Melilla Massacre: Matters Arising

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At least 37 people were killed last Friday, in Melilla, one of the two Spanish enclaves in North Africa, with land borders into Europe. They were part of about 2,000 migrants who marched on the high fences, put in place by the Spanish government, on the Nador-Melilla border in Morocco, to keep out so-called “illegal migrants” from Europe. 

Many of the migrants came from war-torn or post-conflict countries in West, Central and North Africa such as Chad, Niger, South Sudan and Sudan. They had gone through hell in the desert, to escape the hell their countries had become, only to be kept out of “fortress Europe” by those 10-metre-high fences, with barbed wires and armed security personnel. 

They were not taking this anymore, after staying for upwards of four years in temporary camps, on the Moroccan side of the fence. They organized out of desperation to beat what stood between them and Europe, which signified their hope for a better life. 133 of them crossed the fence. 

They were surrounded and brutally pushed back by the Spanish police into the hands of Moroccan gendarmes who served as the arrowhead of a ruthless unity of the Spanish and Moroccan state to stop the migrants in their tracks. Indeed, Moroccan gendarmes even entered Spanish soil to serve as arrowhead of this crackdown. 

Apart from the dozens of people killed, not less than 76 people were also injured – some of them severely. The Moroccan security personnel denied them access to medical help. And the bodies of those killed were treated with contempt.

Responses

Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, rubbed salt on this open murderous wound. Instead of owning up to the dastardly massacre, he came up with a shameless cock and bull story of what he considered as nothing but an “incident.” He described the migrant’s protest as a “violent and organized” attack on Spain’s “territorial integrity” by “mafias that traffic human beings.”

Working-class and radical activists in Spain did not share his despicable view. Within hours of the massacre, protests spread across major cities and towns in the country, such as Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Cadiz, Granada, Mataró, Seville, and Zaragoza. 

Several radical civil society groups in Morocco also issued a statement titled “37 dead at the European borders” on 25 January. In it, they denounced the massacre and demanded the immediate setting up of an independent judicial investigation. These groups included the Platform of Sub-Saharan Associations and Communities, Walking Borders, Morocco CADTM, Vulnerable Migrants Aid Association – Morocco (AMSV) and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH).

Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, expressed “deep shock” and “concern” and called for “immediate investigation” almost 48 hours after the massacre. Governments of countries on the continent have kept mum. But more worrisome is the silence of working-class organizations, particularly trade unions.  

The most significant response has been by migrants themselves. They refused to be cowed despite repression. Days after, they gathered outside Melilla’s short-stay migrants center with placards. Some messages on these were:

“You greet the Ukrainians with flowers and because we are black, you send us to hell.”

“The silence of the international community towards the massacre proves to us that human rights have become just a slogan.”

Background 

The Melilla massacre is not “an incident” as Sanchez infamously described it, or something that came out of the blues. The radical Moroccan groups described the massacre as a disaster waiting to happen, in putting the immediate causative factors in perspective. They also pointed out that this should serve as an alert to the “deadly nature of the security immigration cooperation between Morocco and Spain.” 

Earlier in the year, Spain and Morocco renewed their security cooperation agreement. This was part of a “rub my back and I rub yours” agreement between both countries, which included Spain supporting Morocco’s continued denial of the right to self-determination of the Saharawi people of Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara. 

In the wake of this renewed innocuous agreement, the spate of violence that migrants had continually faced on both sides of the border in Melilla increased significantly. Similarly, the already inadequate food available for them were destroyed on the most spurious grounds by security personnel, and access to potable water in the makeshift camps on the Moroccan side was curtailed.

Meanwhile, even those migrants that had successfully emigrated to Nador on the Spanish side were denied access to medicines and medical care. Their camps were also burned with much of the little property they owned destroyed by right-wing forces who rained a series of violent attacks on migrants and refugees in the country last year.   

Deeper roots

We need to look at the broader context, to better understand the dynamics leading to the massacre. Why, for example, would the migrants at Melilla choose to still pass through the crucible of Nador? Or why have half a million people put their lives at risk by crossing the Mediterranean into Europe between 2018 and 2021?   

The reasons are not farfetched. Living for millions of people in Africa (and many countries in the Middle East) has become nasty, short, and brutal. Armed conflicts are raging in at least 15 African countries. 

Over one-third of the continent’s population lives in abject poverty. More than half of the population lacks basic sanitation service, and less than a quarter of the population has access to safe drinking water. 

Almost a billion of Africa’s 1.5 billion population are under 35 years of age. Youth Unemployment on the continent is about the worst in the world. For example, it is as high as 42.5% and 63.9% in Nigeria and South Africa, respectively. Underemployment is another matter. 

Disillusionment and frustration in the system have marred the hearts and souls of millions of youths. They simply want to leave what they consider as hell, despite its potential of being heaven. They also hope to help family members left behind survive with remittances sent from Europe and other more well-off regions.  

It is, however, not enough to simply see these myriads of problems that beset Africa and serve as push factors for migration in general and irregular migration in particular. We need to identify the root cause to change our situation. 

The continued underdevelopment of Africa is a consequence of decades of structural adjustment, privatization, and market liberalization. Capitalist development entails the exploitation of the labor of working-class people and natural resources across the world.  

Exploitation and oppression tend to lead to resistance. The struggle of workers in the 1930s-40s led to concessions being won, particularly so in the advanced capitalist countries. This was the basis of the welfare state which emerged in post-World War II Europe and the early post-colonial state in 1960s Africa.

But the for-profit motive of capitalism makes it inherently crisis-ridden. As the world economy lurched from one crisis to another since the 1970s, the capitalists launched renewed attacks on the working-class, across the world. Inter-imperialist rivalry between major capitalist countries has also contributed to widespread violent conflicts in different parts of Africa and the Middle East. And the climate and ecological crises have led to famines in these regions.

But despite the worsening situation of the working class in Europe and the fact that most irregular migrants are likely to find poor-paying employment with terrible working conditions, it is still much better than what most will access back home in Africa, even for those that are not from war-torn countries. 

Thus, there will always be waves of irregular migration, except the problem is tackled at its root of capitalist (mal)development with its hunger-filled and bloodstained fruits. Indeed, without uprooting this system, the situation is likely to get much worse. 

The World Bank painted a bleak picture of the post-COVID-19 world at the beginning of the year. Since then, a terrible situation has become deeply aggravated with runaway costs of living across the world. More young persons from Africa and the Middle East will try to enter Europe by any means possible in the unfolding period. 

Meanwhile, European states will do everything they can to keep out refugees from their lands, except for those “with blue eyes and blonde hair.” 

Fortress Europe

It is not simply that they will. This has been the case for some time now. Melilla is part of “Fortress Europe,” a network of iron fences, barbed wires, camps, and a variety of other means of surveillance and repression meant to keep migrants and refugees from the poorer countries of Africa and Asia out of richer Europe.

As borders within Europe largely dissolved between 1985 and 1999, the European ruling class set up ramparts to keep out “undesirables” from Africa and Asia. It was in this light that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, better known as Frontex, was established as an agency of the European Union in 2005. Reporting on it in 2010, Amnesty International showed it is a corrupt agency that diverted funds meant for humanitarian and development aid to border control.

The Great Recession of 2007-9 sent shocks of economic catastrophe, revolutions, and wars across the Arab world and torrents of refugees from the Middle East and Africa towards Europe, at the beginning of the 2010s. European states initially responded with an admixture of carrot and stick. On one hand, they claimed that “refugees are welcome here” at least to some extent, with quotas. And the earliest incarceration centers for so-called “illegal migrants” were set up in Greece. 

What started as torrents became a tsunami in 2015. That year marked the peak of irregular migration into Europe. More than 1 million people crossed the Mediterranean Sea, of which at least 4,054 died. Most of them were refugees fleeing from the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

It was at this point that what could be described as “contracting out” the suppression of migration to non-EU countries became a fashionable strategy for the European ruling class. The 2016 EU-Turkey deal is the flagship of this strategy. 

Based on this deal, Turkey would do all in its powers to stop irregular migration from Turkey to Greece and anyone found to have migrated irregularly from Turkey to the Greek islands would be returned to Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkey would get €6 billion, supposedly for the improvement of refugees’ humanitarian situation in the country. Turkish nationals would also be allowed visa-free travel to Europe.

 The Spain-Morocco cooperation agreement is likewise another form of contracting out Europe’s bloody suppression of irregular migration into the hands of non-EU states within Fortress Europe Incorporated.

Unite & Fight! A world without borders is possible!

Justice for the migrants killed at Melilla is non-negotiable. But instead of owning up to committing a massacre, the Moroccan government continues with its crackdown on migrants in Melilla. This is unacceptable. We stand against Spain and Morocco and support the demand for an independent judicial panel of inquiry into the massacre. 

Jesus Melillero, an activist based in Melilla, who is a founding member of Unidad contra el fascismo y el racism (UCFR; “Unity Against Fascism and Racism” in English) informed Socialist Worker (Nigeria) that there will be “an important demonstration in Melilla” on 1 July. Spanish activists will stand with the migrants to demand justice, he said, stressing that “nobody is illegal” and “migrants and refugees are welcome” to the democratic and progressive people in Spain.

Trade unions, socialist groups, and radical civil society across Africa, and indeed globally, need to equally stand up against the massacre and continued crackdown on migrants in Melilla. In the coming period, there is likely to be even greater confrontation between migrants and the repressive mechanisms of Fortress Europe, including its contracted-out enforcers like Morocco and Turkey. 

We have to grasp the totality of the situation. The rich have no problem with migration. Capital is not bound by borders. Borders are used to divide us, control us, and deepen social inequality between and within regions and nations. Our struggle must ultimately be aimed at overthrowing the capitalist system, which sees irregular migrants as little but marginal mass.

by Baba AYE

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