Human rights campaigners in Spain and Morocco have called for investigations to be launched in both countries after a mass attempt to scale the border fence between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla left at least 23 people dead.
Spanish officials said about 2,000 Africans made their way to the iron fence at dawn on Friday, with more than 500 managing to slip into a border control area after cutting an opening with shears.
Moroccan officials initially said five people had died in what they described as a “stampede”. Late on Saturday, Moroccan state TV said the death toll had climbed to 23 people.
NGOs on the ground said the number of deaths could be higher. “We’ve confirmed 37 deaths in the Melilla tragedy,” said Helena Maleno Garzón, whose organisation, Walking Borders, is in constant contact with Africans seeking to cross into Spain from Morocco.
Walking Borders joined more than half a dozen others, including Amnesty International Spain, in calling for an investigation into what ranks as the deadliest day in recent memory along the section of the EU’s only land border with Africa.
Videos shared online by the Moroccan Association of Human Rights appeared to show dozens of people packed into an area next to the border fence – some bleeding and many lying motionless – as Moroccan forces in riot gear watched over them in the aftermath of the crossing.
“They were left there without help for hours, which increased the number of deaths,” the group said on Twitter. In another video shared by the organisation, a Moroccan security officer appeared to use a baton to lash out at one person who lay prone.
One young man who attempted to make the crossing said that both those attempting to cross and the police had thrown stones at each other but noted the police had the advantage of wearing protection. “The Moroccan agents were very violent, more aggressive than other times, and people panicked,” he told the Spanish newspaper El Pais. “That’s what provoked the stampede.”
In the days before, police had carried out several raids on the camps where the migrants and refugees slept rough as they waited for the chance to cross into Spain, he said. The police confiscated food and any cash they could find, leaving migrants anxious and exhausted as they grappled with higher levels of precariousness.
He said Moroccan forces had thrown stones and launched teargas directly at those attempting to cross. “Normally they throw it in the air, but this time it was aimed directly at people. And they were so weak that they fell at the slightest touch,” he said. “So many died because they were weak and hungry.”
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said Moroccan forces had worked in cooperation with Spanish police to “fend off” what he described as a “violent assault” and “attack on the territorial integrity” of Spain.
Spanish officials said 49 Guardia Civil officers sustained mild injuries, while Morocco said 140 of its security forces were injured. In total, 133 people made it across the border.
“If there is anyone responsible for everything that appears to have taken place at that border, it is the mafias that traffic in human beings,” Sánchez said.
His comments were challenged from within the top ranks of the coalition government, however. “No one should die like this,” said Yolanda Díaz, one of five ministers representing the junior coalition partner Unidas Podemos, on Twitter. “It is time to clarify what happened.”
The Spanish Commission for Refugees said asylum seekers fleeing armed conflict in Sudan were among those attempting to cross, and that the “indiscriminate use of violence to manage migration and control borders” had prevented people who were eligible for international protection from reaching Spanish soil.
The deadly crossing was the first since Spain and Morocco patched up relations after a year-long dispute centered on Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1976.