Ricci Shryock for NPR
If you’ve ever had strawberries, there is a good chance they were grown in a province in southern Spain called Huelva.
Spain is the second largest producer of strawberries, behind the United States.
And the jurisdiction of Huelva is where 80% of the country’s berries are grown, in an industry that is increasingly demanding.
The work is year-round and requires field workers who take on the repetitive task planting seedlings and then harvesting when ready. This job usually falls on migrants, many from Africa.
They describe challenging conditions in the fields and with their bosses, who are often slow to give them work papers. When they are not working, they have to worry about ducking the police and danger in a nearby settlement where most of them live.
Listen to our full report by clicking or tapping the play button above.
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
The U.N. Climate Change summit ended with a promise – to help developing countries deal with the impacts of a warming planet. Many people on the front lines of climate change have decided it’s not worth waiting to find out whether countries keep those promises. Some of them are leaving.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We’re tracing a path from Senegal to Morocco to Spain, connecting the dots between climate change, migration and the political far right. Near the end of our journey, we arrived in southern Spain, where many people who came from sub-Saharan Africa discover the distance between their dreams of Europe and the reality.
HOPE JOSEPH: Because, you know, I don’t have documents. I walk anywhere I got to walk.
SHAPIRO: There are two ways of looking at the life of Hope Joseph. First, you could see her through the eyes of her family.
JOSEPH: Everyone respect me in my family now.
SHAPIRO: To them, the 29-year-old is a provider, a pillar.
JOSEPH: My mother’s called me that, say, this is my pillar. They say, my daughter, I cannot have problem with you because you are my pillar.
SHAPIRO: Her older sister says the same thing, and that’s a big deal. As a younger sister, Hope is supposed to be secondary, but her whole family in Nigeria looks up to her. They depend on her, especially her 10-year-old boy.
JOSEPH: The other day, he said, when are you going to come back? I said, when I have document, I can go. For now, no.
SHAPIRO: She hasn’t seen any of them in years because Hope Joseph has been working in the strawberry farms of southern Spain, sending half of every euro she earns back to Nigeria. We’re sitting in her makeshift home built of wooden shipping pallets wrapped in tarps to keep out the rain.
This is beautiful. You have so many, like, pink and blue and flowered sheets…
JOSEPH: My color.
SHAPIRO: …On the walls – your color.
JOSEPH: This my favorite.
SHAPIRO: The blue.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, nice.
The floor is concrete. There’s no electricity or plumbing. So here’s the second way you could look at Hope’s life.
JOSEPH: Life is very difficult.
SHAPIRO: She struggles every day just to survive here.
Is it difficult to be a woman here in the camp? We hear about people drinking, people violent.
JOSEPH: You can’t sleep. Just yesterday, around 2 o’clock in the night, there is fire here. Everybody have to wake up and stand. They take drugs. They take smoke. They drink a lot. But I don’t fight. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I look for my daily bread. That is it.
SHAPIRO: Life is difficult for everyone living in this settlement, even more so for a woman on her own. She has a big dog named Guapo to keep her safe.
Do you ever think, life was better in Africa – I should not have left?
JOSEPH: It’s not better because I live there. It’s not better. It’s better here because at least my mother won’t be hungry. I can feed her. Back in Africa, I cannot feed anybody. Here, I can feed somebody.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS CRUNCHING)
SHAPIRO: When you step outside of Hope’s shack, you see hundreds of structures like hers.
FRANCISCO VILLA: (Through interpreter) This is a village. It’s a village inside of a village.
SHAPIRO: Francisco Villa is with a nonprofit organization that works with the people who live here.
VILLA: (Through interpreter) So the population is very difficult to estimate because it fluctuates a lot. Right now, we’re in the planting season.
SHAPIRO: He says the population could be between 200 and 800 depending on the time of year. And there are other settlements like this one across the region. Everything here hinges on the season. Strawberry farms stretch for miles in every direction. On one side of the settlement, endless rows of raised planting beds reach to the horizon. Sprinklers irrigate new seedlings.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPRINKLER RUMBLING)
SHAPIRO: On another side of the settlement, warehouses with load-in docks sit still and quiet, waiting for harvest season. When we began this journey back in Senegal, we met people who’d been to Spain and returned home. They warned young men how hard life in Europe can be. This settlement makes the point. There are piles of trash everywhere. But people living here have gotten creative.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: (Non-English language spoken).
SHAPIRO: In one hut, where someone hooked up a TV to a solar panel, everyone’s watching a soccer game. There’s an ad hoc garden just a few houses down.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS CRUNCHING)
SHAPIRO: Just growing among the trash is a bunch of squash – like, pumpkins. And then there’s a little plot of mint where there’s just tons of mint. And I guess when people eat squash, they throw the seeds there, and then people can harvest the squash when they grow.
People secure their homes with padlocks on the doors.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOCK CLINKING)
SHAPIRO: One man from Senegal has a couch in his two-bedroom structure. On the wall behind him, he’s written, VIP ghetto. He left home in 2014 and spent years getting here, passing through many countries on the way.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Togo. After Togo, I come in Niger, Niger entering Algeria, Algeria to Morocco.
SHAPIRO: He asks us not to use his name because he doesn’t want his family to know how he’s living. They still think Spain is the promised land.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) If one is living in a good house, a nice house, yeah, it’s OK. But if you’re living in a camp or in a house like this and then the family sees how you’re living, they’re going to say, well, it wasn’t worth it to go to Europe in the first place.
SHAPIRO: Spanish law says people are eligible for permanent residency after they’ve been working three years as long as they meet certain conditions. That’s more generous than the U.S. and many other countries. But the reality for guest workers in Spain is that it often takes much longer. This man has been at it for four years and still doesn’t have his papers.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I speak Spanish. I can write Spanish. I’m searching from – with my – the bosses I’ve worked with here to give me a contract for a year. But I don’t have it because they think if they give you a contract and you get your papers, you’ll leave. And they don’t want you to leave. They want you to work and continue working for them.
SHAPIRO: We spoke with a farmer who leads an organization of small strawberry producers in the area, and he denied that farmers take advantage of the workers. But we also spoke with a local prosecutor who handles crimes against migrants, and he confirmed that farmers have all the leverage, and some of them abuse workers. The Senegalese man in the VIP ghetto says it’s just the luck of the draw.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) That just depends on the boss. Sometimes there’s people who come after you who only work a little bit, and then they give them their papers. I work a lot, and they haven’t give me the papers.
SHAPIRO: Then, he says unprompted…
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I want to see my wife. I want to start a family with her. But I can’t go back because of the papers. That’s why people here, you know, become crazy – because they’re thinking about these things all the time, and they can’t go.
SHAPIRO: He says that’s why fires break out all the time around here. Sometimes someone’s careless with a propane cookstove, but often people just snap from all the stress.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) My mom – you know, she messages me sometimes. She says, I really want to see you. I want to see you before I die. I want you to come back. I hope that you have your papers so you can come back.
SHAPIRO: The fires and the violence have provided useful talking points for far-right politicians.
RAFAEL SEGOVIA: (Through interpreter) We’re sorry to see the situation that many migrants experience in Europe.
SHAPIRO: Rafael Segovia is local president of a Spanish political party called Vox. The party offices are full of green balloons with the Vox logo. A banner on the wall lists their agenda for Spain. It talks about fighting the globalists, defending Western values and upholding traditional families. In Segovia’s talking points, you hear some of the same phrases that like-minded politicians use all over the world.
SEGOVIA: (Through interpreter) Vox, just like other political leaders around the world such as Trump in the U.S., Orban in Hungary – we’re all patriots. We are not against regulated immigration, but we are against the illegal migration we are seeing in all these countries, which the globalists support.
SHAPIRO: He specifically worries that international refugee law will begin to recognize people displaced by climate change.
SEGOVIA: (Through interpreter) If we hope to defend our cultural identity, we need to reject the idea of the climate refugee. If that notion is accepted, all these illegal migrants would have to be admitted because they would legally be considered refugees.
SHAPIRO: Vox is still a minority party in Spain, but it’s growing fast. And all over Europe, right-wing politicians are winning elections on similar platforms. Segovia believes that informal settlements are a threat to stability, security and the culture of Spain. He accuses his political opponents of advocating for open borders.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).
SHAPIRO: A young man from Senegal named Seydou Diop takes a different view. Borders are already open, he says – just not for everyone.
SEYDOU DIOP: (Through interpreter) I ask you, how could it be that you were able to travel to my country with your passport? And me with my passport – I can’t just go to the United States and travel with dignity.
SHAPIRO: Seydou Diop runs a community center for people who live in a nearby settlement of strawberry farm workers. For a membership fee, they get access to hot showers, Wi-Fi, even legal help and Spanish language lessons. It’s all paid for by the migrants themselves.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).
SHAPIRO: People watch TV while they wait for their turn to do laundry. On this journey, we’ve asked dozens of migrants, what drove you to leave your home? Why did you make such a dangerous choice? Seydou Diop reframes the question. Why shouldn’t anyone be able to travel for any reason or for no reason?
DIOP: (Through interpreter) I think that traveling is part of being free.
SHAPIRO: And now that you are here, how does the reality of Spain compare to the dream that was in your heart?
DIOP: (Through interpreter) I was speechless when I saw the reality here. I couldn’t quite understand that the situation was so, so difficult. I became an activist the moment I arrived in this country because I felt hungry in this country. I slept on the streets in this country. And this is happening in societies that are supposed to be supportive and democratic.
SHAPIRO: While far-right politicians accuse immigrants of polluting Spanish culture, Seydou Diop views it differently. As he sees it, he’s trying to help the country live up to its ideals.
(SOUNDBITE OF TINO DI GERALDO’S “POR DIGERALDINAS”)
SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, our journey concludes in Madrid. We’ll meet a man who grew up in a Senegalese fishing town, worked for years in Spain without papers and is now an elected political leader, one of very few Black people ever to have succeeded in modern Spanish politics.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) Honestly, it is a lot of pressure. That’s why I have to think carefully about every single word, every step I take – because it’s not just me. It’s the whole community.
SHAPIRO: And you can find all of the stories from this trip at npr.org/climatemigration.
(SOUNDBITE OF TINO DI GERALDO’S “POR DIGERALDINAS”)
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