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, he seemed tall and a little scary. But with only a quick look inside, he waved us through on our day trip to Melilla, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco.
That was in 1977, at a time when traffic through the border was mostly local. But as the European Union grew, so did the fortification. These days, Melilla is surrounded by a wide ditch, twenty-foot-tall chain-link fences and guard towers equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance technology. It is virtually impossible for an undocumented migrant to cross the border — alone, at least.
In the early morning hours of June 24, around 2,000 people stormed the fence. Moroccan security officers met them with tear gas and batons. By the time the melee cleared, 23 migrants had been killed, though local nongovernmental organizations say the toll could be as high as 37. Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s socialist prime minister, blamed human-trafficking mafias for what he said was “an attack on the territorial integrity of Spain.” He thanked the Moroccan authorities for their work, adding that “Morocco also fights and suffers from this violence.”
Casting Spain and Morocco as joint victims of violent invaders is convenient, but the gut-wrenching videos that emerged later tell a different story. Dozens of bodies lay in a heap, a few still moving and in need of medical attention, while Moroccan police in full riot gear stood watching nearby. The refugees and immigrants reportedly were from Sudan, Chad and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
It filled me with anger and shame that those who had brutalized them were fellow Africans, working in close cooperation with border guards from the European Union. Across the Global North, wealthy countries are outsourcing their border enforcement to poorer countries in exchange for economic, military or diplomatic support. Saddling poor countries with moral and legal responsibility, this collaboration strands refugees thousands of miles away from the safe havens they seek.
Precisely what happened on the morning of June 24 remains unclear. We don’t know how the people at the border perished — whether from falls, tear gas, asphyxiation, medical neglect or some combination. We don’t know their names. We don’t even know exactly how many died. And without a full and independent investigation, we may never find out. Two days after the massacre, the Moroccan Association for Human Rights tweeted pictures of freshly dug graves at a nearby cemetery, suggesting that at least some of the dead might be buried there.
But burying the bodies will not make the incident disappear. Already Morocco is facing anger at home and diplomatic fallout abroad, with the chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, declaring that he was “shocked and concerned at the violent and degrading treatment” the migrants received. Though Morocco quickly convened a meeting in Rabat with ambassadors from African nations, some of whom expressed their support, the damage has been done.
Spain, on the other hand, can keep its hands clean. The anger that its public feels about the deaths of dozens of migrants at its doorstep can be directed at the Moroccan government, or at human traffickers, or at the migrants themselves. The Spanish government can continue to take in refugees from Ukraine — as many as 124,000, according to a recent estimate — while denying refugees from countries like Sudan the opportunity to enter Melilla in order to claim asylum.
This understanding between Spain and Morocco is relatively new. Only last year, the Spanish government accused Morocco of “disrespect” and “defiance” after it allowed thousands of people, many of them children, to cross the border unimpeded. But the announcement in March that Spain would support Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara has turned the two squabbling neighbors into close allies. A security agreement was soon approved.
Spain and Morocco aren’t the only countries engaging in such deals. To prevent migrants from reaching it, the European Union has embarked on a decade-long effort to outsource its border enforcement to countries far away.
It has signed agreements with Libya and Tunisia to intercept Europe-bound migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and take them to detention centers in their own countries. It has arranged for its border agents to deploy in Senegal to prevent migrants from reaching the Canary Islands. And it has 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 makes it possible to police borders, detect human movement and identify migrants.
This process turns a highly visible issue into an invisible one. People in Europe’s metropolises are shielded from the violence and suffering that take place at their borders, because these borders are in fact policed by other governments thousands of miles away. The policy makes a mockery of the human rights that Europe claims to cherish and uphold, 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 must move somewhere else. If the lottery of life gives them the right papers, they can resettle and build new lives for themselves. 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 doors of Europe, Britain or America, it has the same moral. No one chooses to be a refugee. We choose only how we respond to refugees. Sending migrants back to Morocco, as Europe is doing; flying them to Rwanda, as Britain is planning to do; or telling them to “Remain in Mexico,” as America has been doing — these are all cruel, shortsighted responses. For until their homes are safe, refugees will continue to come.