“This is the worst place I have ever lived in”, Karidioula Kession a 32-year-old Ivorian man told the Spanish newspaper El País. Karidioula arrived at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in 2016. “If I told my family I lived here they wouldn’t believe me. It’s my secret”. This is the testimony of one of the more than 2,000 agricultural workers who are enduring the COVID-19 lockdown in a settlement in the Andalusian province of Huelva, southern Spain, under conditions that “rival the worst I have seen anywhere in the world”, denounced Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
People live in cardboard and plastic houses − the same plastic which is used to cover the strawberries growing in the fields in which they work. Similar plastic roofed settlements in the neighbouring province of Almería can be spotted from space, but the human reality of these settlements seems harder for many to notice.
Leave no-one behind
When Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez declared the lockdown across the country, he also announced that the government would not leave anyone behind and that the most vulnerable would be protected. Yet across Europe, like here in Spain, some of us have indeed been left behind.
These slum-like settlements lack basic supplies. They do not have showers, bathrooms or a waste collection system. The residents also live without electricity or running water, for which they need to walk kilometres to get. And this precarious situation is only exacerbated in the current health crisis. In a place with unsanitary conditions, without running water, and where social distancing is impossible, residents and healthworkers fear that as the lockdown eases COVID-19 might still take hold here.
“If the virus spreads among them, there will be no hospitals in Spain to accommodate 5,000 or 6,000 people”, Carmen Domínguez, President of Médicos del Mundo Andalucía, told Público. This is only one of the organisations that has tried to support people in the settlements during the pandemic. They have several projects planned, but it has been difficult to get the legal permission to act.
Nobody seems to want to take responsibility for those who are risking their lives so that we have food on our plate. “We are feeding the authorities, the Spanish population and all of Europe … Why can’t they value us as human beings?” asks Seydou, a member of the New Citizens for Interculturality Association (ASNUCI) on Spanish television channel La Sexta.
What can be more difficult to see from more privileged vantage points is that when you’re on the margins, the pandemic doesn’t look like the biggest threat. COVID-19 sits alongside increases in racism and the very real possibility that speaking out about lockdown and labour violations will result in termination of employment.
Ana Pinto, spokesperson for the Huelva Day-Laborers’ Collective in Struggle, claims that since the beginning of the crisis she has received hundreds of complaints regarding safety protocols. In some of the storehouses social distancing is impossible and masks have not been provided. In some fields workers do not have access to water to wash their hands and working with gloves is not allowed as it could damage the fruit.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that many workers do not have leave to remain in Spain, which prevents them from accessing the additional socio-economic support the Spanish government is providing other people during the pandemic. Confinement is far less comfortable if daily access to water, means daily risk of arrest. This situation only underlines the additional resilience needed by Europe’s undocumented (but essential) workers.
The Portuguese Government quickly understood this need for regularisation. People who had already initiated their residence application are now entitled to the same rights as existing Portuguese citizens, ensuring access to healthcare, social security and housing. Following Portugal’s lead, Italy is also preparing the way for a limited regularisation.
This is exactly what the Spanish campaign #RegularizaciónYa has been demanding since the lockdown began: an unconditional regularisation of the nearly 600,000 people living ‘sans-papier’ in Spain. Thus far, over 1,100 organisations have endorsed it.
This crisis has created new challenges. But mostly it has exacerbated old ones, highlighting the daily resilience of those who are denied human rights and fundamental freedoms – living at the margins whilst delivering an essential service for society.
We should abandon discussions about whether migration must be prevented or encouraged. Migration is a reality. People will continue to move. Instead, the question we should be asking is whether there can be a way out of the COVID-19 crisis that finally builds a society and an economy in which no-one if left behind. We need to #BuildBackBetter.
Anna Closas Casasampera
* On 26 May 2020 the Spanish government approved the granting of a two-year residence and work permit to all young migrants between 18 and 21 years of age who had just taken up jobs in the countryside during the COVID-19 crisis. The measure will benefit young third-country nationals who have already benefited from Royal Decree Law 13/2020, passed on 7 April. The campaign #RegularizationYa has criticized the ‘mercantilist character’ of the royal decree 13/2020, considering that it “promotes a contract for ‘use and disuse’ of migrant workers”.