Spain’s deadly border: Justice denied to victims at El Tarajal, Ceuta

Spanish Supreme Court archives case: Investigation remains incomplete, impunity prevails

Spain – Pushbacks – Ceuta

At least 15 dead and many more injured: this is the outcome of a brutal pushback operation by the Spanish Guardia Civil - a paramilitary police force - at the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the beach of El Tarajal. ECCHR assisted survivors and witnesses of the events of 6 February 2014 in taking legal proceedings against the Guardia Civil.

After an interim decision to hold a criminal trial against 16 Guardia Civil officers for gross negligence, manslaugther and failure to provide assistance, the proceedings were closed three times by the investigating judge in Ceuta. ECCHR partner lawyer Gonzalo Boye repeatedly and successfully appealed the closures. In July 2020, the Audiencia Provincial in Cádiz confirmed the decision. Spain's Supreme Court finally dismissed the subsequent appeals and archived the case in 2022. 



Nathan was 15 years old when he joined a group of around 400 refugees and migrants attempting to swim across the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on 6 February 2014. Members of the Guardia Civil responded with batons, rubber bullets and tear gas. At least 15 people were killed; many more were seriously injured. In addition, 23 people who reached the shoreline were summarily deported to Morocco without any examination of their asylum rights.

During the investigations, authorities maintained that the Guardia Civil fired into the water and that none were injured. Only after the appearance of extensive video footage and eye-witness testimonies did the Spanish government admit that rubber bullets had been used. In March 2019, one of the survivors was able to testify via video conference from Berlin for the first time. Later that year, another survivor was prevented from presenting testimony due to unaddressed technical problems at the Spanish court. He has never been heard. 


Spain has implemented a policy of automatic summary expulsions to Morocco from its enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the northern coast of Africa since 2005. It was the first European country to ground pushbacks in national law in 2015. Since Spain affords no real access to border posts to allow people on the move to apply for international protection from Morocco, they have no option but to climb the border fences separating Morocco from Spain.

Black persons in particular are racially profiled by Moroccan authorities and cannot even approach the border without being turned away. Dozens of those who have tried to cross via the border fences have been killed, many more disappeared, and some arrested and prosecuted. The majority are violently forced back to Morocco and left to live in dire conditions with no access to protection.

The violence displayed in Ceuta is symptomatic of the unlawful yet systematic practice of pushbacks, in complete disregard of the rights of those seeking safety in Europe. It was more than a year after the deadly pushback when Spanish authorities decided to launch a criminal investigation into the incident. Despite the severity of the violations, and the failure to properly investigate the events, the case was closed 7 years later. The decision is an important example of ongoing impunity for violations of the rights of people on the move at Spanish borders, who continue to be met with deadly violence. 


Spanish-Moroccan border at El Tarajal/Ceuta © Photo: Metromuster/Observatori DESC
Spanish-Moroccan border at El Tarajal/Ceuta © Photo: Metromuster/Observatori DESC


documents (5)


glossary (2)



Pushbacks entail a variety of state measures aimed at forcing refugees and migrants out of their territory while obstructing access to applicable legal and procedural frameworks. In doing so, States circumvent safeguards governing international protection (including minors), detention or custody, expulsion, and the use of force.

Topics (2)



Kilometers of barbed wire exclusion fences, thousands of high-tech patrols at sea, in the air and on land, pushback agreements with neighboring countries: the European Union goes to great lengths to exclude people fleeing from war, persecution and hardship in their home countries. To justify their actions leaders in Brussels and the EU member states claim the pushbacks are politically necessary and permitted under law.

Every other week another boat carrying migrants and refugees capsizes or sinks off the coast of Italy or Malta. Witnesses frequently report instances of abuse at the borders between Turkey and Greece. There is a steady climb in the number of people who lose their lives while trying to cross the Moroccan-Spanish border. All of these events serve as evidence of the terrible failure of the EU’s asylum and refugee policies.

Illegal pushbacks or forced returns at EU borders represent a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights and refugee laws. In the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the northern coast of Africa, refugees and migrants are repeatedly subjected to brutal violence from border guards. Anyone attempting to enter these Spanish cities – and thereby reach EU territory – is immediately deported to Morocco without any examination of their right to asylum.

Since 2014, ECCHR has been examining the scope for legal intervention against the practice of pushbacks in the EU and has been helping affected persons with individual legal proceedings.


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