Blog | Merissa Gavin | Migrant workers in Spain’s Agri-Food Industry and the Ceuta ‘March for Dignity’

Text and photos Merissa Gavin

Re-negotiating precarity: Migrant fruit pickers in southern Spain
For my ongoing thesis research, I am interested in how migrant workers in Spain’s agri-food industry navigate politically induced precarity. Precarity, within the scope of this research, refers to the instability of immigrants’ status in society as they embody the paradox of being essential for the economy yet ostracised from socio-political life and unprotected by the state. To deepen my understanding of this phenomenon, I have come to Huelva, Andalusia, in the south of Spain to meet the people harvesting the fruit supply of Europe, from oranges and lemons, to strawberries and blueberries. An industry kept afloat by the work of undocumented migrants, the seasonal fruit harvest attracts thousands of migrant workers to rural Andalusia every year, with parts of the region largely populated by migrants of African descent living in makeshift roadside settlements, las chabolas. My research focuses on the lived experience of these workers as they struggle for the conditions of a dignified life.

– “Tenemos derecho a tener derechos” (We have the right to have rights). Photo taken at the March for Dignity.

‘La X Marcha por la Dignidad’, Ceuta, 04 Feb 2023
Adopting a qualitative approach, my fieldwork has so far involved hanging out with the workers in the evenings, teaching Conversational English classes at a migrant association centre and participating in resistance movement events, such as a recent rights protest march in Ceuta, one of two Spanish enclaves on the Moroccan Mediterranean coast. The march took place this year on Saturday February 4th and is the tenth commemorative event held since the deaths of fourteen sub-Saharan migrants on February 6th 2014, who were shot at and drowned at Tarajal beach as they tried to illegally enter the city of Ceuta. The event was held to commemorate those who died that day, and those who die every day under the cruel reality of migration policies and borders. I joined the event with members of Asociación Nueva Ciudadanía por la Interculturalidad (ASNUCI), a migrant association here in Huelva, along with members of other allied associations including Caravana Abriendo Fronteras (Madrid) and Plataforma Somos Migrantes (Seville). This year’s event ran under the slogan “¡Basta de violencia en las fronteras! Migrar es un derecho” (No more violence at the borders! Migration is a right). It began with a round table discussion hosted by various migrant associations and activist entities, followed by a march from the city of Ceuta to Tarajal beach, ending at the Moroccan border where the tragedy of 2014 occurred.

Voicing the migrant experience
Leaving Seville on a 7am bus we arrived to Algeciras, Spain’s largest port, from where we boarded the ferry to Ceuta. Boarding the ferry we passed through security scanners, however, since we were technically staying within the Spanish state, we didn’t have to present identification. As we neared the port in Ceuta, the first thing I noticed were the Spanish and EU flags flying high in the wind. Kicking off the programme for the day, the roundtable platformed a diversity of voices including immigrant activists as well as representatives of the Spanish legal system. The topics of discussion varied from the shared duties of memory and hospitality, to necropolitics and the role of artificial intelligence in contemporary racism. The roundtable was followed by a one-man theatre performance by Thimbo Samb, a Senegalese man now living in Spain for 15 years. Thimbo’s play, entitled ‘El sueño es vida’, depicted the suffocating journey across the Mediterranean and the difficult and lonely first years he spent in Spain, arriving at the age of 17 and feeling “un frío existencial” (an existential cold) living on the streets in Barcelona. It was an emotive performance that presented the hardship but also the hope of the migrant experience. Having suffered greatly during those first undocumented years in Spain, Thimbo is now not only a legal resident but a nationally recognised actor with several Netflix and Spanish TV appearances. He closed his performance with a plea to the audience, “Soñadores, segiud soñando” (Dreamers, keep dreaming).

A hard or soft border? Depends who’s asking
Thimbo’s performance was followed by an afternoon break in the programme, during which I found myself in the Comisaría de Policía de Ceuta, sitting across from two police officers. Earlier in the afternoon, I had been speaking to Ana, a woman from my bus, when she realised she had left her Spanish ID in Madrid. Event organisers told her that she most likely wouldn’t get back to mainland Spain without showing ID. It dawned on me that I, too, had left my ID on the mainland, with nothing more than a scan of my passport and my Irish driving licence with me. Rather than take the chance on the return ferry, we were advised to go to the police station to get it sorted. Arriving at the station and explaining we’d come to Ceuta without ID, the police officers laughed in disbelief but reassured us, “podemos hacer un poco de trampa” (we can cheat a little). They suggested for Ana to report her ID as stolen while here in Ceuta and, with the document saying it was stolen, she’d be able to board the ferry that same evening. In my case, they reassured me that the scan of my passport on my phone would suffice. As the officer was writing the report for the ‘stolen ID’, I asked him how it was possible I could enter Ceuta without ID but not leave. He explained that when entering Ceuta both the maritime (Spanish) and land (Moroccan) borders are soft borders; travellers only have to pass through security checks. However, when leaving Ceuta, while the land border to Morocco remains a soft border, the maritime border to Spain becomes a hard border; travellers must pass through security and present an ID or visa that grants them mobility within Spain. The rationale behind the soft border with Morocco, he elaborated, is to enable the mobility of goods between the territories and of labour to supply Ceuta’s service industry. Yet, for the Moroccan workers who are free to cross the border into the Spanish enclave, their freedom of mobility ends in Ceuta. They cannot enter mainland Spain without presenting the desired visa or documentation.

The porous nature of Ceuta’s borders, devised to exploit Morocco’s cheap labour force and facilitate trade between the two regions while strictly restricting the workers’ freedom of movement, came with little shock. What, in retrospect, came as even less of a shock was the ease with which I sailed through passport control on my return journey to the mainland. Despite the reassurance of Ceuta police officers, I felt a bit uneasy approaching passport control without a physical passport or ID card. Not surprisingly, however, for a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Western woman the strict documentation requirements can be waived, and a photo of a passport that they trusted belonged to me, was enough to cross the hard border back to the Spanish mainland.

“¡Papeles para todos, o todas sin papeles!”
The programme resumed in the afternoon with the 5km march from Ceuta’s city centre to La Playa Tarajal, the stretch of beach shared by Spain and Morocco, divided at the political border by a towering barbed wire fence. A troupe of five hundred plus, we marched for two hours through the coastal city, alternating between chants in Spanish and French. The handmade placards held by marchers had messages written in Spanish, French, English, Italian and Arabic. The demands of the chants and placards varied from cries for justice for each of the victims and calls for accountability of the Guardia Civil, to the more generalised recognition of the human right to migrate and reform of border and migration policies. Arriving at Tarajal beach just before sunset, the final event of the day’s programme was a locally and nationally broadcast remembrance ceremony. A number of different association representatives spoke, in Spanish, in Arabic and in Wolof, which was followed by the lighting of fourteen candles, one for each victim, and finally a musical performance to wrap up the event. Participating in the march at Ceuta I learned a lot about the advocacies of migrant resistance; to reform border policies, to close down inhumane immigrant retention centres, and to respect the right to migrate. I was also introduced to the geographies of resistance that are engaged in ‘la lucha’. These interconnected networks of resistance manifested in the plurality of languages represented and the diversity of actors speaking and participating in the programme of the day. Another reflection from my participation in the march is the barrier to formal resistance engagement for undocumented migrant workers. Undocumented migrants are prevented from overt resistance participation in two ways: firstly, they are consumed with work and prioritise “buscándose la vida” (making a living) over engaging in formal politics. Secondly, they are hesitant to visibilise themselves as they risk deportation if they are found to be illegally working in Spain. It appears the struggle for the conditions of a dignified life is carried out daily by documented and undocumented migrants alike. However it is the documented migrants, having lived the “existential cold”, who now fight on behalf of their “hermanos” (siblings), who continue to live in extreme precarity. In receiving their papers, many documented workers adopt the role of activist, fighting for better chances for themselves and their fellow “paísanos” (countrymen).

– 10th March for Dignity, February 4, 2023