Spain broke law returning migrants to Morocco amid deadly border crossing: Ombudsman

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Spanish authorities failed to uphold domestic and international law in returning to Morocco nearly 500 migrants following a mass border crossing in which at least 23 people died, the country’s civil rights ombudsman said in an interim report on Friday.

On June 24, the Spanish authorities said up to 2,000 migrants stormed the high fence that seals off Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla and engaged in a two-hour skirmish with border officers.

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While scores succeeded in reaching the Spanish territory, Moroccan authorities said at least 23 people were killed in a crush after what they described as a stampede, and others died falling as they climbed. Local NGOs said the death toll could be as high as 37.

Spain’s national ombudsman Angel Gabilondo said Spanish police failed to process 470 migrants who sought to cross into the Spanish territory.

“The institution concludes that 470 persons were turned back at the border without taking into account national and international legal provisions,” he said in his review.

The ombudsman’s office said it has requested access to additional footage of the disaster, as its investigation was still ongoing. Depending on the final outcome, the ombudsman can seek further action such as requesting a parliamentary enquiry or filing a complaint before Spain’s constitutional court.

In response to the report, Spain’s interior ministry said its border officials were guarding a European border from “violent assaults.”

“All border rejections that took place on June 24 at the border perimeter between Melilla and Nador were carried out within the strictest legality,” the ministry said.

Melilla and Ceuta, a second Spanish enclave also on Africa’s northern coast, have over the past decade become popular crossing points for African migrants trying to enter Europe.

Border security is one of several points of contention in Spanish-Moroccan relations, which saw a relative thaw in March when Spain adopted a pro-Morocco stance over Western Sahara, a territory that Rabat considers its own but where an Algeria-backed independence movement seeks to establish a sovereign state.

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