Following fires in cramped migrant worker settlements in southwest Spain and subsequent criticism by a UN official about "deplorable conditions" there, Spanish soldiers were deployed over the weekend to build a camp for migrant strawberry pickers.
Spanish soldiers have been sent to build a camp for migrant strawberry pickers, the Spanish government said on Saturday. The move comes after a UN official criticized Spanish authorities for allowing seasonal farm workers to live in "inhumane" conditions, news agency Reuters reports.
In an online statement from Friday (July 24), the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and rights, Olivier De Schutter, called on "local governments" to "immediately improve deplorable conditions migrant workers endure" in settlements in Spain "before people die".
Last week, three fires broke out in migrant shanty towns near the city of Huelva in southwest Spain close to the border with Portugal. The fires injured four people.
Health officials have warned that the crowded settlements put workers at risk of contracting the lung disease caused by the coronavirus. Most of the workers who pick strawberries in the fields around Huelva are Moroccan.
Dirty, dangerous and lacking electricity
Following appeals for help from local officials, a Spanish defense ministry spokeswoman said the troops were deployed on Saturday to look for a suitable location to build a camp to accommodate the migrant workers.
"An army logistics team has been sent to try to help prevent possible coronavirus outbreaks in settlements which are in precarious conditions after fires," the spokeswoman said.
Often dirty and dangerous, camps like the one near Huelva have been used as accommodation for Spain's seasonal fruit-pickers for years. The settlements also tend to lack water, sanitation and electricity, Reuters reports.
UN official De Schutter said COVID-19 had worsened the situation. "This reality of fires and inhumane conditions in the shanty towns cannot be tolerated any longer," he said in his online statement.
"The situation is deteriorating alarmingly each day, made worse amid the COVID-19 pandemic," the UN official added.
Last month, De Schutter had already called on Spanish authorities to guarantee conditions for migrant day laborers that "meet international standards".
Ministry concedes workers' vulnerability
On Thursday, Spain's health ministry admitted that fruit pickers were especially vulnerable to catching the coronavirus due to overcrowded and unsanitary living and working conditions.
With close to 30,000 COVID-19-related deaths and more than 270,000 confirmed cases, Spain is one of the European countries where the pandemic has raged most fiercely.
Moreover, the EU member state has registered 281 new isolated outbreaks since ending a three-month nationwide lockdown in June. More than a quarter of those outbreaks began in workplace environments.
At the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in April, fearing that a shortage of workers would leave fruit rotting in the trees, farmers' unions and business associations advertised jobs that have attracted many more applicants than expected.
With material from Reuters