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Spain violated migrant rights during border tragedy: ombudsman

Spain failed to respect the legal rights of migrants who stormed en masse the enclave of Melilla in June, the country’s ombudsman said on Friday, calling the fatal tragedy “foreseeable”.

According to the official toll, 23 people died when around 2,000 migrants rushed the fences along Morocco’s border with Melilla on June 24 — the worst toll in years of such attempted crossings into European Union territory.

Rights groups have accused border guards on both sides of responding with excessive force.

Under international law, migrants have a right to claim asylum and it is forbidden to send potential asylum seekers back to where their lives or well-being might be in danger.

Spanish authorities denied access to the border that day to “470 people without considering their national and international legal rights”, Spanish ombudsman Angel Gabilondo said.

Spain’s constitutional court has ruled that any refusals of entry at the Spanish border should be of individuals, not entire groups, and be carried out with court oversight, which was not the case that day, he added.

Gabilondo said he regretted the loss of life. A “foreseeable hazardous situation occurred in the area” that day, he said.

Contacted by AFP, a Spanish interior ministry spokesman said all “refusals” to enter Melilla on June 24 “were carried out in strict accordance with the law”.

The spokesman stressed the ombudsman’s findings were “provisional” and reiterated the ministry’s “firm support” for the Spanish security forces.

Videos of the storming uploaded to social media show a large group of migrants approaching a section of the fence and beginning to scale it as police try to stop them.

At one point the fence collapses, sending many of the migrants to the ground from a height of several metres.

Other videos show scores of young men, some of them motionless and others bleeding and barely moving, with Moroccan police standing over them.

Morocco’s AMDH rights group says as many as 27 migrants were killed in the tragedy, which followed days of clashes between Moroccan security forces and migrants in a forest near Melilla where the latter often live rough.

The Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, on the coast of North Africa, have long been a magnet for people fleeing violence and poverty across Africa and seeking refuge via the continent’s only land borders with the European Union.