The border guard stood beside a small cinder block building, squinting in the sunlight. From where I sat in the back seat of my parents’ old Renault, it looked tall and a little scary. But with just a quick peek inside, it beckoned us on our day trip to Melilla, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco.
It was in 1977, at a time when border traffic was essentially local. But as the European Union grew, the fortification also increased. Today, Melilla is surrounded by a wide moat, chain-link fences twenty feet high, and guard towers equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance technology. It is practically impossible for an undocumented migrant to cross the border, at least alone.
In the early morning hours of June 24, about 2,000 people stormed the fence. Moroccan security agents greeted them with tear gas and truncheons. By the time the melee died down, 23 migrants had been killed, although local non-governmental organizations say the toll could be as high as 37. Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s socialist prime minister, blamed mafias for human trafficking for what he described as “an attack on the territorial integrity of Spain. He thanked the Moroccan authorities for their work, adding that “Morocco is also fighting and suffering from this violence”.
Presenting Spain and Morocco as joint victims of violent invaders is convenient, but heartbreaking videos that emerged later tell a different story. Dozens of bodies lay in a heap, a few still moving and requiring medical attention, while Moroccan police in full riot gear kept watch nearby. Refugees and immigrants are believed to be from Sudan, Chad and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
It filled me with anger and shame that those who brutalized them were fellow Africans, working closely with European Union border guards. Throughout the North, rich countries outsource their border control to poorer countries in exchange for economic, military or diplomatic support. By burdening poor countries with moral and legal responsibility, this collaboration strands refugees thousands of miles from the refuges they seek.
Exactly what happened on the morning of June 24 remains unclear. We don’t know how the people on the border perished – whether from falls, tear gas, asphyxiation, medical negligence or a combination. We do not know their names. We don’t even know exactly how many people died. And without a full and independent investigation, we may never know. Two days after the massacre, the Moroccan Association for Human Rights tweeted photos of freshly dug graves in a nearby cemetery, suggesting that at least some of the dead may be buried there.
But burying the bodies won’t make the incident go away. Morocco is already facing anger at home and diplomatic fallout abroad, with African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat saying he was ‘shocked and concerned by the violent and degrading treatment’ migrants have suffered. Although Morocco quickly convened a meeting in Rabat with ambassadors from African nations, some of whom expressed support, the damage is done.
Spain, on the other hand, can keep their hands clean. The anger his audience feels at the deaths of dozens of migrants on his doorstep may be directed at the Moroccan government, or at the human traffickers, or at the migrants themselves. The Spanish government can continue to take in refugees from Ukraine – up to 124,000, according to a recent estimate – while denying refugees from countries like Sudan the chance to enter Melilla to seek asylum.
This agreement between Spain and Morocco is relatively recent. Just last year, the Spanish government accused Morocco of “lack of respect” and “defiance” after allowing thousands of people, including many children, to cross the border unimpeded. But the announcement in March that Spain would back Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara turned the two bickering neighbors into close allies. A security agreement was quickly approved.
Spain and Morocco are not the only countries to engage in such transactions. To prevent migrants from reaching it, the European Union has embarked on a decade-long effort to outsource its border control to distant countries.
It has signed agreements with Libya and Tunisia to intercept migrants bound for Europe in the Mediterranean Sea and take them to detention centers in their own countries. It organized the deployment of its border agents to Senegal to prevent migrants from reaching the Canary Islands. And he erected a network of walls and fences between Greece and Turkey to stop migrants from the south, and between Poland and Belarus to stop those coming from the east. The union has also spent millions on virtual walls – the technology that monitors borders, detects human movement and identifies migrants.
This process turns a very visible problem into an invisible problem. People in European metropolises are safe from the violence and suffering that takes place at their borders, because those borders are actually being watched by other governments thousands of miles away. This policy makes a mockery of the human rights that Europe claims to cherish and defend, including the right to asylum.
Here is a story. Tell me if you’ve heard it before. People lose their homes and livelihoods to war, natural disaster, or financial ruin, so they have to move elsewhere. If the lottery of life gives them the right papers, they can resettle and build a new life. But if they happen to be from an undesirable nation, they will be repelled by any means necessary.
Whether this story takes place at the gates of Europe, Great Britain or America, it has the same moral. No one chooses to be a refugee. We only choose how we respond to refugees. Send migrants back to Morocco, as Europe does; flying them to Rwanda, as Britain plans to do; or telling them to “stay in Mexico,” as America did – these are all cruel and short-sighted responses. Until their homes are safe, refugees will continue to arrive.