For the past year and a half, Abdallah Belbadaoui, 27, has spent his working hours sweltering under transparent plastic sheets, picking tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in Andalusian high-tech greenhouses. Then came the dreadful night in February when a mob of Spanish thugs arrived, armed with clubs and torches, shouting: "Moors out!"
The confrontation was part of two days of racial violence set off when a mentally disturbed Moroccan worker murdered a local woman. Immigrants' homes were burned, their shops and bars destroyed, and the local offices of support charities ransacked. The underlying cause is a classic conflict: Andalusians need workers, and the immigrants desperately need jobs. But the crowding and crime caused by an influx of newcomers has created unrest. Some 17,000 of the 19,000 immigrant workers in El Ejido are homeless or live in substandard conditions. Theft and violence are on the increase. Three murders occurred just before the February riots.
Belbadaoui hasn't returned to work or to his home. After the attack, he and other young Moroccans tacked together a shanty hovel from broken shafts of wood, rubble, and discarded plastic sheets from the greenhouses. Now they sleep on a patch of arid wasteland surrounded by the vast sprawl of greenhouses that glisten and dazzle under the sun. They find safety in numbers. "We left the house we were in before because we were scared," says Abdallah, one of some 15,000 immigrants who toil in the greenhouse zone. "They wanted to kill us," volunteers Aabab Said, 23. Faces appear, blinking, from a ruined storage depot across the way. Here immigrants sleep where farmers once stored their tools and fertilizers.
NO BATHING. Although the marauders are gone, fear and damage remain, along with racist graffiti: "Moros no!" is smeared across the facade of a Muslim butcher shop. "This is the 21st century, but it feels to us like the 15th," says Ali Beidan, spokesman for the Moroccan Workers Assn., evoking the persecution of the Moors after the 1492 Christian reconquest of Arabic Andalusia. Then, as British historian Gerald Brenan observed in his book South from Granada, "Arabs were even forbidden to bathe." Today there is no such prohibition, but Belbadaoui and his friends must get their water from a tap 300 yards away.
All this is in contrast to the high-tech greenhouses that crowd the desert around the provincial capital of Almeria. Inside the greenhouses, plants are grown from a synthetically prepared nutrient base and drip-fed with chemical compounds. Vegetables are shipped all over Europe.
MELTING POT. In a good year, a farmer in El Ejido, a town of 50,000 where the worst pogroms originated this year, can clear $500,000 with just 10 acres. But to do so, he needs the Moroccans. The local employment rate is just 2%, compared with 15% for Spain as a whole. (Labor shortages are heightened by generous rural unemployment subsidies.) Moroccans can make five times as much picking vegetables here as they would at home 8.7 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar. News that jobs are available in Andalusia has spread throughout Morocco and south into sub-Saharan Africa. So there is a steady flow of immigrants--too many to be absorbed by the booming greenhouse economy.
Local farmers deny prejudice. "People here aren't racist. Historically, Andalusia has been a melting pot of races and cultures," says Antonio Quirantes, head of the San Isidro cooperative, the biggest tomato producer. But farmers casually employ illegal immigrants, pitting one against another at labor auctions held at dawn among the greenhouses. While a picker with a work contract earns 4,500 pesetas, or $26, for an eight-hour day, illegal workers rarely earn more than 4,000 pesetas, says Juan Miralles, of the local human-rights group Almeria Acoge [Almeria Welcomes], whose offices were trashed in the riots. He adds: "From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., they want to see the Moroccans. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., they want them out of sight." Immigrants are charged more at local shops and are denied entry to the pubs and strip joints that line the exit roads from El Ejido.
But none of that deters desperate young North Africans from slipping into the country. They stow away inside container trucks or crowd into wooden rowboats for the short crossing, landing in the coves on the Cadiz coast, then heading east to Almeria. When the Levant gales whip through the Straits of Gibraltar, the immigrants' final destination is far less certain. Thousands have drowned in the past few years, but plenty are willing to risk the crossing. "Me scared? No way," says Said, who arrived last year. He paid $1,500 for his passage on a patera, one of the 10 to 13 feet, flat-bottom launches built for sprat fishing off the Tetuan coast. Many of the vessels now illegally transport immigrants instead. Normally, the boats are painted red or orange for safety, but these pateras are repainted deep blue, as dark as the moonless nights chosen to ferry 20 or 30 immigrants per boat. "The only trace are footprints on a beach and a trail of clothes" dropped by the immigrants, says a civil guard responsible for patrolling 12 miles of coast. (Patera immigrants carry spare clothes and discard their sodden garments upon landing.) "There is an avalanche of pateras, and we can't stop them."
In an attempt to control the situation, the Spanish government increased legal quotas of foreign-born workers last year, but immigrant organizations and many local farmers say that's not enough. Just 1% of the legal workforce in Spain is foreign-born, compared with around 10% in Germany and the U.S. "I can't get papers for my lads," says Juan Antonio Guillen Lopez, a local farmer. Employing an illegal can mean a fine of up to $3,000 per worker, and enforcement is tightening.
The government is moving to catch the illegals as they land. This year the Spanish coastal police set up a vigilance system that includes state-of-the-art radar, heat-sensitive cameras, and infrared detector systems.
But the Moroccans keep coming, fueled by the dream, not the reality. "We saw Spain on satellite TV, and it looked fantastic. It was our dream. But just look at it," says Belbadaoui, surveying the makeshift huts, the parched earth, a mound of trash just yards away. Still, no one wants to go back to Morocco. "Once we get our papers, we're heading north," he adds with a smile. Thousands more will be right behind him.