A year on, still no answers over Ceuta migrant drowning tragedy

Rights groups demand greater investigation into Spanish police's alleged role in the deaths

J. Jiménez Gálvez
Civil Guard officers return undocumented migrants to Morocco at Tarajal beach.
Civil Guard officers return undocumented migrants to Morocco at Tarajal beach.

Human rights organizations on Friday commemorated the first anniversary of the death of 15 sub-Saharan migrants as they attempted to swim from Morocco to Spanish territory.

Immigration groups are demanding a more thorough investigation into the drowning, which occurred after Spanish border police fired rubber bullets in their direction, driving them back into the sea at Tarajal beach.

The tragedy took place on February 6, 2014 when the migrants attempted to swim around a seawall at the Tarajal border crossing, located between the Spanish exclave city of Ceuta and Morocco.

Spanish authorities admitted that border police had fired rubber bullets “in the direction” of the migrants to stop them from entering Ceuta, but justified the decision based on the “belligerent attitude” of a group that reportedly comprised several hundred individuals.

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The European Commission expressed concern and demanded explanations from Spain.

“We cannot let these deaths be forgotten,” said Alberto Senante, a worker at Amnesty International (AI), on Friday.

AI and other NGOs have prepared tributes to the victims, including the laying of 15 roses and a section of barbed wire fencing at Madrid’s Templo de Debod – a reconstructed ancient Egyptian temple – as a way to protest “borders that kill.”

“We want the people in charge of the police action at the time of the tragedy to be called in to give evidence,” said Patricia Fernández, a lawyer for Coordinadora de Barrios, an association that is a plaintiff in the case.

A year on, the investigation has barely made any headway. Survivors did not show up in court to offer their version of events, and the legal inquiry remains blocked until the High Court decides whether to accept the case. A judge from Ceuta declined to hear the case on December 17, on the grounds that the deaths technically occurred on Moroccan territory.

Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz on Friday insisted on this point as well, and underlined that the rubber bullets fired by Civil Guard officers “did not cause” the death of the 15 migrants.

Spain installed anti-climb mesh on the border fence in Melilla last July.
Spain installed anti-climb mesh on the border fence in Melilla last July.F.G.Guerrero (EFE)

But humanitarian groups do not share this view. “There is little doubt that at least a substantial part of the responsibility for those deaths lies in the Civil Guard’s actions on that February 6,” said a spokesperson for the Andalusian Pro-Human Rights Association, which will hold a march in Ceuta on Saturday. “It is even less doubtful that the Spanish government is trying to conceal and manipulate what happened that day.”

Madrid initially denied that border police had used riot gear against the incoming group, but had to backtrack when surveillance footage emerged proving the contrary.

“What’s obvious is that those 15 people lost their lives during an action by the Spanish state, under the direct supervision of national security forces,” said Patricia Fernández.

As the country continues to deal with large numbers of undocumented migrants who try to jump the border fences in Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s other exclave city on the northern coast of Africa, the Tarajal tragedy has marked a turning point in the Spanish government’s immigration policy.

The Popular Party administration now supports on-the-spot deportations of migrants who manage to make it across, a move that has been criticized by the Spanish Ombudsman, human rights groups, the Council of Europe and part of the international community.

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