Is the death of a person more serious if it occurs in Spain than in Morocco? What if it happens half a meter before crossing that border? These are some of the questions raised by the investigation Reconstructing the Melilla massacrecoordinated by the editorial staff of investigative journalism Lighthouse Reports and released on November 29th.
In collaboration with some European newspapers and with the Moroccan news site Enass, Lighthouse Reports has meticulously reconstructed the events that took place on June 24, 2022 in the Spanish enclave in Moroccan territory.
That day in June, in an attempt to enter Melilla to ask for international protection, hundreds of people were trapped between a deployment of Moroccan agents and the fences beyond which the Spanish agents were deployed. Under a shower of tear gas, batons and rubber bullets, at least 37 people died in the crowd. Of another seventy-seven there is no news. Those who managed to cross the border were rejected. No medical assistance was provided to the wounded, despite the presence of ambulances from both sides of the border.
It was not the first time that such a massacre had occurred in the region (not a “tragedy”, not an “accident”, terms favored by the Spanish authorities and most of the local media). On February 6, 2014, around two hundred people had set off from the Moroccan coast to try to swim to the other Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, Ceuta. The Civil Guard responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets, killing at least 14 people. Of thirteen we know the name (Yves, Samba, Daouda, Armand, Luc, Roger Chimie, Larios, Youssouf, Ousmane, Keita, Jeannot, Oumarou, Blaise), one victim remained anonymous. But the missing are many more. It is the “Masacre del Tarajal”, from the name of a beach in Ceuta, commemorated every year by a march for dignity.
That day in 2014, the Spaniards learned a lesson: and so last June in Melilla they didn’t get their hands dirty, letting Moroccan agents enter Spanish territory to pick up those who had managed to cross the border. “People picked up and thrown away like carcasses, people with their hands tied behind their backs left in the sun to die of their injuries,” says Daniel Howden, founder of Lighthouse Reports. “The living and the dead stacked on top of each other”.
From the first day the Spanish interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska declared that there had been “no deaths on Spanish soil”. He was lying, as claimed by survivors and as demonstrated by investigations and reports, the latest of which was published by Amnesty International on 13 December. Howden defines Reconstructing the Melilla massacre an example of accountability journalism: to make someone in Spain accountable for what happened “we tried to draw a clear line along the border to establish whether people had been crushed and beaten to death from the Moroccan side or the Spanish side”.
Among the victims was Anwar, 27, who had left Sudan in the hope of “improving the living conditions” of his family, as his niece told Amnesty International, and to help his sick mother. Anwar died in Spanish territory.
But regardless of the political impact that this and other investigations will have in Spain, and regardless of the very serious responsibilities of the Moroccan forces, Howden is keen to underline one thing: “Anwar died because of a system created for the benefit of Spain. The deployment and actions of Moroccan forces that day are the product of negotiations with the Spanish authorities. Moroccans have no interest in preventing African asylum seekers from entering Melilla. And Spain receives funds from the European Union to finance its border operations. Melilla is a European border, people seek protection in the EU, so this is a European affair, whether or not people died a meter beyond what is in fact an arbitrary line” (as well as a legacy of the past colonial rule of Spain, which refuses to return the two enclaves to Morocco).
The missing word
There is another lie from Grande-Marlaska which we need to dwell on, because it reflects a worrying linguistic and political shift at the European level. Grande-Marlaska has declared on several occasions that in Melilla the civil guard had to defend itself from a “violent attack”, a version denied by a report already published in July by the Association marocaine des droits humains. After the crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus in 2021, the discourses of governments and European institutions on migrants have further hardened through the deliberate choice to present them as “assaulters”, manipulated or not by third states. After traffickers and NGOs, European governments now include refugees among the enemies to fight, and they don’t do it just in words. In the proposal for a regulation on the phantom “instrumentalisation of migration”, drawn up after the crisis with Belarus, migration was associated – for the first time in a legislative text – with the term “attack”.
If approved, the regulation would make it possible to derogate from the right of asylum in certain circumstances and this, to quote the title of a statement signed by over eighty organisations, would be “the coup de grace for the common European asylum system”. On December 8, the European interior ministers meeting in Brussels failed to reach agreement on the proposal, which the Czech presidency hoped to get approved by the end of the year. In a comment, the European council on refugees and exiles (Ecre) hopes that the proposal will be withdrawn, but it will depend on the priorities of Sweden, the next state to exercise the presidency of the council.
As “attack” makes its way into the institutional lexicon, there is a word that will never be found in official speeches and texts on European migration and asylum policies. But it is the word that links Anwar’s killing to the regulation on exploitation, Grande-Marlaska’s lies to secret detention centers in Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary at the center of the latest investigation coordinated by Lighthouse Reports (in Italy it was published in Domani ). It’s the word racism.
As the Picum network (Platform for cooperation on undocumented people) observes, the commitment expressed by the European Union through its Action Plan against racism, launched in 2020, stops where its migration and asylum policies begin. The controls exercised on the movement of people, explains the researcher Luke de Noronha, quoted in Picum’s analysis, in fact “produce and reconfigure racial distinctions and hierarchies (even if not formulated in racial terms)”. In a recent commentary published on OpenDemocracy, researcher Iriann Freemantle speaks of “contemporary racial terrorism, aimed at dissuading migrants not only from physically moving, but also from desiring a better life”.
The historical context
If its roots lie in the European colonial past, the racism that today is expressed in the violence with which the EU treats people originating from some countries must be seen in its historical context. According to researcher Fabian Georgi, “the current upsurge of racism in Europe can be interpreted as a counter-reaction to a series of political defeats” suffered by the conservative right. The first is the diversification of European societies “on an ethnic and cultural level” since the 1990s, a diversification which has gone hand in hand with the emergence of anti-racist struggles and the almost unanimous ban on “old-fashioned and direct” racism by the eighties. The second defeat was the choice – experienced as a betrayal by the right – by some neoliberal actors to promote “a new and meritocratic rhetoric on diversity and multiculturalism, emphasizing the economic benefits and other positive effects linked to migration”.
The “long summer of migration”, as some scholars call the “refugee crisis” of 2015, accelerated this counter-reaction and today, in a context of social and economic crisis, an increasingly large part of the European population recognizes itself in populist agendas of the right and the extreme right, where racism, authoritarianism and ultra-conservative nationalism intersect.
The right of asylum in pieces
Yet, unlike in the United States, “talking about race and equality is often considered inappropriate in Europe,” notes Howden. Many Europeans don’t like to admit it, but if in Melilla people are beaten and killed “and their stories receive so little attention it is because of where they come from and the color of their skin”. If the right to asylum is falling apart and respect for fundamental rights has become optional in the eyes of most European governments, it is because many of those leaders consider themselves superior to Anwar. And now that the refugees have darker skin, they consider the legal framework created to protect white refugees after World War II obsolete.
On 14 December, in an interview with the Belgian weekly Knack, the environment minister of Flanders, Zuhal Demir, put asylum seekers and pigs on the same level, declaring that in Flanders there is no place for either the former or the seconds. For months, her party, the nationalist N-Va formation, has been contending for first place in the polls with the extreme Vlaams Belang party. Together they collect almost 48 percent of the preferences in Flanders.
It is one example among many of the legitimacy of racist speech, practices and policies across the European Union. But the movements of denunciation are multiplying and increasingly forming alliances on a transnational scale, as demonstrated by the campaign “Unfair. The Un refusal agency”, which on 9 and 10 December brought to Geneva the claims of those trapped in Libya and in the other countries to which the EU outsources its refoulement policies. David Yambio, spokesman for Refugees in Libya, addressed those present at the press conference with these words: “We are full of stories to tell, full of nightmares to shake off our bodies. But are you ready to welcome them? Are you ready to fight for a better world?”.