When Spanish aid workers are not welcome abroad

Almost a dozen Spaniards have been deported from Morocco, Mozambique and Cambodia in the last year

J. J. Gálvez
Eva Anadón in Zaragoza after her deportation from Mozambique.
Eva Anadón in Zaragoza after her deportation from Mozambique.David Asensio

When a group of armed police handcuffed and arrested Spanish aid worker Eva Anadón for demonstrating in Mozambique against sexual abuse in schools, she had no idea what was in store; when she was interrogated and held for hours without charge, she thought the police were just using scare tactics.

The 34-year-old feminist from Aragón, who has fought for four years for women’s rights with various NGOs in Mozambique, was shocked when she was put on a plane back to Madrid without being given time to pack her bags. After arriving at the end of March she explained: “They threw me out with absolute impunity. It was message from the government to the people of Mozambique: Don’t protest!”

Eva is one of a number of Spanish aid workers whose influence in the countries where they work is a thorn in the side of the authorities there. Her case mirrors that of ecologist Alejandro González-Davidson, whose campaign in Cambodia against the construction of the Chhay Areng dam led to his deportation in February 2015, or that of Jesuit priest Esteban Velázquez, who was thrown out of Morocco at the start of 2016 for offering humanitarian aid to people waiting in the hills outside Melilla for their chance to enter Spanish territory.

In the last year, almost a dozen Spanish aid workers have been deported, the majority from Morocco

In the last year, almost a dozen Spanish aid workers have been deported, the majority from Morocco, which has strong historical ties with Spain.

Besides Velázquez, a gay rights activist was deported last summer and this April, five lawyers belonging to the International Collective of Support for Saharan prisoners were expelled after checking out the conditions of a group of activists from Western Sahara being held in Rabat.

María Nieves Cubas, one of the five deported lawyers, said: “We have been attending trials of Saharan political prisoners since 2002, compiling reports on them and sending the reports to the UN. There haven’t been any problems until now.”

“By deporting me they were sending a warning to the rest of society”

After 14 years standing up to the Cambodian authorities, Catalan environmentalist Alejandro González-Davidson was finally expelled from the country after organizing demonstrations against the building of a dam that would flood 26,000 hectares of jungle and displace 1,500 people. “The government decided to throw me out because they saw I was able to mobilize public opinion,” says the founder of the Cambodian NGO, Mother Nature.

“By deporting me, they were also sending a warning to society in general and to the numerous foreign NGOs working there: ‘If you cross the line and do something that is actually effective, something which will show the Cambodian public what we are really up to, this is what will happen’,” says González-Davidson. "But my deportation wasn’t in vain. It created a lot of public unrest that forced the government to cancel the dam project. An activist with a passport from a democratic country of some influence, like Spain, can achieve a lot of things which are difficult for local people.”

So what has changed? Nieves Cubas says the increase in deportations is related to the European Court of Justice’s decision to cancel a trade agreement between Rabat and Brussels over Morocco’s exploitation of natural resources in Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony whose occupation by Morocco is not recognized by the EU or the UN.

Aid workers move around a lot and are often unsure of their legal situation, says José Ángel Sotillo, director of the Institute for Development and Cooperation at the Complutense University of Madrid, explaining that changes in bilateral relations can directly affect them. Conversely, their activism can affect bilateral relations. “Together with the local community they create a climate for change. And if this involves questioning the state of human rights and democracy, governments don’t like it,” Sotillo points out.

Eva Anadón can’t find the words to describe how she felt when she was arrested and expelled from Mozambique. She talks about an emotional rollercoaster ride that took her from fury and impotence to fear, and finally sadness.

Her ordeal began on the morning of March 18 when her local group of World March of Women held a demonstration to protest against sexual abuse in schools. “There are children,” says Eva, “who have to submit to sexual abuse from their teachers if they want to move up at the end of the year.”

The demonstration was also to highlight the senseless measures adopted by the community to combat the abuse, such as making the girls wear skirts down to their ankles, an initiative which, according to Anadón, criminalizes the victim by implying “it is her fault for showing off her legs”.

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“We were getting together for the protest when the police arrived and tried to intimidate us,” she says. “The girls started to chant, ‘By sticking together, women can defeat sexism.’ After that the police became very violent.” Anadón was arrested with a Brazilian and three local women.

Although they let the women go several hours later, the authorities in the capital of Maputo hadn’t finished with Anadón. A group of police turned up at her house some days later; she wasn’t there but they soon caught up with her and put her on a plane back to Spain.

English version by Heather Galloway.

Spanish government reaction

The Foreign Office. "All countries have the right to deport people in accordance with their laws," said a spokesperson from the Spanish Foreign Office, explaining that the role of Spanish consulates abroad is to make sure Spanish nationals are not mistreated and that the deportations fall within the law. "We see that they have legal aid, for example," says the spokesperson, "although they have to find their own lawyers."

Objections. Rajoy's government has asked the ambassadors of Mozambique and Morocco to explain the deportations of Anadón and the five lawyers respectively. In Anadón's case, Madrid complained that the Spanish embassy was not informed of her arrest and that the consulate was not allowed to intervene on her behalf.

The five lawyers expressed concern over their security while they were being deported from Morocco.

Accusations. Mozambique accuses Eva Anadón of "participating in an illegal demonstration, leading a group of under-aged girls in school uniforms and holding banners that go against good conduct". This is a "clear violation of the law" in Mozambique.

Regarding the five lawyers, Morocco accuses them of “entering national territory to create unrest and upset public order.”

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