in a state of emergency, with migrant groups as the enemies.

But the migrants say they’re unfairly portrayed and that the vast majority of the violence in such encounters comes from the guards themselves. “When the Civil Guard shows those pictures of hooks and shoes with spikes, well, these are what we use to climb the fence,” says Mohammed, a Malian who has scaled the fence surrounding Melilla twice. “We can’t hold onto the fence with our fingers or our feet without them. We need them, but the Spaniards show them as objects meant to hurt them.”

The inquiry into the tragedy at El Tarajal is ongoing.

“My family and I keep insisting that the body of my brother be identified and that justice be rendered. My brother was a delightful person, a mellow guy, and they killed him on February 6 at Tarajal,” says F., the brother of a migrant. “This situation can only change if a court sentences the guilty parties, sending a message to those handing down the orders. Hopefully my brother will be among the last of the victims.”

Although Spain is under international scrutiny for the increasing police violence, the government has proposed a controversial amendment to its immigration law that would apply exclusively at Ceuta and Melilla. The proposal aims to legitimize automatic returns of people trying to access the two cities irregularly and without the right documentation.

Such a practice is in clear breach of EU and human rights law, which offers legal guarantees and the possibility for people in such conditions to seek asylum. Such a proposal would only lead to more tragedies like the one at El Tarajal, without improving security for Spain.

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