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IMMIGRATION

Melilla authorities illegally returning immigrants to Morocco

Civil Guard hand over sub-Saharans via doors in the security fence

Sector A-13 of the Melilla security fence, where the majority of covert expulsions to Morocco are carried out.
Sector A-13 of the Melilla security fence, where the majority of covert expulsions to Morocco are carried out.

“Have all the rounds been made?” Romeo 40 asks Romeo 00.

“Negative,” comes the reply. “There are finding faults at the last minute. They’re telling us to take them through the Muslim cemetery zone, through the darkest zone.”

The radio conversation between a Civil Guard captain in the Spanish North African exclave of Melilla and a non-commissioned officer occurred just after midnight on April 26. Romeo followed by a number is the codename the officers use, though occasionally a real name slips out.

The “rounds” to which they are referring are the illegal night-time handovers of sub-Saharan immigrants to Moroccan security forces. These are migrants who have jumped the fence separating Melilla from Morocco. EL PAÍS has obtained a recording of the conversation between the two officers that day, hours after a group of immigrants had scaled the fence.

That night the Civil Guard carried out an “on-the-spot handover” of migrants, something that happens regularly, according to a source involved in preparing such operations. The government delegate in Melilla, Abdelmalik el Barkani, denies that such practices exist. They would be illegal, according to the aliens act and the decrees that implement it.

The government delegate in Melilla, denies such practices exist

Article 23 of royal decree 557 of 2011 that implements the Aliens Act stipulates that foreigners who enter Spain irregularly will be taken “as quickly as possible to the corresponding police headquarters so the procedures for their identification and, where applicable, their return can be carried out.” They will have the “right to legal assistance, as well as the assistance of a translator.”

But in Melilla these procedures are not always carried out. Between 20 and 30 percent of the immigrants who the government delegation estimates succeed in entering the exclave at every mass attempt to scale the security fence are never admitted to the local temporary immigrant holding center (CETI). This discrepancy can only be explained by the fact that they are arrested between the fence and police headquarters, after which they are expelled to Morocco.

Melilla command headquarters tells the civil guards who take part in these handovers that they are protected by the 1992 Spanish-Moroccan agreement on the “readmission of foreigners who enter illegally” — which did not come into effect until 2012 because Rabat delayed its ratification.

Minor return

Mohamed Camara, an Equatorial Guinea national, and Ibrahim Sare, from Burkina Faso, were both minors under the guardianship of the city of Melilla when in 2012 they were expelled to Morocco by, according to them, civil guards through sector A-13 of the security fence.

The NGO Prodein brought the case to the attention of the public prosecutor and the ombudsman sent a summons. The expulsion could violate child protection laws and constitute illegal arrest and child abandonment. Sare managed to return to Melilla and file a complaint to which the NGO Andalucía Acoge and the Unified Association of Civil Guards added their names. The judge investigating the case has shelved it twice without even calling the youngster to declare.

“An immigrant who is intercepted can be readmitted immediately, without any formalities, if Morocco accepts it [...], though obeying the reasonable requirements of consideration and communication between both countries,” as, for example, Major Eduardo Lobo put it during a seminar in Melilla in May.

Article 2 of the bilateral Spanish-Moroccan agreement nevertheless stipulates certain administrative identification procedures that are similarly not carried out in Melilla. Several law experts also state that the Geneva Convention on Refugees, to which Spain is a signatory, is also not being complied with. Colonel Ambrosio Martín Villaseñor, head of the Civil Guard in Melilla, turned down EL PAÍS’s request for an interview via his press office on the basis that now was “not the time to talk about immigration.”

“Do you want us to come up to the point or cut off the road?” the non-commissioned officer asked the captain via radio on April 26. The “point” is the A-13, a sector of the 12-kilometer Melilla barbed-wire security fence in which a couple of doors allow access into Moroccan territory.

“The road” to which he refers is in fact two: the Mariguari and the Tres Forcas, both on the beltway that runs along the fence. Closing them means preventing any driver from witnessing the operation.

“Yes, set about activating the protocol on the A-13,” answered the captain. From the Melilla beltway the A-13 is partly blocked by a mound. What’s more, it is the only portion of the fence in which there are no security cameras. El Barkani told reporters in September that he was unaware there were no cameras there.

The “on-the-spot” handovers act as a deterrent to those waiting to cross

“Communicate to the Veleta personnel that if it could be by the door at the bottom [of the A-13], that the vans are not going up the slope,” the captain ordered. The “Veleta personnel” is the codename of the auxiliary forces — the so-called mejanía riot police — and Moroccan army deployed on the other side of the border.

Their Civil Guard liaison is an officer from Tangier who speaks halting Spanish, excellent French and vacations on the Costa del Sol, according to what he told EL PAÍS. He was surprised to be called by a reporter and asked several times after the Melilla Civil Guard captain with whom he normally speaks.

The vans in which the immigrants were being brought were in a bad state that April night. The Moroccans wanted the handover to be made via the door situated at the top of the slope of sector A-13. “I don’t know if the vans are going to go up,” said one officer over the radio.

“Let’s see if they can go up in reverse gear,” another suggested.

“We’ll see, we have a broken van. It won’t go up,” they replied.

“Well, go up as far as you can and in a minute we will do a transfer on the other cellphone,” was the solution proposed until the Moroccans agreed to accept them via the lower door.

The “on-the-spot” handovers not only serve to reduce the number of immigrants but also act as a deterrent to those waiting to cross the border in the mountains around Melilla.

They serve the same function as the concertinas of razor and barbed wire that by the end of the month will be placed along three of the 12 kilometers of the Melilla fence, where the most attempts to jump the border take place.