Moroccan navy accused of sinking dinghy, causing 29 to die
On the night of 28 April 2008, a chase in the high sea off the coast of Al Hoceima ended when a Moroccan navy officer slashed a dinghy's pneumatic body, resulting in 29 would-be sub-Saharan migrants (including four women and four children) drowning, according to survivors. This is the latest dramatic event in which efforts by Moroccan security forces to stem the flow of migrants towards Europe has resulted in deaths, after incidents including the shooting of migrants trying to climb over the border fence in Ceuta in the autumn of 2005.
AFVIC, the Casablanca-based association of friends and families of illegal immigration victims, accuses the EU of sub-contracting repression and sacrificing fundamental human rights principles. It conducted an investigation after the news surfaced of the incident in an article in El País newspaper, and noted that the first obstacle was the fast-track expulsion of survivors of the shipwreck, resulting in them only being able to talk to a few survivors, three of them by telephone. It reconstructed events, reporting that two dinghies (zodiacs) had set off that night from Al Hoceima in the north-east of Morocco, both of them carrying 60 passengers on board. At two in the morning, one of them was intercepted by the Moroccan navy in the high seas, ordered to halt and towed to the coast. The second dinghy was intercepted shortly afterwards but refused to comply with orders to stop. AFVIC notes that the "connection man", who held the money paid by passengers, was on board and reportedly threatened to throw the driver of the boat overboard if he stopped. What followed is told by Eric, a 37-year-old survivor:
"The patera did not stop, we raced for a few minutes, the royal navy followed us at the same speed, the soldiers equipped themselves with a stick to which they had attached a sharp instrument and intentionally pierced the pneumatic boat".
One side of the vessel deflated and it capsized, after which an officer is reported a having said: "Now you can continue on your way to Spain". Witnesses explain that a second navy boat came to rescue them and threw down a rope that helped some of them to survive, but it was too late for others. In the outbreak of panic when they were stopped, some who tried to reach the dinghy drowned, and a second navy boat attempted to rescue them. The presence of a Spanish Guardia Civil boat was reported but not confirmed.
Back in Al Hoceima, a head count indicated that there were 31 of them left. Ten bodies were recovered and 19 others had disappeared. The victims were from Mali, Nigeria, Congo, Ghana, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. The survivors were taken to a police station, where they had their photographs and fingerprints taken, and subsequently driven in a lorry to the town of Oujda near the Algerian desert border with Morocco, at night, in spite of the traumas they had experienced. The Moroccan press reported the shipwreck, but not the alleged dynamics of events leading to the tragedy. AFVIC concludes its report by criticising the refoulements to the Moroccan-Algerian border in inhumane conditions when the survivors required support and care, calling for a public inquiry and for the punishment of people responsible, condemning European policies that it deems responsible for this tragedy and expressing its continuing support for the victims of illegal immigration and their families.
Appeals for an investigation into this incident have been issued by European and north African NGOs, as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It appears that this incident is not isolated as, apart from the shootings in Ceuta and Melilla, a judicial investigation is underway into allegations by CEAR (Spanish Committee for Assistance to Refugees) that a 29-year-old Senegalese man, Laucling Sonko, drowned in Ceuta in September 2007 after being intercepted and thrown into the sea by Spanish Guardia Civil officers, who had slashed his lifejacket in spite of his pleas that he could not swim. One of the officers subsequently jumped into the water to save him, unsuccessfully. A report by the German refugee rights NGO ProAsyl and the Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants (based in Athens), published in October 2007, included testimonies from refugees who claimed:
"The Greek coastguard forced us back into the rubber dinghy on high seas. Before we got back on, they made small cuts in it with knives. Every group only got one oar... It was very difficult for us to reach the shore in a damaged boat and with only one oar."
Others spoke of being forced to disembark on uninhabited islands without any food or water. The report includes a section on malpractice by the Greek coastguard in dealing with dinghies suspected of carrying migrants; in one instance on 5 October 2007, a chase followed the refusal by three men to comply with orders to stop, and officers shot a man dead, who turned out to be a Greek citizen.
Communiqué de l'AFVIC, Rapport relatif au naufrage de migrants au large des cotes d'Al Houceima (Maroc) dans la nuit du 28 au 29 avril 2008
Statements by NGOs (from the Migreurop website page dedicated to the incident, at http://www.migreurop.org/rubrique259.html;
http://www.migreurop.org/article1288.html (appeal for an inquiry into the incident, English)
"The truth may be bitter, but it must be told", ProAsyl/Greek Group of Lawyers, 29 October 2007: the situation of refugees in the Aegean and the practices of the Greek Coast Guard:
http://www.statewatch.org/news/2007/oct/greece-proasyl-refugees-prel.pdf (press release), http://www.statewatch.org/news/2007/oct/greece-proasyl-refugees.pdf (full report)
AFP, 13.5.2008; El País, 17.3, 7.5.2008; BBC website, 25 April 2008, Le Monde, 8.9.2007.
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