Berlin — Spain should immediately halt summary returns of migrants to Morocco from its North African enclave, Melilla, Human Rights Watch said today. Spain should also investigate evidence that Guardia Civil officers beat migrants at the border fence.
"Spain's right to secure its borders doesn't give it carte blanche to abuse migrants," said Benjamin Ward, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division. "The government in Madrid and local authorities in Melilla need to stop these illegal pushbacks and take action against any Guardia Civil officers who use excessive force against migrants."
During the week of August 11, 2014, large groups of migrants from unidentified sub-Saharan African countries attempted to scale the six-meter-high triple fence that separates Morocco and Melilla.
Media reports, citing Spanish local authorities in Melilla, indicate that approximately 700 people attempted to cross into the enclave on August 12, and 600 on August 13.
Video footage shot by a journalist and obtained by Human Rights Watch shows two incidents on August 13 in which uniformed officers beat migrants on the middle section of the fence, which is on Spanish territory, just inside the border.
In one incident, a uniformed officer can be seen using a baton to beat a migrant who appears to be swinging on a rope and then falls to the ground. In the other, an officer strikes migrants with a baton as they try to climb up a section of the border fence.
The helmets and dark uniforms worn by the officers beating migrants appear to be the same as those that officers of Spain's Guardia Civil paramilitary police force can be seen wearing in other parts of the video, and differ from the light green uniforms worn by Moroccan border guards.
A report in Huffington Post Spain says that at least three migrants taken to Spanish hospitals on August 13 had contusions, at least one as a result of a fall.
The videographer and another journalist who witnessed the incidents at the border fence that day told Human Rights Watch that some injured migrants remained on the ground for hours after falling from the fence, without medical attention.
The video footage shows two people being frog-marched by Guardia Civil officers on the Spanish side of the border toward a gate in the fence and through the gate back into Morocco. A journalist present when the video was shot confirmed that they saw the Guardia Civil officers hand the two people to Moroccan officials on their side of the fence.
El Diario has reported that Guardia Civil officers summarily returned 60 migrants from Melilla to Morocco on August 12 and 13. It is unclear what happened to the hundreds of others who sought to cross into Melilla. The summary returns continued on August 14, according to the two journalists who were there and media reports.
"Returning migrants to Morocco without due process could put lives at risk," said Ward. "Spain should stop these illegal pushbacks without delay."
A spokesperson for the Guardia Civil, when asked about the summary returns and alleged beatings of migrants, told Human Rights Watch that: "the Guardia Civil always, always, always behaves according to the law. We comply totally with the Spanish Foreigners Law."
Under the Spanish Foreigners, or immigration, law, the Guardia Civil must escort any migrant apprehended entering Spain without permission to a National Police station for identification and to initiate deportation procedures. Migrants are entitled to receive the assistance of an interpreter and a lawyer throughout the process so that they have the opportunity to make a claim for international protection.
Summary returns deprive migrants of the right to seek asylum or other international protection, and make it impossible for the Guardia Civil to conduct age screenings for undocumented migrant children, as Spanish law requires.
Human Rights Watch documented the abuse of migrants by Moroccan security forces and summary returns by Spain from its Melilla and Ceuta enclaves to Morocco in a February report, "Abused and Expelled."
Human Rights Watch called on the Spanish government to halt summary returns to Morocco and to refrain from forced returns until Morocco complies with international standards for humane treatment of migrants and asylum seekers.
Other nongovernmental organizations and Spain's independent human rights institute have also documented unlawful summary returns to Morocco from the Spanish enclaves.
Spain is required to ensure that migrants are treated humanely on Spanish territory. Spain's interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, contends that migrants should not be considered to have entered Spanish territory until they have crossed the "police line."
A Spanish judge in Melilla firmly rejected that position on August 5. Responding to a complaint filed in July by several Spanish nongovernmental organizations alleging inhumane treatment of migrants by Moroccan Gendarmerie, the judge affirmed that the entirety of the triple-enforced border fence rests on Spanish territory, and that Spain is responsible for abuse that occurs there.
Under international human rights and refugee law and European Union law, Spain is obliged to refrain from refoulement - the forcible return of anyone to a place where he or she faces a real risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment - and to provide people who claim that they have a well-founded fear of persecution if returned with an opportunity to seek asylum.
In December 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy had violated the nonrefoulement obligation when it summarily returned to Libya migrants intercepted on the high seas.
Under the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, state agents are required to exercise restraint when applying force, act proportionally, minimize injury, and ensure prompt medical treatment of injured persons.
"The Spanish authorities should conduct a thorough investigation into these allegations of excessive use of force by Guardia Civil officers and hold anyone found responsible to account," Ward said.