Fourteen migrants dead at Ceuta’s border after police rubber-bullet shooting
On February 6th 2014, almost 200 Sub-Saharan African migrants, refugees and asylum seekers attempted to cross the Spanish border in Ceuta, a town located on the north coast of Africa bordering with Morocco. Even that the most usual method used by many migrants is trying to jump the fence, that day migrants tried to desperately reach the European soil by the sea, swimming around Tarajal seawall. Spanish Guardia Civil was surprised by this movement and decided to shoot swimming migrants with rubber bullets and tear gas, provoking chaos throughout swimmers as they couldn’t see and breathe. Fourteen of them died. Also 23 migrants reached Spanish shores but were expelled summarily to Morocco.
A police representative initially denied the use of any anti-riot equipment. The Spanish government delegation to Ceuta also proclaimed: “It wasn’t needed Spanish Police to intervene, all was about Moroccan authorities”. NGO Caminando Fronteras reported that many survivors suffered bruising as the result of the impact from rubber bullets and even released medical reports to evidence this. Migrants’ testimonies told of how the Spanish Guardia Civil officers shot them from both the breakwater and from two patrol boats. “Firstly, they shoot to the air, but when they realised we were crossing the border, they shoot to our bodies. I firstly received a rubber bullet in my back and secondly in my jaw”, said one migrant. Other witnesses suggested that, in order to prevent their entry into Spanish territory, Guardia Civil had physically assaulted any migrants who did manage to reach the rocks before the breakwater.
Guardia Civil initially denied the use of any anti-riot equipment. Spain’s Interior Ministry even released their own video displaying CCTV footage of the crowd of migrants gathering at the border, before attempting to cross and later throwing stones at the border fence. This film omitted any footage of the shots being fired by Spanish Guardia Civil officers. After many NGOs complained about the deeply misleading nature of this video – and the eventual release to the public of footage displaying the firing of rubber bullets by Guardia Civil officers – only then did the Interior Ministry change the official version of the video. The Ministry also eventually admitted to the officers’ firing of rubber bullets, yet they refused to accept that these shots were aimed directly at the migrants. Interior Minister, Mr. Jorge Fernández Díaz, did admit that the rubber bullets were fired “in the direction” of the migrants, but merely as “proportional” measures in response to the “belligerent behaviour of the group”. Mr Fernández further suggested that it was “not proved” that there remained a direct connection between the officers’ firing of rubber bullets and the subsequent deaths of fourteen migrants. He even went on to claim that their deaths had occurred in Moroccan waters. The Interior minister finally confirmed that border police would not again fire rubber bullets as a dissuasive method to deter migrants attempting to swim into Spanish territory and later offered that the seawall separating Spanish and Moroccan waters at the Ceuta border would be lengthened.
The European Comission demanded explanations from Spain, clearly linking Police activity and the deaths of migrants attempting to cross the Spanish-Morrocan border. Home affairs commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, said on Twitter that she was “very concerned about Spanish border police using rubber bullets to deter migrants in Ceuta. I expect clarifications from the authorities”
A criminal investigation was then launched by the Guardia Civil Command of Ceuta, the very same command that led the operation. Unsurprisingly, their investigation concluded that they did not hold any responsibility for the deaths of the migrants. The Spanish political parties, PSOE and Izquierda Plural, called for the setup of an investigative Congressional commission, however the ruling party – Partido Popular – vetoed any such petition.
Several NGOs also presented their complaints before the Attorney General on Febrary 10th 2014, and – a year later – 16 Guardia Civil police officers were subsequently accused of offence. In February 2015, Amnesty International suggested that the Spanish authorities’ failure to properly investigate the case “highlights the deplorable disregard for human life at Spain’s borders with Morocco”
In April 2015, Malaga’s Provincial Court dropped a case filed against Melilla’s Guardia Civil main officer, who was charged with accounts of summary deportations. In October 2015, Ceuta’s instruction judge dismissed the Guardia Civil police officer’s use of anti-riot materials as “dissuasive tools”, and denied any possible misuse. The deaths of fourteen migrants were not attributed to anyone and the investigation was dropped.
In January 2017, the Provincial Court ordered new instruction procedures, yet -in February – the Spanish Embassy in Cameroon denied visas to the relatives of those migrants who had tragically drowned. Finally, on June 26th 2018, an instruction judge dismissed the case for the second time, arguing it could not be proved that the rubber bullets were shot in Spanish waters.
Later, on August 31th 2018, the Provincial Court again re-ordered new instruction procedures, claiming that the local judge had not been diligent in their attempts to bring witnesses to the trial. Two witnesses eventually gave testimony before a judge on April 2nd 2019, more than five years after the shooting.
The case still remains under investigation.
Summary expulsions vulnerate the Spanish regulation on immigrants, as they are not contained in either the law nor the regulation. Moreover, in this specific case, the use of force was disproportionate and caused the death of 15 human beings.
It must be considered that the Spanish Constitution demands an interpretation of the fundamental rights in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rest of the international treatises that aided their development (article 10.2 of the SC).
Summary expulsions vulnerate the international and communitarian regulation: they prevent the exercise of the right of asylum for immigrants and an individual treatment, which also infringes the principle of non-devolution and the prohibition of collective expulsions (Charter of Fundamental Rights of European Union).
The executions of these summary expulsions can result in criminal consequences. Firstly, the police officers should not be protected by the legitimate use of force, since the regulation cannot allow orders that imply the vulneration of the Spanish Constitution or the law, as in this case. Secondly, the summmary expulsions could be interpreted as coercion. In this specific case, where 15 immigrants died while trying to cross the border, the action of the police officers can be considered as a homicide.
After 5 years, this case still waits for an investigation.