»They stole our sea,« of that Kofi is sure. When he says ‘they’, the young Ghanaian fisherman means Europeans, and he’s not entirely wrong. The European Union has negotiated fishing agreements with a number of West African countries, which allow European fishing fleets to operate off the African coast. The consequences for the local fishing industry have been grave. Local waters are almost entirely fished out. Whole villages used to live off the catch, but suddenly they have been forced to look for other sources of income in order just to survive from day to day.
In the summer of 2006 Kofi packed his things and made his way to Europe. He arrived in the Canary Islands on a simple fishing boat. The Spanish government itself brought him – like many others – to the Spanish mainland and released him there without papers. Today he is trying to survive among the greenhouses of the area around Almeria, where fruit and vegetables are grown beneath a sea of plastic, to be exported across the whole EU.
»In the beginning I was working in agriculture, and I could support my family in Africa, but since late 2007 it has become difficult to find a job,« he explains. A few years ago, all the immigrants were needed to ensure affluent Europe got the crops it wanted, but since the European economy has gone into decline, their future also looks bad. Immigrants in precarious circumstances, like Kofi, were the first to feel the effects of the economic crisis. Today he believes that it would have been fairer if they had sent him back to Africa straight away, and never brought him to the Spanish mainland where he isn’t allowed to work anyway.
The 28-year-old man sits in a worn leather chair, next to an ugly floral couch and television, the only pieces of furniture in the room. The plaster is crumbling from the bare walls. He is one of the few African immigrants who is willing to talk about their life in Spain. There is a lot of mistrust of Europeans. »I think the Spanish attitude towards us is very bad. We are immigrants, but first and foremost we are human beings,« Kofi explains. In the beginning he tried to get to know the Spanish, to talk to them, to explain why he was there. But in vain.
The racism in the region around Almeria is palpable. In 2000 this led to an outbreak of violence in the town of El Ejido where immigrants were hunted through the streets. Nothing much seems to have changed since then either, discrimination is still an every-day experience for immigrants. It is so bad that immigrants are refused entry to Spanish restaurants and bars. »I almost always just stay home, because it’s the only place I have my peace,« Kofi says, highlighting the problems. »If I get into trouble in a place like that, nobody is there to help me. I don’t have any papers and I’m frightened to go out. Even a small incident can cause huge problems.«
When he says »home«, Kofi is talking about a cold, deserted building where he lives with other immigrants. The rooms have only the bare necessities, and the acrid smell of mould drifts in the air. These Cortijos are often remote, far away from any infrastructure amid the endless greenhouses. In most cases they don’t have any power and only rarely have running water. Those immigrants who do have work spend almost the entire day in stifling greenhouses. They earn a maximum of 30 euros per day, but more often only 20, and don’t have insurance. »Perhaps the situation is partly our fault, because we aren’t fighting it,« Kofi ponders, a look of resignation on his face.
Every morning countless Africans gather on the dusty street corners of the town in the hope that local greenhouse owners will come by looking for workers for the day. Since the crisis, chances of work have diminished for the immigrants. Where Africans without papers were tolerated before, since very recently there has been an increase in efforts to get rid of them and replace them with guest workers from the new EU countries, Romania and Bulgaria.
People trust East European workers more, they are considered to be more docile. And there is also supposedly less difference in culture and religion. This all means that African immigrants‘ chances of gaining a legal right to stay are diminishing. Under Spanish immigration law, you can obtain temporary leave to stay if you can prove that you have lived in Spain for three years and have an employment contract. At its peak in 2006, there were 31,600 people who came to Spain illegally. For most, the time has now come to apply for the right to stay, but this hasn’t been made easy for them. Many smallholders are trying to make a profit from the crisis. They are offering the employment contracts that immigrants need to legalise their status, but at a price, 3,000 euros.
Only a few organisations are involved in trying to ease this growing conflict, and most are connected to the church, such as Hermanas Mercedarias de la Caridad, who care for immigrants. Sister Purificación Rodríguez Castillo sits at a table in her bright living room, with letters from Africa stacked in the cupboard behind her. They are for the immigrants in the Cortijos who don’t have their own address. Mamá Puri, as she is affectionately called, works in San Isidro de Nijar, a village that lies 40 km north of Almeria. Within the last ten years the local population has doubled to 6917, and Puri thinks that up to 1200 immigrants are living in precarious conditions in the area. »Most of them have limited education, a very large proportion are illiterate and only very few have gone to university,« she explains, »There are two main reasons that they left their homes and came to Spain. The first is that there is a lack of employment there, and the other reason is that there is war. And of course the idea that a lot of money can be made in Europe and a good life can be had is also an influence on their decision.«
Near one Cortijo, which is home to between 20 and 25 young African’s, the area is packed with Spanish school children. They are keen to help make a small field where the immigrants from the Cortijo can grow their own food. Mamá Puri regularly brings school children to the village, to raise the awareness about ‘immigration’ among the younger generation, even if these kind of events can look absurd to the eyes of many immigrants themselves. Although many of the immigrants were farmers in their countries of origin, and a large number of those stranded in San Isidro de Naijar work here in agriculture. Hermanas Mercedarias supports people living in precarious situations, primarily by providing them with information, giving legal advice and offering language courses. They hand out food and other essentials such as shelter and clothing to those in need.
But not every one sees the work of Hermanas Mercedarias de la Caridad and Mamá Puri as positive. They are criticised for creating dependency in the immigrants, or for their work being only good for PR. In her defence, Purificación Rodríguez Castillo says, »There are efforts by the church and NGOs to promote integration and peaceful coexistence. But you still have to remember that Spain’s transformation from a country people emigrated from to a country people immigrate to has been very sudden. Immigration has been so large and so rapid that Spain has been struggling to catch up, and the process of adjustment to this new social situation has been slow and difficult.«
As things stand at the moment, Kofi doesn’t see any future for himself in Spain. He would stay if he had papers and work, »I’m going to go where I can live in peace. That’s just not possible here,« he explains. In resignation he takes stock, »At one time I thought my future would lie here in Europe, but now I’m sure that it lies in Africa. I’m only here in this country to try and support my family. But if I can’t find work, why am I even here? It’s probably better to go back home, to my family.«