Massacre of African refugees in Spanish colonial enclave of Melilla just ahead of NATO’s Madrid Summit a mere coincidence?

Spain is seeking NATO protection for Melilla, where the massacre occurred, and Ceuta, its other colonial enclave on the North African coast. The NATO Summit has declared irregular migration from Africa to be a threat to the “state security” of its members

July 01, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni

A key agenda of the Spanish government in the NATO summit which concluded in Madrid on Thursday, June 30, was to turn its colonial enclaves on the North African coast, Ceuta and Melilla, into NATO protectorates. Melilla is where dozens of African refugees were massacred last week. Several reports indicate that NATO has agreed to extend protection to these North African cities of Spain. 

Spain’s sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla is not recognized by most African countries, including Morocco, where the cities are known as occupied Sebtah and Melilah. Nevertheless, Morocco, apparently keen on proving its worth for the millions it has been bagging to guard the European border, has become more of an ally to Spain than adversary. This is after Morocco reconciled relations with Spain after the latter’s acceptance of its occupation of Western Sahara.

Moroccan security forces reportedly crossed the European border into Melilla on June 24 to assist the Spanish police in stopping the refugees from reaching the migrant center where they can apply for asylum. Clips and pictures that emerged in the aftermath of the joint Spanish-Moroccan operation showed dozens of brutalized bodies – dead, unconscious or twitching and turning in pain, lying over each other in contorted positions.       

At least 37 deaths were confirmed by the NGO Walking Borders, while Moroccan authorities claimed that 23 had died in a “stampede”. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “This is the highest recorded number of deaths in a single incident over many years of migrants attempting to cross from Morocco to Europe via the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta.”

“The pallets and floors are stained with the blood of the migrants. The morgue is full,” the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (ADMH) reported. The brutalized refugees “were left unaided in place for hours, which increased the death toll.”

“Video and photographs show bodies strewn on the ground in pools of blood, Moroccan security forces kicking and beating people, and Spanish Guardia Civil launching teargas at men clinging to fences,” said Judith Sunderland, the acting deputy for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Europe and Central Asia.

The AMDH raised the alarm that 21 graves had been dug to bury the killed refugees without autopsy or identification. The African Union (AU) and several other human rights organizations in Spain and Morocco have called for an investigation. Protests erupted in several cities of Spain almost immediately after the footage of the massacre emerged. 

However, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez shrugged off responsibility saying, “If there is anyone responsible for everything that appears to have taken place at that border, it is the mafias that traffic in human beings.”

“But who let people die on the ground without proper medical attention?” asked Esteban Beltrán, Director of Amnesty International Spain. “Who handed over potential refugees from Melilla to the Moroccan police knowing they would be ill-treated? Who is keeping the asylum and refugee offices in Melilla closed, knowing that there is no way to seek protection in Spain if you come from Sudan or Mali except by risking death, jumping the fence?”

“Can only be described as racist”

Most of these victims were fleeing from the wars in Sudan, South Sudan, Chad and Niger. “In an unprecedented act of solidarity, Spain has welcomed more than 124,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion and yet we allow potential refugees fleeing other wars to die.. those fleeing the war in Sudan are prevented from seeking asylum in our country in violation of international law. This position can only be described as racist,” Beltrán said. 

Of the roughly 2,000 refugees who made the attempt, a thousand, including those handed back by the Spanish police, are detained in Morocco, Publico reported. Only 500 had actually made it to the border crossing, of whom 133 made it to the Spanish side. 57 of them were injured in the jump over the Melilla fence.

Sanchez described this desperate attempt to cross the Melilla fence as a “violent assault” by the refugees four times in his address to the press after the meeting of the European Council later that day. He went on to commend the Spanish and Moroccan police involved in the massacre for “defending the national sovereignty” and “territorial integrity.”

“I would also like to thank, on behalf of the Government of Spain, the extraordinary cooperation that we are having with the Kingdom of Morocco,” he added. The success of the joint operation in stopping most of the refugees from claiming asylum “demonstrates the need to have.. a close collaboration.. in.. combating irregular immigration.”

“Morocco has in the past played exactly the opposite role, letting through everyone that approached the fence or the border to pressure Spain and Europe for its various objectives,” Ivan Orosa, a researcher and international political analyst, told Peoples Dispatch

“But now, precisely on the eve of the NATO summit, they crushed and killed the refugees,” he noted, arguing that it is evident that “Morocco was trying to show to NATO that it is a reliable partner to curb irregular migration into Europe.”

“Morocco had all the incentives to play as brutally as it did. It has something to gain from that image. Apart from bringing it millions more in Euros, it helps bolster its privileged position as the new ally of the EU that has been sanctified by the US after its normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel,” Orosa explained. He added that it was at the insistence of the US that Spain changed its previous position on Western Sahara and came to accept its former colony’s occupation by Morocco. 

Orosa found it “cynical and inhuman” that a government which has itself thus surrendered its sovereignty should portray the refugees on the run as a threat to its national sovereignty and territorial integrity. But it is consistent with the efforts to bring Ceuta and Melilla under NATO, he noted.   

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (aka Washington Treaty), which is the mainstay of NATO, requires all member states to militarily intervene should a territory of any come under attack. However, Ceuta and Melilla fall beyond the geographical scope set out in Article 6, and hence Article 5 is not applicable to these two Spanish enclaves.  

“It is only right that the Madrid Summit should correct this anomaly and place Spain on an equal footing with the other Member States,” Spanish ambassador Jose Antonio Barberán insisted in an article last month. Providing “security cover for the cities of Ceuta and Melilla,” he argued, is a “debt” that NATO “owes Spain.”

This demand is not an exclusively Spanish interest. Ceuta and Melilla, due to their location on the North African coast, are the only land borders between Africa and Europe. NATO protection here is very much in line with the European agenda – pushed especially by the countries on its southern periphery – to have the Alliance declare in the Madrid Strategic Concept document that irregular migration from Africa is a threat to European territorial integrity.

The main agenda in the NATO summit was to draw up this document, which will guide its strategy for the decade. The previous Strategic Concept adopted in Lisbon in 2010 was the seventh since its inception in 1949.  

Speaking of Spain’s expectations from the eighth Strategic Concept document ahead of the Madrid summit, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said, “We want an acknowledgement (from NATO) that there are also serious threats coming from the southern flank,” i.e Africa. Arguing that “irregular migration,” among other cross-border activities, “impinge on our sovereignty,” he insisted that “the threats (to Europe) are as much from the southern flank as from the eastern flank,” i.e Russia and China. 

“Nothing new needs to be done, it must just be borne in mind that a number of threats may emanate from the southern flank that at some point may require a NATO defensive reaction in exactly the same way as we are seeing on the eastern flank,” he said. 

“Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind that such hybrid threats (as irregular migration) cannot be used to challenge our territorial integrity and sovereignty,” the Foreign Minister declared, threatening refugees with the most powerful military alliance in the world.

‘Spain has relinquished its own sovereignty’

Obsessing over preventing African refugees from entering the country, “Spain has relinquished its sovereign border management and essentially declared that its southern borders are not Spanish borders, but European borders,” Orosa observed. “Now they want NATO to intervene in case these borders are attacked – or ‘assaulted’ as Sanchez said.” The word “assault” has been used before in the European parliament in reference to attempts by refugees to cross the Melilla fence.

Before the summit, NATO’s largest member, the US, indicated its willingness to indulge the European obsession with the migration from Africa, provided the continent toes the American line on the eastern front against Russia and China. US national security spokesperson John Kirby said that while “the focus right now is on the eastern flank.. there remains a continued effort to make sure we are also paying attention to the southern flank.”

Asked at the pre-summit press-conference specifically if Ceuta and Melilla will be provided NATO protection, its Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg explained that Article 6 “defines the geographical scope of our collective defense guarantee.. as the territory of any of the parties in Europe, or North America, or islands under the jurisdiction of any of the parties in the North Atlantic area, north of the Tropic of Cancer.”

“That said,” he added a caveat, “I think we have to understand that the issue of invoking Article 5 and our collective defense clause is a political decision. So it has to be taken by consensus, by all Allies in the North Atlantic Council, based ultimately on what would matter in that particular case.”  

Following the summit, he reiterated the same position in the press conference. “On which territories NATO protects and Ceuta and Melilla, NATO is there to protect all Allies against any threats. At the end of the day, it will always be a political decision to invoke Article 5, but rest assured, NATO is there to protect and defend all Allies,” he said. This indicates that Article 6 will not be amended to include the two enclaves in Africa. 

Irregular migration from Africa undermines state security, says Strategic Concept document 

While the Madrid Strategic Concept document does not make any explicit mention of Article 6 or protecting Melilla and Ceuta, a greater political willingness of NATO to intervene in these colonial enclaves on the North African coast is subtly implied in the text. 

“Hybrid operations against Allies,” which in NATO’s lingo includes irregular migration, “could reach the level of an armed attack,” it states, in what appears to be a reflection of Sanchez’s claim of a “violent assault” by stick-wielding refugees at the Melilla fence. It adds that this “could lead the North Atlantic Council to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. We will continue to support our partners to counter hybrid challenges.”

It further notes that “human trafficking and irregular migration” from “NATO’s southern neighbourhood, particularly the Middle East, North Africa and Sahel regions” pose “serious transnational.. challenges” that “undermine.. state security.” It also reaffirmed the “360-degree approach,” which indicates further militarization on the southern flank.

Other NATO member states are still not legally bound to protect Spain’s contested cities on the African continent. However, the Strategic Concept document makes an ominous “political statement about the mechanisms that can eventually be activated if Ceuta and Melilla are attacked, or “assaulted” by refugees – or anything that could be interpreted by Spain and Europe as a threat to their territorial integrity,” Orosa explained.