Visual evidence, testimony, ground reporting reveal Spain and Morocco lies
The biggest loss of life at a European land border in living memory occurred this year and it was barely reported at the time. On June 24, 2022 at least 23 people died and 77 remain missing after a group of African asylum seekers attempted to enter a border post in Melilla, a Spanish exclave on the coast of North Africa.
Despite the appalling death toll, serious questions remain unanswered by Spain and Morocco over what happened. Spain continues to deny that any deaths took place on its territory and has given only a partial account of its role despite having at least two sources of aerial footage documenting the events that unfolded on the day.
The lack of sustained and independent reporting on the day of chaos and death has so far prevented any serious shortcomings in the countries’ accounts from coming to light. Lighthouse Reports and partners undertook the most advanced visual investigation to date to establish fully what happened at the border post and how an attempt to seek protection in Europe led so many people to a violent death.
The shock, confusion and sheer number of people involved in the Melilla deaths left behind a fragmented trail of digital clues. Graphic but often meaningless in isolation, once located in time and space these clues can begin to be pieced together forensically to make sense of an event and compare conflicting accounts of what has happened. Our team sourced and analysed 145 video clips, mainly shaky phone camera footage, scouring all available online platforms related to the events of June 24. By spending time on the ground and tracing as many survivors and first responders as we could we were able to obtain previously unseen visual evidence, including videos from confidential sources in the Melilla media, as well as government and police. We then geolocated, synchronised and sorted this material, placing it on a timeline.
Our reporters gained access to the Barrio Chino border post at the centre of the deaths and took footage of its interior and layout. Using this material as a reference alongside LiDAR (light detection and ranging) data, we built a detailed 3D model of the border crossing and the entire surrounding area. Once constructed, we used this model to understand the layout of the crossing.
With reporters on the ground on both sides, in Morocco and Melilla, we traced 40 of the witnesses and survivors from the day to gather testimony. We also conducted confidential interviews with senior officers in the Guardia Civil, Spain’s national police force. They hand drew sketches of the border for us, and described how the events of June 24 unfolded. In Melilla, a high-ranking officer told us that deaths “probably” took place in Spain. This is the first time a police official in Spain has made an admission of this kind.
The 3D model was used to help survivors walk us through the events, allowing them to place the incidents on each side of the border. We also spoke to several people who can be seen in the footage of the day.
Our reporters were able to see hours of unpublished footage of what happened, which revealed how a deadly crush took place partly inside Spanish territory.
In the days preceding the deadly event, witnesses told us that Moroccan authorities raided the mountains where people hoping to cross the border were staying in Nador, a city in the northeast of the country, and prevented shopkeepers from selling them food. They told us the authorities initiated violence for four days before threatening people with a 24-hour ultimatum to leave the mountains on June 23.
A group of hundreds of people headed to the border post in the early hours of the following day. Through analysing video footage, we were able to establish that Moroccan security officers waited for people at the border post, and only advanced towards them once they had entered a courtyard-like space, effectively trapping them before firing tear gas at the group.
Our analysis of the use of tear gas shows how Moroccan police fired at least 20 canisters in under 10 minutes into the enclosed space in which people were attempting to open the door to the border post. Survivors also report being shot by rubber bullets by Moroccan authorities while trying to enter.
Ibrahim, 27, was among the hundreds of asylum seekers who tried to reach Spain on the day. He was caught in the deadly crush, and witnessed his friend, Abdul Aziz Yacoub, (Anwar) die. He told us that he witnessed Moroccan authorities beat Anwar before he died, in Spanish-controlled territory.
A video of Anwar’s body inside the Spanish border post was circulated widely. In it, authorities are heard confirming the man’s death. Six months later, Anwar’s family is still waiting to retrieve his body.
Spanish and Moroccan authorities collaborated in approximately 470 pushbacks. In Spain, Guardia Civil officers shot rubber bullets at asylum seekers. In total, 65 rubber bullets were shot by Spanish authorities and at least 85 gas canisters were used, according to Guardia Civil sources.
Sam,16, described how once he reached Spain, authorities fired tear gas towards the group of people he was with. He said his hands were tied and he struggled to retain consciousness before he was “dragged on the ground from Spanish territory to the Moroccan side”. Some survivors said they were pushed back from Spain while unconscious.
After hundreds were returned from Spain, our analysis shows that people were left for at least three hours under the sun in Moroccan territory. Several interviewees describe seeing dead bodies on the Moroccan side of the border post.
Despite the many injuries sustained on the day – some of them fatal – medical assistance was not mobilised in time to help people in Morocco or Spain. In Melilla, an ambulance was parked 100 metres from the border, but officials said they couldn’t get closer for safety reasons. In Morocco, ambulances were present throughout the day, but they were reportedly used predominantly to remove dead bodies.
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Our investigations don’t end when we publish a story with media partners. Reaching big public audiences is an important step but these investigations have an after life which we both track and take part in. Our work can lead to swift results from court cases to resignations, it can also have a slow-burn impact from public campaigns to political debates or community actions. Where appropriate we want to be part of the conversations that investigative journalism contributes to and to make a difference on the topics we cover. Check back here in the coming months for an update on how this work is having an impact.