With no ferries authorized to operate from Spanish ports and pricey plane tickets out of the question, Moroccan women working in Spain are desperate to find a way home as Morocco prepares to reopen its borders.
Thousands of Moroccan women who traveled to Spain’s southern Huelva province four months ago to work on strawberry farms have been stranded since Morocco closed its borders on March 15.
The North African country is set to open its borders Wednesday to Moroccan citizens, residents, and their families. Royal Air Maroc and Air Arabia are organizing flights between Morocco and several international destinations, including the Spanish cities of Barcelona, Madrid, and Malaga.
But the 7,200 Moroccans who went to Spain to pick fruit in March — the majority of them women — have sent their earnings back to their families, leaving them with almost no money for any means of travel, let alone flights.
With ferries only operating out of ports in Sete, France and Genoa, Italy — both over 1,000 kilometers from Huelva — seasonal workers in Spain are left with little choice but to appeal to the Moroccan government directly for help.
‘Open the port’
A group of 15 Moroccan women who work on red fruits farms staged a protest in Cartaya, a rural town in Huelva, on July 9. Video footage shared on Facebook by Spanish news outlet Le Mar de Onuba shows the women asking King Mohammed VI to facilitate their return to Morocco.
′′The work is over and we’re having a hard time. We already sent all the money to Morocco. Our kids are alone. No one is taking care of them. They miss us. We ask the King to open the port. We are here without work, without money, and without food. We ask the King to send us home,” said Fatima, one of the protestors.
“Please help us, we are abandoned here. I have four children who are with my mother-in-law, who is doing me the favor,” another protestor said. “The work is done. We are no longer doing anything, we can only be at home, please help us, we have been like this for a month.”
The Moroccan government’s stringent COVID-19 testing requirements present an added challenge to seasonal workers in Spain, who are often housed in isolated areas far from screening centers and lack the money to pay for tests. Securing up-to-date and accurate test results within 48 hours of departing for Morocco, as the government requires, is unattainable for workers in already precarious situations.
Although the Spanish government has extended the workers’ temporary residency permits until September 30, Spain has expressed its hope that the Moroccan women will soon be able to return home.
“We are in permanent contact with the Moroccan authorities. It is a complex operation and the details have yet to be defined,” a spokesperson for Spain’s foreign minister told CNN on July 9.
Despite Spain’s repeated affirmations of its readiness to facilitate the transit of the Moroccan diaspora across the Strait of Gibraltar, both Spain and Morocco have doubled down on their decisions to keep their mutual borders closed.
The EU decided in June to open the Schengen Area to travelers from 15 countries, including Morocco. However, as Morocco has made clear its commitment to keeping its borders closed to most of the world for the foreseeable future, several EU states — including Spain — remain shut to travelers from Morocco.
Despite months of media speculations and partisan squabbles over maritime borders, the economies of Ceuta and Melilla, and airtight border closures, no outright tension has emerged between Spain and Morocco. The two countries continue to express satisfaction with their “excellent” bilateral relations. However, Morocco’s decision to open its borders on July 15 notably excluded ferries from Spain, home to one of the largest populations of the Moroccan diaspora and the closest overseas crossing point.
While the exclusion may serve to limit the number of ferry crossings and allow Morocco to better manage the influx of citizens, nationals, and their families, many low-income Moroccan seasonal workers in Spain have had their hopes of returning home dashed and must instead cross their fingers for seats on future repatriation flights.
Morocco has repatriated thousands of nationals from Spanish territories since mid-May, and a spokesman for the Andalusian regional government told CNN that 106 Moroccan women and five infants have returned home from the region. He added that local officials have been providing food and essential items to the workers, whose employers have agreed to let them stay in their designated accommodation. But Spanish NGOs have exposed the grim reality of the Moroccan workers’ dire living conditions.
“The farms that we have been able to access are not suitable for a long-term stay,” Angels Escriva, a spokesperson for NGO and Huelva feminist collective Mujeres 24H, told CNN.
“Many are prefabricated modules, they are designed for non-extreme weather conditions, with a large concentration of people in very small spaces, which doesn’t meet what rules of the hiring in origin agreement,” the spokesperson explained, adding that some accommodations lack running water and electricity.
“When it has rained, they have told us that they have gotten wet and now with the heat, they have had to sleep on the ground outside.”
The same NGO said to Spanish outlet El Salto: ′′We’ve been told that they’re being eaten by mosquitoes, they’re having eczema on their skin, rodents bite their food. There is even a woman who has decided to sleep under a wheelbarrow because she considers that there, surrounded by manure, is better than in the house.”
In a statement to Spanish outlet Publico, the Mujeres 24H spokesperson said the NGO considers the Moroccan women’s vulnerable health status the most pressing challenge.
“In recent weeks we have been called from different farms because several women had health problems, especially related to blood sugar and diabetes, and they did not have access to the staff responsible for the property. One of them had not been on insulin for a month,” Escriva said.
Mujeres 24H fears the health situation could deteriorate even further if authorities take no action. “They are in a context where extreme physical fatigue, the high temperatures that we are experiencing in the province of Huelva, and the lack of adapted homes in which up to eight or nine women live in the same room without air conditioning come together.”
An ongoing plight
The tragedy of Moroccan women workers in Spain does not end — or begin — with being stranded abroad and living in squalid, unsafe conditions. Seasonal strawberry farm workers in the Huelva region have long been the victims of sexual abuse and physical exploitation.
In 2001, Morocco and Spain set up a bilateral agreement to permit thousands of seasonal Moroccan laborers to work the annual strawberry harvest in the European country, with 14,583 recruited for the 2019 agricultural season.
Spain intended to hire 16,500 seasonal workers from Morocco for the 2020 season, but the COVID-19 crisis put a dent in these plans. Morocco and Spain reached an agreement in March to allow 9,000 Moroccan workers to make the journey abroad in a bid to avoid steep losses from unharvested berry crops.
Moroccan women take jobs in Spanish strawberry fields expecting good wages, comfortable accommodation, and healthcare. But for many, the reality is one of overcrowded living facilities, unpaid work, and sexual assault.
In 2018, a group of approximately 100 Moroccan women came forward with complaints of poor conditions on the Donana 1998 d’Almonte strawberry farm in Huelva. They claimed they were forced to work long hours, often without pay. They reported being denied breaks, punished for not working fast enough, and housed in dirty shipping containers.
The women also said d’Almonte often withheld their wages until after they completed their seasonal contracts and detailed instances of racial abuse and sexual assault.
One of the women told the New York Times in 2019, “I felt like a slave. Like an animal. They brought us to exploit us and then to send us back. I wish I drowned in the sea and died before arriving in Spain.”
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the attacks on Moroccan women workers’ bodies and minds have continued.
One woman on a strawberry farm in Lucena del Puerto alleged in May that the farm’s supervisor lured her away from the fields and assaulted her. When the woman fought back in self-defense, the Huelva Public Prosecutor’s Office classified the case as “mutual physical assault” rather than sexual assault.
The emotional turmoil continues to mount now that the Moroccan women workers in Spain have a chance to go home but lack the means to benefit from it.
“The situation of these women is humanitarian and health emergency,” Mujeres 24H has argued. “They need and want to return to their country with their families, their sons, and daughters. Each of these women has a life to return to.”