“It was war. We had stones to fight with the Moroccan soldiers who beat us with sticks”, testifies a 20-year-old Sudanese man to whom AFP was able to speak on Saturday in a detention center in Melilla. .

Another migrant, detained in the same centre, recounts how he climbed the chain-link fence that separates the Moroccan town of Nador from the Spanish enclave before a security agent hit his hands: “I fell unconscious Spanish where I was beaten up by the police”.

These two young people were part of nearly 2,000 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who tried to enter by force Friday morning in the Spanish autonomous city of Melilla, located in Moroccan territory.

At least 23 migrants died and 140 police officers were injured, according to Moroccan local authorities. This is the deadliest toll ever recorded during the many attempts by sub-Saharan migrants to enter Melilla and the neighboring Spanish enclave of Ceuta, which constitute the EU’s only land borders with the African continent.

This is not the first time that illegal migrants, who camp in precarious conditions in the nearby forest of Gourougou, have tried to reach “the European El Dorado”.

– Unprecedented violence –

But this time, the unprecedented violence of the assault marks a turning point, according to migration experts.

“This is the first time that we have seen such violence on the part of migrants vis-à-vis the police”, underlines Omar Naji, who has been following migration issues for years within the Association. Moroccan Human Rights Organization (AMDH) in Nador.

In the border district of Barrio Chino, Moroccan residents are in shock.

“We are terrified by what happened! This is the first time that we have seen migrants armed with sticks and iron bars targeting the police,” said Issam Ouaâid, 24.

For Omar Naji, of the AMDH, the escalation of violence is due to the diplomatic reconciliation between Rabat and Madrid, after a year of crisis, and the resumption of cooperation on illegal migration.

Located at the northwestern tip of Africa, Morocco is a transit country for many migrants seeking to reach Europe from its Atlantic or Mediterranean coasts.

The recent rapprochement with Spain has resulted in “an intensification of pressure” on illegal immigrants settled in the Gourougou forest, opines Mr. Naji.

In addition, the easing of relations with Rabat has led to a recent drop in migrant arrivals in Spain.

– “European policeman” –

“The Moroccan authorities have treated the migrants very harshly. They have besieged their camps. There is no doubt that this pressure has generated the unprecedented violence that we have witnessed”, assures the human rights activist.

Before Friday’s tragedy, Spanish media had reported sporadic clashes between migrants and Moroccan police.

For Oussmane Ba, president of the collective of sub-Saharan communities in Morocco, “the difficult conditions in which these migrants live condition them psychologically to violence”.

The majority of new migrants flowing into Morocco come from Sudan, particularly Darfur, where a new outbreak of violence recently left hundreds dead and 50,000 displaced.

Many pass through Libya and Algeria – despite an officially closed border with Morocco – to arrive in the Cherifian kingdom.

Despite attempts to keep them away from the Nador region, they remain determined to attempt the passage to the EU again at the risk of their lives.

“We are talking about people who wait here two to three years. Morocco cannot completely close its borders to play the role of policeman of Europe, this policy will lead to more violence”, warns Omar Naji.

Moroccan police announced that they had foiled a plan on Sunday morning to storm the metal fence between the province of Tetouan (northern Morocco) and the enclave of Ceuta. 59 candidates for illegal immigration were arrested, according to the General Directorate of National Security (DGSN).