EU/Africa: Chilling details of refoulements from Morocco revealed

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A legal opinion prepared by Alberto J. Revuelta Lucerga, member of the Bar Association of Huelva (southwestern Andalusia) and of the International Criminal Bar of the Hague (Netherlands), on behalf of the non-profit association René Cassin Committee (CRC), and in association with the Comité Español de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEAR, Spanish Committee for Assistance to Refugees), provides an in-depth analysis of events and the legal implications of large-scale operations involving the "Detention, deportation and degrading treatment of 42 black persons of sub-Saharan origin, asylum-seekers and refugees, in Morocco in the early morning hours of 23rd to 24th December 2006".

On 23 December 2006, round-ups by the police and auxiliary forces in at least five neighbourhoods in Rabat resulted in the arrest of 248 people (exclusively black skinned) who were taken to Aynnada police station before being transported in minibuses to the Algerian border near Oujda, 600 kilometres away from Rabat. Similar operations resulted in detained foreigners suffering the same fate in Nador (near Melilla, 60 people) and Layoune (170 detained, 59 of whom were taken to the same place). They spent days wandering in the desert at the mercy of the elements and initially, in the border area, Moroccan and Algerian border guards sought to induce them to walk towards the other country by firing their weapons in the air. The announcement of the operation by Moroccan press agency MAP encompassed the operation as part of the:

"framework of the efforts made by the authorities to combat clandestine immigration and people-trafficking networks. This measure also forms part of the framework of cooperation with the European Union and the Spanish authorities"

referring to the tightening of EU immigration policies.

The document uses testimonies from 42 individuals (out of a far larger number) provided during interviews with a humanitarian action team, as the basis of the reconstruction of events, stressing that they suffered deportation, abusive treatment and violation of their rights. The group comprised people from the Democratic Republic of Congo (16), Ivory Coast (21), Congo-Brazzaville (2), one from Angola and two whose nationality was not known,. The group was mainly composed by adult men, with six women, one of them an 11-year-old girl, and three other under 18s among them. Fifteen had already been deported from Morocco on previous occasions. All of them had applied for asylum at the UNHCR offices in Rabat, with case records available in 38 of their cases.

The description of the operations leading to their detentions in Rabat, with gendarmes, uniformed police, civilian police and paramilitaries surrounding neighbourhoods and banging on doors where they knew migrants to be residing, before violently breaking in and detaining the people who were sleeping inside. According to the testimonies, no warrants were shown during the raids, the police destroyed property and stole the detainee's mobile phones, money and personal effects. The destruction and throwing away of UNHCR documents testifying to the fact that they had applied for refugee status, is deemed "even more serious" in the report, which stresses that statements on this point were "unanimous" and that this made protection afforded by UNHCR in Morocco "meaningless".

The sequels of the threats and violence the detainees suffered included fits, attacks, an abortion and several instances of loss of consciousness, with beatings in police stations and during the raids, and a partly paralysed asthma-suffering man's medicines being thrown away. Before being driven to the desert, they were taken to Aynnada police station and loaded onto six vans without any legal assistance or appearance before a court intervening, (ten of the detainees managed to escape at this stage). The vans, carrying around 240 people, left for the border area 25 km away from Oujda (when the first two passed and were filmed by television crews), where they arrived the next day. The report notes that:

"The detainees were abandoned there in the middle of the desert, without protection, without warm clothing, without food and without blankets."

They were left walking in the desert after receiving threats from both Moroccan and Algerian soldiers, and most of them ended up returning to Oujda, where an MSF team took care of them, and subsequently to Rabat, where several experienced problems as a result of the raids, with landlords unwilling to renew their leases, and their property stolen and homes wrecked. Several people were detained again by the police and gendarmerie, and taken back to the border zone. Two instances of rape while the expellees were in the desert were also reported, in one case reportedly by Moroccan soldiers and in another by a group of black English-speaking migrants who attacked one of the groups wandering in the desert.

The legal arguments put forward by CRC and CEAR, the two associations responsible for the report, highlighted the violations by Moroccan security forces involved in the operation, and consequently the government under whose authority they acted, of provisions in applicable international legal instruments, most notably in the fields of human rights, racial discrimination, the prohibition of torture and to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment, principles for the protection of detained or imprisoned people, provisions on the rights of migrant workers and on consular relations.

In all of these fields, the report notes that there is ample information to note the blatant disregard for a large number of legal precepts, all the way from the detentions' modus operandi (described above), to non-recognition of UNHCR documents, the failure to inform consular authorities, to provide legal guarantees (lawyers, or a possibility to challenge the detention) or information concerning the arrests, or to protect individuals who were in detention. The government authority that ordered the intervention of the security forces is accused of "knowingly violating" provisions in "international instruments concerning protection of refugees, asylum-seekers and forcibly displaced persons" of which Morocco is a signatory.

The fact that dozens of people who had applied for refugee status (38 of them with documents that certified this), and in some cases had been recognised as refugees, were "arrested, beaten in some cases, robbed in others, ill-treated in most cases, deported and harassed by security officers answerable to the Moroccan Government", illustrates the failure by the Moroccan state to comply with its obligations. This situation is encompassed within a general deterioration of respect for the rights of refugees internationally, resulting from the "external dimension" of the EU's immigration policies and the agreements that EU countries are concluding with countries of origin and transit.

Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid / CEAR, Detention, deportation and degrading treatment of 42 black persons of sub-Saharan origin, asylum-seekers and refugees, in Morocco in the early morning hours of 23rd to 24th December.Legal judgement (pdf), Alberto J. Revuelta Lucerga of the International Criminal Bar of the Hague (Holland) on behalf of CEAR and the René Cassin Committee, Seville, 16.2.2007.

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