No water, toilets or electricity: Life in Spain’s shameful shanty town

EL PAÍS visits a migrant workers’ camp in Huelva province, described by UN expert Philip Alston as having among the worst conditions in the world

A field worker walks between shacks at the makeshift camp in Lepe.
A field worker walks between shacks at the makeshift camp in Lepe.PACO PUENTES
María Martín

No one in the camp knew who the white-haired Australian in the leather shoes was. Foreigners do not tend to bring good news and they are viewed with suspicion in the shanty town. They quickly surrounded him. The visitor was Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He arrived two weeks ago at this migrant workers’ camp in Lepe, in the southern Spanish province of Huelva, to find out how people in 21st-century Spain can live without water, electricity or a toilet.

Alston, without letting go of his red notebook, sat down on a cable reel under the only pine tree in the makeshift settlement and listened to the concerns of the residents, all of whom are Sub-Saharan workers living in precarious conditions. His friendly attitude never wavered, he didn’t frown or ask too many questions, but after his visit, he said: “They live like animals. Their conditions are among the worst that I have seen in any part of the world.”

Around the pine tree where Alston took his notes there are some 70 shanty homes made from pallets, cardboard and plastic from greenhouses, which are the economic driver of Huelva. Seen from above, the shacks, tied together with discarded hoses from strawberry plantations, look like drug packages. Inside the stuffy shacks, residents struggle to live with as much dignity as possible.

Aerial view of the shanty town in Lepe.
Aerial view of the shanty town in Lepe.paco puentes

Around 300 people, most from Mali, live at the camp. It is the largest one in Lepe, but the Catholic charity group Caritas estimates that there are 2,000 workers living in the same subhuman conditions just in Huelva. They earn around €6 an hour. Some of them have been living in these camps for more than a decade.

At the camp in Lepe, people cook by the light from their cellphones, fetch water from a tap two kilometers away and store it in plastic bottles that were once used for weedkiller. They shower outdoors with water heated on the stove, and go to the bathroom in the field. The trash, which the city does not collect, is put in garbage bags and thrown over the ravine. But there is order here. The camp is neat; there is a cooking schedule and other rules. Alcohol, drugs, bonfires and fighting are banned.

Shanty towns have existed on Spain’s western coast for more than 20 years

“This is the worst place I have lived,” says Karidioula Kession, a 32-year-old from Côte d’Ivoire who arrived in Ceuta, one of Spain’s North African exclave cities, in 2016. “If I were to tell my family that I was living here they wouldn’t believe me. It’s my secret,” he adds in Spanish. Kession, like most of the migrants who are now in Lepe, is one of the many temp workers who pick grapes in Logroño, apples in Lleida, zucchini in Almería, grains in Salamanca, almonds in Tomelloso, and strawberry and citrus fruits in Huelva. They spend the year going from plantation to plantation, taking on the hardest jobs in Spain’s countryside.

Some of the migrants, like Kession, do not have work permits, a situation their employers take advantage of. “For two years and seven months, I picked zucchini in El Ejido [in Almería] for €35 a day. My boss promised that she would hire me, but when it came time to regularize my documents, she chose another [undocumented migrant],” he says.

Gibril Betraure, from Mali, has had similar difficulties. “Without a permit, you work very little and now I don’t have money to buy food. It shames me to always be eating off my friends’ plate,” he says as he tears away the weeds growing at the entrance to his shack.

Bedbug bites

“This place is too difficult. There is sickness. When you arrive from work, you have to take a bath and rest a little before going for water and food,” Magassa Mady, from Mali, says in Italian. Mady was given a residency permit in Italy as an asylum seeker, but has no permission to work in Spain. His hands are covered in bedbug bites, and he lives with 20 others in the only wooden construction in the camp. He shares a room with six other men. His bed, the largest in the room, is shared between two.

A man sits outside a shack in the makeshift camp.
A man sits outside a shack in the makeshift camp.PACO PUENTES

It is especially hard for field workers to regularize their status. By law, they must be able to show that they have been living in Spain for three years and have a one-year work contract – which is difficult to do in a sector defined by temporary contracts. “They could ease up on the bureaucratic bubble these people are facing to allow them to regularize their status,” says Juan Manuel Breva, who heads Caritas’s department for people at risk of exclusion in Huelva. “It’s difficult for them to register on the municipal roll when they live in a settlement, and demanding a one-year contract from them is an insurmountable barrier.”

According to a 2017 report from Caritas, 74% of day workers in Huelva do have residency and work permits, but that doesn’t mean their conditions are any better. They have a contract and work more than undocumented migrants, but they live in the same shanty towns, get wet when it rains and also sleep in overcrowded rooms. According to dozens of temp workers at the camp, everywhere they have worked they have had a bed, a room, or a home to rent – except in Lepe.

What is unusual in this case, is not just the terrible conditions they are living in, but the lack of response from the authorities
UN expert Philip Alston

“I got my papers with a contract four years ago. I make €1,200 a month, but there are no homes or rooms to rent. I have been here three months,” says a Malian migrant who arrived in the Canary Islands in 2008, speaking with an Andalusian accent.

The shanty towns of temp workers have existed on Spain’s southwestern coast for more than 20 years. The intensive agriculture industry has made millions for the region, yet no government agency or business owner has done anything to stop migrant field workers from living in such precarious conditions. According to the UN expert, every time a government official was asked about the situation, “they blamed someone else. It was not their responsibility. Basically, everyone looked the other way,” Alston told EL PAÍS. “What is unusual in this case is not just the terrible conditions they are living in, but the lack of response from the authorities.”

“The problem is the same or worse than what it was in the 1980s, and there continues to be no solution,” says Jesús Toronjo, the spokesperson for the local government in Lepe. “Anyone who wants to believe that this is just the responsibility of the local authorities is wrong. This is everyone’s problem: the central government, the Andalusian regional government, the provincial authority in Huelva, the local governments and the business owners.” In the wake of Alston’s findings, the Labor and Social Economy Ministry announced that it would look for a way to ensure companies help provide workers with accommodation, and to monitor living conditions.

One of the leaders of the Lepe workers’ camp is Mamadou Tunkara, a 45-year-old from Mali with a large mustache who has been living in this shanty town during the harvesting season for more than a decade. He jumped the border fence into Ceuta in 1999 and spent 10 years working in construction. When the crisis hit Spain, he started working in agriculture. Now he has a three-month contract and works nonstop to make €1,200, which he sends almost entirely to his family. “I am lucky now because a week ago my boss let me sleep in his field,” he says. “There’s no solution,” interjects 42-year-old Nana Keita, as he plays checkers with Coca-Cola and Fanta bottle caps. “They just want us for the work.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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