African Union demanded a probe into the treatment of migrants and refugees at the Morocco-Spain land border after at least 23 died in the attempted crossing.

Moroccan authorities reported at least 23 people dead while the head of the NGO Walking Borders said at least 37 people lost their lives.
Moroccan authorities reported at least 23 people dead while the head of the NGO Walking Borders said at least 37 people lost their lives. (AA)

African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat has called for an "immediate investigation" after the deaths of dozens of migrants trying to cross from Morocco into the Spanish enclave of Melilla.

"I express my deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border from #Morocco into #Spain, with the ensuing violence leading to the deaths of at least 23 people and injuries to many more," Mahamat said on Twitter late Sunday.

"I call for an immediate investigation into the matter and remind all countries of their obligations under international law to treat all migrants with dignity and to prioritise their safety and human rights, while refraining from the use of excessive force," he added.

Around 2,000 migrants, many from Sudan, tried to cross the militarised border fence Friday and were met with force from both Moroccan and Spanish authorities.

Initial reports indicated five dead, but Moroccan authorities later raised that figure to 23. Helena Maleno Garzon, head of the NGO Walking Borders, said at least 37 people lost their lives.

Videos from the Moroccan side of the border show what appear to be dead bodies and severely injured people strewn across the ground without receiving medical attention - some with their hands tied behind their backs.

READ MORE: Refugee, migrant crossing at Spain’s Melilla results in record death toll

'Deeply troubling'

Meanwhile, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has only applauded Spanish and Moroccan collaboration on the border, saying the mass migration attempt was "well resolved."

However, several politicians in Sanchez's ruling coalition are calling on the prime minister to rectify his statements and launch an investigation.

"My condolences to the loved ones of everyone who unjustly lost their life," said Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Diaz. "It makes sense to clarify what happened... no one should die like this."

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson also called the events "deeply troubling" on Sunday.

However, when asked, European Council President Charles Michel said: "We totally support Spain and all countries on the frontline protecting the EU's borders. Migration is a difficult challenge for everyone. I express my support for the Spanish authorities."

Many of the migrants, often from war-torn zones such as Sudan's Darfur region, have spent months or even years under precarious, dangerous conditions in the nearby forest of Gourougou, braving beatings and arrests in multiple attempts to reach better lives in Spain.

Observers said the latest crossing attempt was unprecedented in the level of violence as refugees and migrants face higher levels of desperation for security.

READ MORE: Militarised borders are a bonanza for the arms industry

Source: AA