Tarajal and the legacy of racism in Spain’s migration system

Tarajal and the legacy of racism in Spain’s migration system

This blog is the first in a two-part series looking at the intersection between racism and migration policy, and has been written by PICUM’s Advocacy Trainee Abigail Cárdenas Mena.

The Tarajal Massacre

Seven years ago, on the 6th February 2014, fourteen people died in the Mediterranean sea after the Guardia Civil (one of the Spanish police forces) shot rubber bullets, detonator blanks and smoke canisters (anti-riot materials) against them as they were trying to reach Spain. To understand how an incident like this could happen and how seven years after there has been no accountability and no justice for the victims, we should know who they were.

The victims were (at least) fourteen young black men from West and Central Africa, mainly from Cameroon, who were trying to cross the Moroccan-Spanish border by swimming through the Tarajal Beach, which is located in Ceuta. Ceuta together with Melilla are two Spanish cities on the African continent, separated from Morocco by fences. The brutal response of the Guardia Civil was intended to prevent them from crossing the border. Twenty-three other people who were able to reach the Spanish side were returned to Morocco as soon as they arrived at the beach but were not given any due process. Their return to Morocco is otherwise known as a pushback. Testimonies collected by the NGO Caminando Fronteras document, with pictures and medical reports, the use of violence by the police and the injuries caused to the survivors, who didn’t receive any assistance for their injuries.

Europe’s approach to managing borders perpetuates discrimination and violence

An incident like this, unfortunately, is not unique to the Spanish context. The EU’s aim to control irregular migration has led to a system of border management with few guarantees of human rights compliance for migrants. European borders – both external and internal – have been operating as spaces of impunity with little control and supervision over law enforcement agencies and their conduct, leading to situations of violence, mistreatment and abuse against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. As the Danish Refugee Council has stated:

Tacitly accepting the trade-off between ensuring human rights compliance and limiting the number of irregular arrivals opens a wide space for multiple forms of abuse. (…) There is an ever-growing need to recognize that human rights violations are taking place at the borders, and particularly at the EU’s external (and internal) borders.

However, police violence against migrants not only happens at borders, but throughout the whole migration control system. This takes place in the context of identity checks, detention and deportations, on the EU territory and in other countries involved in protecting the EU’s borders through bilateral agreements and the externalisation of borders.

Episodes of police brutality against migrants in Europe have been extensively documented and denounced by different NGOs, activists and organisations. In 2018, an Afghan man who was being deported from Germany was restrained by six police officers who taped him to his seat in the plane and placed him in handcuffs, leg restraints and a helmet, and made him wear a mouth guard. One officer squeezed his genitals several times for prolonged periods and another choked him by pushing his arm against his neck to the point he struggled to breath. This happened during a charter flight monitored by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture of the Council of Europe, which reported the incident. Far from being isolated cases, violence against migrants is inherent to the migration enforcement system as a whole.

Spain’s migration enforcement especially targets people of colour  

The “accident of birth” – namely, where a person was born in the world – is a major factor in determining how freely they can travel to Europe. Citizens of 104 countries are required to obtain a visa before entering the EU. This includes every country on the African continent (only the islands Seychelles and Mauritius are exempted from this requirement). “Accessible and decent labour migration pathways across various occupations remain very limited, despite labour market demand”. As scholar Luke de Noronha wrote: “Race cannot be dispensed with so briskly when the principal target of immigration restrictions, the ‘global poor’, corresponds so closely with those ‘formerly colonised’ and those racialised as ‘non-white”. As analysed below, Spain provides an example of how racism underlies migration policies.

One year after the Tarajal massacre, Spain passed a law creating a special regime applicable in Ceuta and Melilla to allow the “rejection at borders” of people found crossing the border irregularly. The special rule aimed at legalising pushbacks. In doing so, Spain not only refused to acknowledge and redress the tragic consequences of Tarajal and pushbacks in general but furthered the exemption of rights and impunity in a place where the majority of migrants come from African countries without safe and regular pathways to come to Europe.

As a consequence of this law, Spain has the highest number of “refusal of entry” in Europe by far. Eurostat data shows that “in 2019, more than two thirds of the total number of non-EU citizens who were refused entry into the EU-27 were recorded in Spain“ with 493,500 refusals of entry (68.8% of the total). This was only followed by Poland with 65,400 and France with 56,600 refusals of entry, with a notable difference of more than 400,000 cases with Spain. According to the same source, “the overwhelming majority of non-EU citizens who were refused entry into Spain were Moroccan citizens (484,800; 98.3 % of all refusals in Spain)”.

While Moroccans are overwhelmingly refused at the border by the Spanish police, Sub-Saharan Africans are subjected to discriminatory and violent raids and forcibly displaced from the north to the south of the country by the Moroccan police in an attempt to prevent them from even approaching the border. This is part of Morocco’s agreement with Spain (Morocco has claimed to have stopped more than 70,000 people from crossing into Spain in 2019). This practice of forced displacement has been pointed out as one of the reasons behind the decrease in arrivals by sea to Spain in 2019 compared to 2018, as well as for the diversion of the route towards the Canary Islands in 2020, which led to the death of 1,851 people in what is known as the Atlantic route, currently the deadliest route in Europe.

Moroccan police has also been preventing black Africans from claiming asylum at the border crossing points, thus leaving no options for regular entry procedures, as proven by Forensic Architecture: “According to witness testimony, the consulate in Nador is not accessible to Black Sub-Saharan nationals and there were no applications by Sub-Saharan nationals at any Spanish embassies in Morocco between 2015 and 2018”. This reality was not taken into account in N.D. and N.T. v. Spain, a case concerning the pushback of two men from Mali and Ivory Coast, where the European Court of Human Rights recently found no violation of the prohibition against collective expulsion, placing the responsibility on the migrants for climbing the fences rather than using the allegedly available means to seek asylum. This judgement contrasts with the case M.K. and Others v. Poland where the same Court found a violation of the prohibition of collective expulsion of Chechens crossing from Belarus to Poland, suggesting racially discriminatory assumptions by the Court, depending on who is crossing the borders and how, to the detriment of African people. “The case of ND and NT reveals the mechanisms of structural racism embedded in Europe’s border policies.”

Once in Spain, migration enforcement continues to disproportionally target the African community, together with other racialised communities, who are more likely to be surveilled and feel the violence of the law enforcement. Incidents leading to the death of black Africans have occurred at every stage of the migration control system: Mame Mbaye (Senegal) in the context of an identity check, Samba Martine (Democratic Republic of Congo) in a detention centre, and Osamuyia Aikpitanyi (Nigeria) during deportation, are only some of the names representing the lethal effect of systematic violence targeting undocumented people originating from Africa. Each of them reveals one side of this system: the criminalisation and police harassment of manteros (street vendors from Senegal) and the constant fear and stress they live with for being undocumented; the lack of effective health care in detention centres and the neglect of the government through poor institutional reception and detection of vulnerability of people who just cross the borders; and police brutality to enforce a forced deportation by any means. Only in the case of Samba, the government (after nine years) acknowledged its responsibility, while there has been no accountability for Mame and Osamuyia.

Racial profiling plays a key role in the disproportionate impact of migration enforcement on such communities. For undocumented people, being subjected to an identity check for migration enforcement purposes (or, in fact, any other purpose) is one of the main gateways to detention and, eventually, to deportation. The fact that racial and ethnic profiling, although being illegal under European and international law, is a widespread practice in Europe, makes race an important factor correlated with the likelihood of ending up identified and detained.

This, consequently, leads to an overrepresentation of people of colour in immigration detention centres. One study revealed that, in 2016, 90% of the people in Spain’s detention centres (CIEs) were from Africa (55% from Sub-Saharan Africa, 35% from North Africa). According to the same study, this far exceeded the actual proportion of African people in the migrant population in Spain (Africans represented 20% of migrants and less than 10% of the estimated undocumented population in Spain). This share has been changing over the last years with a higher rate of detained people from North Africa, mainly Morocco and Algeria, representing up to 70% of total immigration detainees in 2018 and 2019. This can be explained to a large extent by the criminalisation of black and Arab men in particular, leading to racial profiling with a significant impact on this part of the population, as data show in Spain and across Europe.

The Tarajal massacre: What have we learned?

The Tarajal massacre led to a court challenge by civil society, without any success for the claimants. Although sixteen Guardia Civil officers were prosecuted, the case was filed and reopened three times in six years with different arguments and irregularities in the process, including the refusal to the parents’ victims to participate in the judicial process. The Minister for Home Affairs at the time never acknowledged any misconduct by law enforcement officers and instead defended their behaviour. The incident remains un-investigated and justice and reparation have not been granted for the victims and their families, pointing to the total impunity that operates at borders. To date, the families of the victims buried on the Spanish side of the border have not been able to identify their bodies because the Spanish government has not provided them with the required visas to enter Ceuta.

This year, as every year, “la Marcha por la Dignidad” (March for Dignity) took place in Ceuta and many other cities (in Spain and beyond) on the anniversary of the Tarajal tragedy to remember the victims and denounce the effects of a deadly migration policy that still does not offer safe and regular pathways for migration for many people.

Of the 2,170 people who died in the Euro-African Western Border while trying to reach Spain in 2020, 95,8% disappeared at sea and their bodies were never recovered. To achieve a “racism-free” and “united in diversity” Europe, the EU should take seriously and value equally all lives by ensuring the safety and access to justice for all people, regardless of racial or ethnic origin, religion, nationality, citizenship and migration status, including those on their journey to Europe. Effective measures must be taken to tackle racism in national and European migration systems and black lives should be at the centre of any action to reverse a system that systematically directs violence towards them and carries out a practice of laisser mourir (allowing people to die) at the borders.

Migrants, black and, more broadly, racialised voices must be heard. As Marra Junior, anti-racist and Pan-Africanist activist and one of the organisers of the Tarajal commemoration in Bilbao, says: “ça suffit” (it’s enough). Watch the video below to hear what the Tarajal massacre means for him as an African migrant in Spain.JTNDZGl2JTIwc3R5bGUlM0QlMjJiYWNrZ3JvdW5kLWNvbG9yJTNBJTIzZmZmZmZmJTNCJTIwcGFkZGluZyUzQTEwcHglM0IlMjIlMjBjbGFzcyUzRCUyMmNvb2tpZWNvbnNlbnQtb3B0b3V0LW1hcmtldGluZyUyMiUzRSUwQSUyMCUyMFBsZWFzZSUyMCUzQ2ElMjBocmVmJTNEJTIyamF2YXNjcmlwdCUzQUNvb2tpZWJvdC5yZW5ldyUyOCUyOSUyMiUzRWFjY2VwdCUyMG1hcmtldGluZy1jb29raWVzJTNDJTJGYSUzRSUyMHRvJTIwd2F0Y2glMjB0aGlzJTIwdmlkZW8uJTBBJTNDJTJGZGl2JTNF

The term pushback refers to the practice carried out by law enforcement “when a person is apprehended after an irregular border crossing and summarily returned to a neighbouring country without assessing their individual circumstances on a case-by-case basis.” Pushbacks are an increasing phenomenon at Europe’s borders and entails the violation of “the right to seek asylum and the protection against refoulement, which are at the core of international refugee and human rights law”.

PICUM (forthcoming), Designing labour migration policies to promote decent work.

The Euro-African Western Border includes the routes that migrants take from Africa to Spain, namely: Canary Islands or Atlantic route, “Estrecho” (the Strait of Gibraltar) route, Alboran route and Algeria route.

Cover image: MarcoAlla – Adobe Stock