In southern Spain, fruit pickers abandoned as virus spreads

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Lepe (Spain) (AFP)

Lamine Diakite has been on the streets for two weeks since the fire in the Spanish slum he was staying in, one of hundreds of fruit pickers abandoned as coronavirus cases skyrocketed.

To protest their plight, he and dozens of other African workers took their mattresses and sleep in a square in front of Lepe town hall, near the Portuguese border.

“Our huts were set on fire, leaving more than 200 of us on the streets,” said Diakite, a 32-year-old Malian.

“And during the pandemic, it’s a risk for us and for the rest of the population. ”

Known for its strawberries, Lepe in southern Spain supplies a large part of the European market.

Here, as in other agricultural areas, workers live in basic shelters without light or running water, paved with wooden pallets, plastic sheeting and mattresses, spaces they exchange with each other for around 250 euros ( 300 dollars).

Despite the unsanitary conditions and the inability to observe social distancing, no coronavirus tests have been carried out in the camps, say migrants and Lepe officials.

Despite this, many continued to work in other parts of Spain, such as Lleida in the northeast where regional authorities reimposed a two-week lockdown in July after a new outbreak linked to seasonal workers emerged. .

“It is very likely that epidemics linked to seasonal workers will continue to occur,” Health Ministry emergency coordinator Fernando Simon warned this week.

For now, only the northern region of La Rioja has taken drastic measures, committing to testing all seasonal workers, whether they have a contract or not.

– Migrants suspect arson –

In mid-July, three slums caught fire around Lepe in a series of fires that started just after the strawberry, raspberry and blueberry picking season ended.

“It was a crazy night,” recalls Ismaila Fall, a 30-year-old Senegalese who tried to put out the fire with water and sand and suspects it was deliberate.

But when it comes to finding a solution, neither the state nor the local authorities are willing to take responsibility.

“(These migrants) are the problem of the government, not of the town hall, we cannot regularize their situation,” insisted Manuel Mora, mayor of Lucena del Puerto, where another camp burned down.

“Before harvest they should have a PCR test but it costs the farmer a lot of money, so the government should help” by providing them, said Juan Jose Alvarez Alcalde, who heads the farmers’ union ASAJA.

There have been makeshift settlements in the Lepe region dating back to the 1980s, with UN poverty and human rights expert Olivier De Schutter calling on local authorities to “end the deteriorating situation in which seasonal agricultural workers live ”.

The town hall had suggested the army set up a field camp on a plot of industrial land, but the army rejected it because of the extreme summer heat, a government source told AFP.

“We need a housing network in all the farming communities” in the region, concluded Jesus Toronjo, deputy director of the town hall of Lepe.

He added that he was considering a town-owned ranch with space for 800 people.

Any solution would require cooperation between local authorities with the support of regional or central government, but this does not seem likely given the proliferation of local power struggles.

“Everyone is passing the buck,” said Antonio Abad, who heads an NGO called ASISTI that helps migrants.

“The problem is the lack of political will” with an immigrant population that “does not participate in the polls”.

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