Sidy and Mamadou are two of approximately 800 people who live in El Cementerio (The Cemetery) – a migrant squatter camp of chabolas, or shacks, abutting the local Roman Catholic cemetery in Lepe, an otherwise unremarkable agricultural town of 25,000 people near the Spanish-Portuguese border in south-west Andalucía.
Sidy, aged 55, is short and avuncular and wrapped in several layers of clothing against the biting winter chill. His life has been made even tougher by childhood polio that partially paralysed his right leg.
Mamadou, 38, is much taller, with an athletic build and all-together more serious countenance. He has the glint of a daredevil in his eye, of a man who has climbed over wire to get here.
The friends knew each other back home in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, where Sidy survived as a fisherman and Mamadou worked as a truck driver.
They both came to Spain in 2007 by sea via different, but equally hazardous, routes.
According to Andalucía’s leading human rights group,Asociacion Pro Derechos Humanos de Andalucía (APDHA), 64,120 irregular migrants from Africa arrived in Spain in 2018 – the largest annual number ever.
In their new report, Derechos Humanos en La Frontera Sur: 2019 (Human Rights on the Southern Frontier: 2019), published in February, APDHA says that 51,711 of these migrants arrived on the Andalucían coast, a massive increase on the recorded 28,587 arrivals in Andalucía in 2017 and 14,128 in 2016.
Two-thirds of these migrants were from sub-Saharan Africa, says the report, with the remainder mostly from the Maghreb.
“The governments of Africa do not want their people to work,” says Sidy in Spanish by way of explanation, even though the drivers for migration to Europe are a lot more complicated. Factors include high rates of unemployment across Africa, endemic poverty, extreme income inequality, climate impacts, a demand for labour in Europe and very few channels for regular migration for manual labourers in particular.
“If you got money, if you got everything, you catch a plane. You go live in Asia, in Europe, in America. We cannot afford to take a flight. We take the sea or we take the desert. For us there is no visa.”
Sidy says that he travelled the 1,600 kilometres north from Dakar to Las Palmas in Spain’s Canary Islands in an open-topped 21-metre boat crammed with 126 other migrants. The vessel was less than a metre deep and two metres wide. It was powered by only two 40hp outboard motors.
“I lost a lot of friends. It was a journey you just couldn’t believe,” Sidy recalls. “For me, to think about this journey, at the end I didn’t want to live anymore.”
Mamadou stowed away on a freighter bound for Barcelona. For four days and nights he huddled within a coffin-sized space in the hold, above the ship’s engines, with only a litre of water and handful of cornmeal for sustenance.
The 200 chabolas in El Cementerio are almost entirely populated by men.
Some inhabitants are seasonal agricultural labourers from Morocco; a few are Spanish. But most are undocumented migrants from Africa, mainly Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Gambia and Senegal.
Many would argue that this expanding mass of informal housing made from scavenged wooden pallets, cardboard and industrial plastic sheeting is a glaring indictment of Europe’s failed immigration policies.
In Spain, for example, most irregular migrants can’t get legal work unless they’ve got papers. But to get papers they have to show proof they’ve got a work contract. So they find themselves in a Catch-22 situation.
Enervated by anxiety and bare-knuckle poverty, El Cementerio is a dangerous place. Journalists are unwelcome, outsiders mistrusted and photography risky.
In the age of social media, everyone here is media savvy and many are embarrassed, even ashamed, by the possibility that the folks back home will see the reality of their life in Spain.
There’s no running water, no sewage facilities, no electricity, no garbage collection. It’s a free-for-all, dominated by gang masters, police informers and a cabal of small-time drug dealers.
It’s common to see both Spanish and migrant sex workers ply their trade and local petty criminals trying to shift their stolen wares on the muddy tracks and pathways that criss-cross the encampment.
“The conditions in the Lepe chabolas can only be described as inhumane,”
says José María Castellano, who works with APDHA in Huelva province.
“Lepe has the highest concentration of chabolas. But they are all over the province. You can find them in the towns of Rociana, Lucena, Moguer and Mazagon. There’s also a big concentration in (the province of) Almeria. There are camps like this all over Europe.
“These migrant workers are being denied their fundamental human rights and have to suffer the indignity of living like this. I believe the responsibility lies with the national, provincial and local governments,” says Castellano.
Despite repeated attempts, local and provincial authorities declined to comment.
Business is booming, but migrants face increased precarity
Over the last two decades, like a sea of plastic, agro-industrial greenhouses have flooded this area of Andalucía, a triangle of marshy coastal plain and dehesa, that runs from the provincial capital, Huelva, to the towns of Moguer, Palos de la Frontera, Lepe, Villablanca and Ayamonte.
They grow strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, melons, peppers, cherries and plums, and much else.The reach of Lepe’s plastic plain is broken only by large plantations of oranges and mandarins that have been carved from the dehesa, a rolling hill country of white-painted villages, holm oak trees, ruminants and pigs.
It’s what brought Sidy and Mamadou to Lepe in the first place, the promise of abundant work as agricultural labourers in the fields and greenhouses picking fruit and vegetables for export to the supermarkets of northern Europe.
Andalucía’s agriculture and fisheries are worth approximately €8.63 billion a year, accounting for close to 20 per cent of Spain’s total annual food and fish production.
During the height of any particular harvest – be it citrus, olives or strawberries, for example – tens of thousands of migrants are employed as pickers. But undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable in this informal economy. While some are paid the minimum legal daily wage of €42.10 set by the government for agricultural workers, many others make do with as little as €20.
“Many of the bosses do not pay by the hour. They pay you by the amount of fruit you pick. If you have a hand of iron you can earn more. If you are slow you earn less,” says Sidy.
Another migrant worker, 45-year-old Issa Diakite, originally from Bamako, Mali, who lives in the Las Malvinas encampment near the town of Palos de la Frontera, tells Equal Times from the squalid surroundings of his makeshift home: “It’s really tough at the moment. Sometimes there’s no work at all, or just work for a few days each month. I have to live here, near the fields where I work. I don’t have a choice.”
In 2018, according to both the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Spain became the main gateway into Europe for irregular immigration from Africa, far surpassing Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta.
Of the registered irregular 116,295 arrivals on the southern frontier of Europe last year, more than half landed in Spain.
This follows the January, 2017 agreement between Italy and Libya to crackdown on migrant crossings, a 2016 migrant accord between the European Union and Turkey in 2016 and a slew of anti-migrant policies across eastern Europe, most notoriously in the far-rightHungary of Viktor Orbán.
Another 769 people, many of them crossing the mouth of the Mediterranean in small wooden boats called pateras, died or went missing en-route from Morocco to southern Spain in 2018, the IOM estimates.
APDHA puts the death toll even higher at 1,064 people, who died or disappeared at sea – a massive increase on the 249 fatalities in 2017 and 295 in 2016, according to APDHA figures.
When asked why they made the dangerous journey to Europe and why they continue to stay, Sidy says with a trace of irony, that he and Mamadou were only “following the food”.
Back home in Dakar, Sidy, his wife and three children certainly went hungry because of the depredations of globalisation. A fisher, he was left with dwindling fish stocks and thin catches by the international fishing fleets that have pillaged West Africa’s marine resources.
“These people took all our fish in the sea,” he tells Equal Times. “I thought that Europe was my only possibility.”
Mamadou says: “Here the big problem is housing, somewhere you can call your home. Nobody wants to live in a chabola.”
Pointing to a row of empty apartments in the near distance, on the other side of the national highway leading out of Lepe, he remarks: “Look there. And look here. The situation is crazy. I can’t rent a proper home because I don’t have papers.
“Every day you’re in the hole. Everyday I think somebody is going to pass by and throw me a rope so I can get out. I’ve been in Spain since 2007 and still I’ve got nothing. But every day I think: ‘Yes. I can find that thing, the money, which will allow me to go home. That’s the truth.’”