From file: An improvised migrant camp in the Almeria region in Spain, 2018 | Photo: InfoMigrants
From file: An improvised migrant camp in the Almeria region in Spain, 2018 | Photo: InfoMigrants

The migrant camp at Palos de la Frontera, in the southern Spanish region of Huelva, was ravaged by a fire at the weekend. About 100 shacks were destroyed and one person, suffering from burns to the arm, had to be admitted to hospital. The camp was home to hundreds of undocumented migrant workers who were picking fruits and vegetables in the region.

The camp is not much more than a pile of cinders, trees are charred and scattered remains of the shacks lie on the dusty ground. There is almost nothing left of the large migrant camp at Palos de la Frontera, in the Huelva region of southern Spain, after a large fire on Friday night (June 10) decimated the improvised migrant camp constructed from branches and tarpaulins picked up in the greenhouses in the local area.

Firefighters got the fire under control in the early hours of Saturday morning, but the damage is still considerable. Flames destroyed about 100 tents, where undocumented workers, employed in the local fruit and vegetable fields, lived. One person was transported to hospital with burns on their arms, five others had to be treated for panic.

Recurrent fires

On Saturday morning, the association ASNUCI (Association for new citizens and intercultural affairs – Association des nouveaux citozens pour l’interculturalité) tweeted the phrase: "Dignity burned and left us ashes." ASNUCI has been helping some of the inhabitants of the camp, in particular those from sub-Sahara Africa and Morocco.

"What am I going to do? I don’t have anywhere to go. I will just have to rebuild my tent," said Yousef, a Moroccan inhabitant who lost everything in the camp to the Spanish newspaper El Salto Diario. Yousef told the newspaper that this was the third time his home had burnt down. In March and in May 2021, he lost his tent to fire.

Fires are frequent in these migrant camps, especially in periods of extreme heat, which is the case at the moment in the southern region of Andalusia. In order to cook, many of the inhabitants use portable gas bottles which can quickly catch fire, spreading rapidly through the structures made up of wood, carton and plastic. Most of the camps are hidden away from the general public, among the trees and so they are extremely inflammable.

Almost three years ago now, four migrants burned alive in camps in the region. This year, on April 22, an undocumented migrant, who was asleep in his shack died when it went up in flames.

'We live like animals'

According to non-governmental organizations working with migrants in the area, there are about 40 such migrant camps in the Huelva region alone. The camps, spread across the towns of Lepa, Palos de la Frontera, Moguer and Lucena del Puerto, are situated in the extreme south-west of the Iberian peninsula. All together, they provide shelter for about 3,000 migrants who work picking fruit and vegetables in Andalusia. Many of them pick strawberries and tomatoes. Spain is one of the EU’s top exporters of these fruits.

In most of the camps, undocumented workers who live there have no access to running water or electricity. Healthcare is non-existent and insanitary conditions prevail. "We live like animals," Seydou Diop, a 28-year-old Senegalese migrant told InfoMigrants in 2020. Diop had already been working four years in the region’s greenhouses back then. "These conditions are nothing new, they have been around for at least the last 20 years," he explained.

The conditions in which these undocumented migrant workers lived is indeed well-documented. In July 2020, an expert from the UN’s Council for Human Rights, Olivier de Schutter, spoke about the conditions in which migrants were living; describing them as "deplorable living conditions for seasonal migrant workers." De Schutter demanded that the Spanish authorities improve daily life for these migrants, "to prevent any more deaths."

Just a few months prior to De Schutter’s visit, in February, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, also called out the conditions in which migrants were living in these camps, calling their situation "worse than in a refugee camp."

Construction of two shelters could house 200 people

In May this year, the Secretary of State for the Agenda 2030, Enrique Santiago, visited the Huelva region, in order to try and find a solution to the improvised camps. The government representative didn’t try and hide the difficulty of finding a solution. He said that everyone needed to get involved, from local and regional administrators, trade unions and social organizations.

In January, the vice minister of the Presidency, Public Administration and the Interior, announced that the Spanish government would provide €600,000 for the construction of two shelters in the towns of Lepe and Lucena del Puerto. One municipal hostel would offer beds for 152 people and a smaller structure would have room for 60.

That would provide a stable solution for 200 migrants, but it is far from offering a solution for the thousands who work in the region. The current heat wave, which began on Sunday in Andalusia, is not helping the situation. People fear more fires as a result of the heat wave, which could see more victims too.

This article was published originally in French on June 13, 2022. It was translated by Emma Wallis.


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