The burden of living

Exhaustion. A carrier is doubled over under the weight of the pack she is carrying.
Exhaustion. A carrier is doubled over under the weight of the pack she is carrying. / Jorge Guerrero
  • For ten euros, they cross the border from Ceuta to Morocco with packs weighing up to 90 kilos on their backs. Some of them die in the attempt

When the packs are put on their backs, the weight means they have to run. If someone falls over in front of them, they have no choice but to keep going and run over them. They can’t stop; it is pure inertia. Sooner or later a woman will stop and be trapped among hundreds of people with heavy packs on their backs. She will try to move forward, but will fall onto the floor and won’t get up again; she will die, trampled by a stampede of bodies and merchandise. All for ten euros and all happening just across the Strait of Gibraltar from the Costa del Sol.

That’s what happened recently to Batul, a 40-year-old Moroccan woman who died in a stampede of carriers when she was trying to cross the Tarajal II border, between Ceuta, the Spanish town on the north African coast, and neighbouring Morocco. She suffered the same fate as Soad, a 22-year-old who lost her life in March, and Zhora and Bushra, who died in 2009. People also talk about Karima. They say she died in hospital after being trampled. And another woman, Lubna, broke both her legs on the same day. Those two cases, however, have not been officially recorded. It’s possible that there have been more fatalities, and certain that many more women have been injured in their desperate race to earn some money, but the numbers are not known. If nobody does anything about it, there will be more deaths.

Every day several thousand Moroccan citizens, most of them women, cross the border and head for the Tarajal industrial estate in Ceuta, to load large packs of merchandise weighing between 60 and 90 kilos on their backs. They then return across the border and deposit what they are carrying in what is known as ‘the parking area’, where it is collected by men from the same companies who prepared the packs in Spain.

The merchandise - new and used clothing, boxes of crisps, toilet paper, nappies, household products - is taken to the Moroccan town of Castillejos (or Fnideq), where it is sold or distributed all over the country and even elsewhere on the continent.

“You can find plastic bags from Lidl, Mercadona and Eroski in numerous places in Africa,” says Ana Rosado, a member of the southern border team of the Association of Human Rights of Andalucía.

The Spanish authorities call it “unusual commerce”, but in reality it is contraband. Products which arrive in Ceuta port are taken to industrial estates close to the border and put into packs which are large but can be carried. It is a way of exporting goods without paying taxes. In Morocco, anything which a person can carry across the border is considered hand luggage; a huge amount of this ‘hand luggage’ is taken across every day.

This is nothing new, but there has been a notable increase in the number of carriers since the economic crisis began. A year ago there were as many as 14,000 a day, which caused serious security problems. In an attempt to bring order to the chaos, on 27 February a new border channel was opened at Tarajal II, and the Spanish authorities introduced a ticket system to limit the number of carriers a day to 4,000. The only thing this has achieved is to increase the risk of stampedes.

“The real situation is much worse than the photos,” says Reduan Mohamed, from an NGO which assists migrants. “The queues of people carrying packages are incredible, and if it’s bad now then just imagine what it is going to be like in the summer. People are injured every day, and the way things are going there are bound to be more deaths.”

All the packs are marked so the companies can recognise them the other side of the border.

All the packs are marked so the companies can recognise them the other side of the border. / J.G.

The day begins at 6am around Tarajal II. By then, a long queue of carriers has already formed. Most are women, although the number of men is increasing, and they are waiting for the tickets which they will have to show at the border when they come back into Morocco with a package on their back. Many of the women have spent all night there to ensure that they will be able to cross, and others will fight to obtain a ticket.

“Like the Middle Ages”

The opening of the new border channel has meant that around 10,000 Moroccans have gathered in recent days to try to obtain a ticket from the Spanish police or from the people who resell them because they would rather earn a little less money than have to spend an exhausting and humiliating day. The queues, in which men and women are separated in the last few metres before the border but together during the long hours of waiting, are very tense and any incident could have serious consequences.

“It’s like a frontier in the Middle Ages. There are no scanners to check the packs, no identification systems; anybody could come through here carrying anything, even weapons,” says Iván Ramos, the spokesman in Ceuta of the Central Independent and Civil Service Union (CSIF).

The Tarajal II crossing point is very close to the industrial estate where the merchandise is kept, but there is a fence which means that those who manage to cross the border, running, shoving and trying to avoid blows from the ‘majaznis’ (members of a security force similar to the Guardia Civil), have to go round it, a distance of about four kilometres, to reach their destination. Later they will have to return along the same route with tens of kilos on their shoulders, but before that they will have to wait again until they are called by the people who distribute the packages.

“The men wait on the industrial estate, but the women have to go to the beach and wait there in an enormous queue,” says Ana Rosado. With no shade, no public lavatories and no way of leaving the queue without losing their place, the female carriers are exposed to conditions which are inhumane in summer. “The heat is unbearable, especially for them because they wear several layers of clothes so the blows from the police don’t hurt as much.”

When it’s their turn, the stevedores from the Tarajal place the packs on their backs. They have been prepared by some powerful companies in the “unusual commerce” sector, including some from Casablanca, Tangier, Madrid, Barcelona, Brussels and Shanghai , using this as an entry point to Africa without payimg customs duties. The Chinese buy cheap clothes and shoes in different international markets and sell them for a slightly higher price on the other side of the border. They prepare the packs in warehouses in Madrid.

The companies save money and the carriers die in stampedes. If they are lucky they’ll cross the border without injury, carrying tens of kilos on their backs. However, almost as a reminder of the difficult lives they lead, and that they will be doing it all over again the following day, a new obstacle awaits them once they’re across: the last stretch of road to the place where they can put their heavy load down is uphill.