Moroccan officials said on Saturday that at least 23 migrants had died and scores more had been injured after what the authorities described as a stampede during an attempted mass crossing into the Spanish enclave of Melilla, in North Africa. But human rights organizations accused the security forces of using indiscriminate force at the crossing, and have called for an investigation into the deaths.
A spokesman for the Spanish government’s office in Melilla said that about 2,000 migrants approached the enclave at dawn Friday. He said that 500 had managed to enter a border control area after cutting through a fence, leading to violent clashes that also left security officers on both sides of the border injured.
According to the Moroccan authorities, many migrants fell to their deaths after trying to scale the border fence, while 76 others, as well as 140 Moroccan security officers, had been injured. At least 130 people were able to successfully cross into Melilla, where they are now being processed in a temporary immigration shelter, according to Spanish officials in the enclave.
In a video of the episode that was shared by the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, and confirmed by geolocation, dozens of bodies and injured men can be seen piled on top of one another along the border fence, surrounded by Moroccan security officers in riot gear. In other footage, a Moroccan security officer can be seen beating visibly injured migrants with a baton as they lie writhing on the floor, before a colleague proceeds to throw the limp body of another man onto the pile.
Melilla and Ceuta, another Spanish enclave, have the European Union’s only land borders with Africa, making them a frequent target for mass crossings. The episode on Friday was the first since the border was reopened in May, two months after the mending of diplomatic ties between Spain and Morocco. That détente had followed a decision by Madrid to back the North African country’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara — a former Spanish colony on the northwestern coast of Africa.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain condemned the attempted mass crossing, describing it as an attack on his country’s “territorial integrity” and adding that the Spanish security forces had worked with their Moroccan counterparts to fight off “a well-organized, violent assault.”
At least six human rights organizations in both Morocco and Spain have called for an inquiry. Amnesty International expressed its “deep concern” over the events, and the Spanish Commission for Refugees criticized on Saturday what it called “the indiscriminate use of violence to manage migration and control borders.”
Rights groups on the ground also indicated that the death toll was likely to grow. The Moroccan Association of Human Rights reported that 27 migrants had died, according to the group’s most recent count, but that figure could not be immediately verified.
“This is a catastrophe,” said Omar Naji, vice president of the rights association, one of the largest such nongovernmental organizations in Morocco. “In the hours that followed the clashes, no medical help was provided. They were left on the ground for hours,” he said, referring to the migrants, and added his voice to those calling for an inquiry.
A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency told The New York Times that its officials did not currently have access to the injured, who were being treated in Moroccan hospitals. He added that the agency was deeply concerned by the number of victims.
The agency “calls on the international community, in line with the principle of responsibility sharing, to strengthen access to legal pathways to reduce the risk of such tragic events happening in the future,” the spokesman said.
In March, in the days before Morocco and Spain ended their diplomatic dispute, there were a number of attempted mass crossings into Melilla, including one which involved 2,500 people — the largest such attempt ever recorded.
José Bautista contributed reporting from Madrid.