Since last summer, on the 24th of every month, Marisa Amaro and Maite Echarte have driven up to the fence around the Spanish enclave of Melilla on Morocco’s northern coast to tie bunches of flowers onto the steel mesh outside the Barrio Chino border crossing. Amaro and Echarte, who work assisting asylum seekers in Melilla, are usually alone there. The crossing itself has been closed since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, but recently people have also stopped trying to climb over. When I accompanied them earlier this year, Amaro nodded at the three parallel barriers stretching off into the distance – two six-metre-high fences with a shorter fence in between. On the Moroccan side there is also a tall earthen berm, a trench and a three-metre-high outer fence lined with coiled concertina wire. ‘Es una barbaridad,’ she muttered.
It’s still not clear how many people were killed at Barrio Chino on 24 June 2022. The Spanish and Moroccan authorities admit to 23; NGOs put the tally at 37, but the real number may be higher. As many as 77 people, most of them young men who had fled their homes in Sudan and South Sudan, are still missing. Amnesty International calls these ‘forced disappearances’, since the migrants were last seen in the custody of Spanish and Moroccan security forces. No autopsies have been performed on the bodies, and there has been no official investigation, so it’s impossible to be sure what caused the death of any particular individual: the beatings delivered by police, the multiple tear gas canisters fired into an enclosed space, the crush of bodies, the neglect and exposure of the injured for hours afterwards, or some combination of all these things.
Enough video evidence has emerged, however, and enough survivors have testified to journalists and human rights organisations, that we are in a position to reconstruct what happened. In the weeks before the massacre, the local police had grown increasingly hostile to the community of sub-Saharan migrants gathered around the city of Nador, from where they hoped to cross into Melilla, which has one of Africa’s two land borders with the European Union. (The other surrounds Ceuta, also a Spanish territory, 270 miles to the west along the Mediterranean coast.) Landlords and hotels in Nador, which is eight miles south of Melilla, refused to rent rooms to the migrants, so they camped on the slopes of Mount Gurugu, just outside town. Periodic police raids have been part of life in these camps for years, but they became markedly more aggressive last June. By the middle of the month the raids were taking place daily. Hundreds of officers attacked the camps, firing tear gas canisters, destroying shelters, seizing food and property, beating and arresting anyone they could find. On 23 June, police announced that the migrants had 24 hours to leave the mountain. Requesting asylum through legal channels wasn’t an option: Sudanese and sub-Saharan Africans stand out in Morocco, and the police don’t let them get close enough to official border crossings even to try.
The next morning, between 1500 and two thousand migrants marched from Mount Gurugu into Beni Ansar, on the other side of the Barrio Chino crossing from Melilla. The Moroccan security forces could see them coming – it would have been impossible not to – but made no attempt to stop them. Video shot that morning shows police vans driving away as the crowd approached. It was only when the migrants reached the border fence that the police moved in from behind and began launching tear gas canisters and throwing smoke bombs. More police came from the other direction, blocking all exits. The only possible means of escape was over the border fence, a section of which collapsed as dozens rushed to scale it.
Many found themselves contained in a fenced-off area about a hundred metres square, now full of smoke and tear gas. ‘People were suffocating and dying,’ one man later told the BBC. ‘They couldn’t breathe.’ The panic escalated when Moroccan forces entered the enclosure, causing a stampede towards a gate that the migrants had managed to break open. Leaked video shows dozens of migrants piled together, many of them motionless, the rest struggling. Some made it over to the Spanish side and kept going, trekking two miles to Melilla’s official shelter for migrants, just across the highway from the public golf course. Amaro watched them coming. Those who could walk, she said, were carrying those who could not. In the end, 133 people succeeded in filing asylum claims. But most didn’t get past the fence. Spanish forces shot at them with rubber bullets as they climbed down, then kept them corralled between the barrier and the highway. A local photojournalist filmed Moroccan police crossing to the Spanish side and methodically escorting migrants back to the territory under their control. Officers of the Guardia Civil would ultimately hand 470 people who had reached the Spanish side of the fence over to their Moroccan counterparts. Some of them were bleeding and obviously injured.
Such ‘devoluciones en caliente’ (‘hot returns’) are a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, a fundamental norm of international law that prohibits states from returning asylum seekers to a country in which they face persecution. Moroccan police moved the men back to the enclosure. The beatings were methodical. ‘They would hit you to see if you were dead,’ one survivor recalled. ‘If you were not dead they would hit you more.’ There were ambulances at the scene, but they appear to have been used only to carry off the dead. The injured were left lying in the sun for hours and offered no assistance. Finally, around five hundred migrants were herded onto buses and driven for hours to cities hundreds of miles to the south and west, where they were abandoned to their own devices. At least one of them, a man from Darfur named Abdel Nasir Mohamed Ahmed, died on the way.
Relations between Morocco and Spain have long been fiercely contentious. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Spain fought four wars in the Rif, as the mountainous north of the country is known. It formally occupied slivers of northern and southern Morocco as a colonial protectorate in 1912 (the French took the rest). When Morocco won its independence in 1956, Spain retained Melilla and Ceuta. It held on to Western Sahara – formerly Spanish Sahara – until 1975, when Morocco annexed the territory. A lengthy and brutal war of occupation ensued. Border walls aren’t exclusive to the global North: Morocco has constructed its own highly militarised, 1700-mile-long wall across Western Sahara. In April 2021, Brahim Ghali, leader of the Western Sahara independence movement, flew to Spain to receive medical treatment for Covid. A diplomatic crisis ensued. Morocco withdrew its ambassador and, a few weeks later, made clear its discontent, as well as the leverage it held over its former coloniser, by opening its side of the border with Ceuta. More than eight thousand migrants bypassed the fence along the beach as Moroccan guards stood by.
For migrants near Melilla, the collapse of relations between Spain and Morocco meant a welcome dip in attention from the Moroccan authorities. In the first three months of 2022, there wasn’t a single raid on the camps on Mount Gurugu. But in the third week of March everything changed again. Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, abandoned Spain’s long-standing recognition of Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. To the outrage of his leftist coalition partners, he endorsed Morocco’s plan for ‘autonomy’ in Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. A ‘new era’ in Spanish-Moroccan relations commenced. It was soon felt on Mount Gurugu: the police raids resumed in early April.
Mike Davis once described the US-Mexico border wall as a ‘political stage set’. The same could be said for the other walls that have proliferated around the world over the last thirty years. The show put on in Melilla last June was especially didactic. When the migrants marched to the border fence, police made no effort to stop them, then cut off all possibility of retreat – in the past they had always left a clear escape route. The attack, when it came, was calculated and sustained. Most of the video evidence later made public could only have been shot by Moroccan security forces. Footage was posted to social media, where it was further disseminated by human rights groups and media outlets – as the Moroccan authorities had clearly intended.
The timing was opportune. Five days after the massacre at Barrio Chino, Madrid was scheduled to host a summit of Nato member states. Morocco’s bloody show was all over the Spanish news that week. Apparently it was well received. Less than two weeks later, while lamenting the ‘recent distressing events’ in Melilla, the European Commission announced that it was launching a ‘renewed partnership’ on migration with Morocco. In August, the EU pledged to give Morocco €500 million to ‘manage’ its borders, a 45 per cent increase over the previous funding cycle.
I asked Helena Maleno, founder of the migrants’ rights group Caminando Fronteras, what message the bodies piled at Barrio Chino were meant to convey. That’s easy, she said: ‘If you want us to protect you, this is how far we have to take it.’
And Europe’s answer?
‘Yes, yes, phenomenal. Do what you want.’
Sánchez didn’t hesitate to praise the police, both Spanish and Moroccan, and characterised the events in Melilla as an ‘attack on Spanish borders’ by ‘mafias and criminals’. This is one of the narratives favoured by European governments: casualties at the borders they have militarised are said to be the work of shadowy rings of traffickers; the authorities are merely trying to protect migrants from mistreatment and danger. No matter that smuggling networks are among the principal beneficiaries of border militarisation – their business would hardly be profitable if borders were safe to cross. The fact that all 133 of the survivors who made it past the Guardia Civil and into Melilla were ultimately granted asylum suggests that the authorities didn’t, in the end, believe them to be delinquents. (The wider success rate in Spain is very low, only about 9 per cent in 2021.)
Disregarding a growing body of evidence to the contrary, Sánchez’s interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, has continued to insist that the violence last June occurred ‘principally’ in Morocco, or perhaps in some ‘no man’s land’ between the two countries, and only ‘in a very tangential manner’ in Spain. Much of the Spanish media has followed his lead, focusing less on the violence itself than on the question of where precisely the deaths occurred. One Guardia Civil officer conceded that ‘there may be some whose body is half on one side and half on the other. A person occupies more than a line.’ Absurd as this is – Spain’s own cadastral surveys put the entire border post in Spanish territory – the distinction reflects the ongoing effort by wealthy states to outsource control of their borders and distance themselves from the violence that inevitably ensues.
Melilla, which has been a Spanish possession since 1497, pioneered this trend. If you don’t count the thick stone walls surrounding the old city, there was no barrier there at all until the 1970s and no serious attempt at migration controls until Spain joined the Schengen Zone in 1991, at which point the seven-mile line around the territory and the five miles around Ceuta became the EU’s only land borders on the African continent. The Canadian activist Harsha Walia has argued that it was in these two Spanish colonies that the idea of ‘Fortress Europe’ was born, taking form not only in the increasingly impassable fences but in a thicket of treaties, funding mechanisms and informal agreements by which Morocco, and later other African states, would be induced to make Europe’s priorities their own. Most European trade accords and development or aid endowments now require African countries, even those a long way from the Mediterranean, to accommodate deportees from Europe, toughen their borders and monitor the movements of their own populations. The US, similarly, has outsourced much of its border enforcement to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The externalisation of violence is hardly a new tactic in Europe. The political theorist Wendy Brown has written about the role colonial borders played in allowing Europe to understand itself as a civilised polity. Beyond the line ‘is where civilisation ends, but it is also where the brutishness of the civilised is therefore permitted, where violence may be freely and legitimately exercised’. That violence, as the story of Melilla shows, has a way of leaking back into Europe.
If you follow the border northwards for a little less than two miles from the Barrio Chino crossing, you’ll spot an old fort, its high walls and crenellated towers rising up behind modern fencing and pole-mounted floodlights and cameras. These days, La Purísima Concepción functions as a holding centre for child and teenage migrants, but it was originally constructed by the Spanish in a frenzy of fort-building in the early 1890s – an early attempt to secure the border that had been established by treaty with Morocco three decades earlier. Other forts were built without incident, but La Purísima was adjacent to the tomb of Sidi Ouariach, a 15th-century Muslim holy man who is said to have died fighting the Spanish. In 1893, a force of six thousand local fighters descended on Melilla to prevent the shrine’s desecration, beginning the First War of the Rif, from which a previously unknown young Spanish lieutenant called Miguel Primo de Rivera emerged a hero. Thirty years later, in the aftermath of Spain’s disastrous defeat at Annual, west of Melilla, Primo de Rivera took power in a coup and ruled Spain as dictator for most of the 1920s. The Spanish colonial army that coalesced over the course of that decade, the so-called Army of Africa, fought a war of extermination in northern Morocco that made extensive use of chemical weapons on civilian populations. It also produced the shock troops who formed the core of Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War. The coup that launched that conflict, and the 36-year dictatorship that followed, began with a military uprising in Melilla. Fascism in Europe cannot be separated from the violence at its colonial frontiers.
But who still thinks of such unpleasantness now that Melilla is quiet? When I met Marisa Amaro at the migrants’ centre, she couldn’t get the gate open at first. It was stuck because she hadn’t been there in weeks – there had been no need. In September, the last of those who had made it to Melilla on 24 June won asylum and left for the mainland. ‘Not one sub-Saharan has crossed since,’ Amaro told me. A year earlier, the centre would have been lively. There were computers inside for people to check their email, plus Spanish classes and legal workshops, football games, music and meals. It was a place for asylum seekers to relax and feel human again. But now, Amaro said, ‘there’s no one.’ Just before Christmas, the Spanish public prosecutor’s office shelved its investigation into the events of 24 June, having found ‘no evidence’ that crimes had been committed. Spanish authorities have reinforced the fence with a sort of inverted metal comb, making it exceedingly difficult to scale. On their side, the Moroccan authorities have dug another trench, and Moroccan police have been arresting sub-Saharan Africans in the streets and patrolling the train and bus stations for anyone with sufficiently dark skin. Nobody can get near the crossing.
For now at least, Morocco and Spain appear to have closed the route north through Melilla. But when one path is blocked, people find another – usually less direct and more dangerous. In recent years, as the fences around Melilla and Ceuta have been reinforced and the Mediterranean militarised, an increasing number of migrants have sought to reach the Canary Islands, also a Spanish possession, in small boats from the African mainland, despite the dangers of the ocean crossing. It’s a far more perilous journey even than the deadly routes across the Mediterranean. In the five years between 2018 and 2022, according to a recent report by Caminando Fronteras, 11,286 people died trying to enter Spanish territory, almost all of them at sea. But this doesn’t include the many who die before they make it to the coast; the UN migration agency believes that two people die in the Sahara for every one who drowns at sea. The reason last June’s events at Barrio Chino caused a scandal wasn’t that so many died there, it was that Spain can’t credibly distance itself from the deaths. That isn’t a problem when the bodies disappear beneath the waves. As Aimé Césaire once wrote, ‘Europe is indefensible.’
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