Baracelona or the hereafter
The dream of a better life drew these Senegalese men so far from home. Photo by Richard Owens
They risked their lives to get here. But their long, hard journey is nowhere near over.
You have seen him about. You probably walked past one of these men today. His skin is black and he walks with long elegant strides through the city. His clothes are stained and torn from reaching into bins all day but he carries himself with dignity as he pushes his trolley of junk along the street.
He is from Senegal and is collecting metal because there is no other work for him. If you had spoken to him he might have told you he has dreams of saving money so that when he goes home he will have a better life.
By any standards, the Senegalese trolley men of Barcelona are an impressive people with stories to tell which would leave you awestruck by their courage, ambition and resourcefulness. There are thought to be 400 of these men in Barcelona, most of whom arrived in 2006 with the 10,000 Senegalese immigrants who came to Spain that year. The mass migration was prompted by a combination of the Spanish call for workers in the construction boom and the invention of GPS which enabled the average fisherman in Senegal to ferry migrants the 1,500km to Europe. The fishermens’ lack of experience of long sea trips led to thousands drowning or starving to death when the boats capsized or the voyages took longer than provisions allowed. The EU has been running an operation since 2005 to find immigrants attempting to enter Europe and repatriate them if their country of origin can be established. But this has done little to stop the Senegalese trying their luck and has led to even more covert and dangerous journeys, such as crossings by night.
The trip should take six days but can take many weeks if complications arise. It costs between €1,000-€2,000, depending on demand. The money is painstakingly raised through the sale of belongings and loans from friends and family, who stand to gain financially if the trip is successful. These men needed a good dose of luck just to get here alive, and then to find work and shelter.
What gives them the courage to risk the dangerous and costly journey is the chance of making money with which to create a better life. Senegal currently ranks 155th out of 187 in the Human Development Index, just before Haiti. One in every two households lives on less than one dollar a day. Coming to Europe represents a route out of crippling poverty.
People who collect metal from the bins are known in Spanish as chatarreros. A trolley full of metal can bring in between five and ten euros depending on what kind of metal is found—iron is the most valuable—and the men fill between three and four trollies a day.
Bayemalick starts work at nine in the morning and at two he goes to a Senegalese restaurant for a lunch of rice and fish. Lunch costs him €2.50. “After that I have a good head and can start work again,” he said.
It is gruelling work. It takes up to four hours of walking and lifting to fill a trolley which must then be pushed, overflowing with metal, to a depot near Estació del Nord. It is also dangerous work. But Bayemalick said the hardest thing is the dirt. “The worst thing is having dirty clothes. Everything you touch makes them dirty.”
Momsaurko, 26, made the trip to Barcelona five years ago by boat. “I came here because I was looking for a life. You can earn more here. I know I am very lucky to be here,” he explains. “My mum worries about me. She tells me to take advantage of being here until it gets too hard. Now I just need a job.”
If he had stayed in Senegal, Momsaurko would never have been able to save money because the culture there requires every worker to share his entire wage with his family. Coming here he has a chance of both supporting his family and saving. Now he’s waiting for the crisis to end so he can find a job. “I want to be a builder,” he says. “I have a diploma and now I am saving to get another qualification. We are intelligent and qualified people. I learned to speak Spanish and Catalan didn’t I?” But like so many unemployed people in the city, he is collecting metal while waiting for the crisis to end.
“There used to be a lot of metal from construction but now no one is building so there is no metal to collect and no work,” Momsaurko told me.
The fortunes of these men depends often on luck. The younger men are weighed down by their responsibilities to their families and often struggle to find their feet here. Mousa, 26, came here in 2008 on a boat after his father died.
“I came here to earn money for my family. My mother and brothers have nothing. I am alone here. I don’t know how to get papers or who to ask for help.” His troubles are compounded by the painful memories he carries of his journey here.
“People died on the boat because they didn’t have enough food and water. Now there is no work here and I experience a lot of racism. People don’t open their hearts. If it doesn’t work out for me here I will go home,” he said.
Others have more success and are soon able to send significant support back to their families. According to the Senegalese government, the 650,000 Senegalese in Europe are responsible for the equivalent of ten percent of Senegal’s gross domestic product, while farming, which employs seventy percent of the Senegalese workforce only generates fifteen percent of the country’s GDP.
Bayemalick, 38, came in 2006 after his wife died. For him one week’s earnings made collecting metal here is equivalent to one month’s earnings in Senegal. “With this money I pay for the education of my two children. Everyone wants their children to be better than them” he said. He believes the Senegalese trolley men here need to create their own fate. He is pragmatic in his outlook on his own situation.
“Everyone is born with their own luck. When it comes, you need to take it. I’m taking advantage of every day that I am here. I could lose it all tomorrow.”
Despite the language problem, Barcelona has a particular appeal to the Senegalese, they even have an expression “Barça mba Barzakh” which translates as ‘Barcelona or the Hereafter’. The attraction of Barcelona over other large Spanish cities is that immigrants are largely untouched by the authorities.
Bayemalick explains, “It is more stable here for people without papers. The police leave you alone. We don’t want problems, we just want to make clean money. I love Barcelona and I want to stay here.”
According to Miquel Esteve i Brignardelli who works at the Immigration Commission of the Ajuntament de Barcelona, “The national police do not arrest these men and the local police do not have the authority to arrest them. It is up to the Spanish Government to make these men, and the work they do, legal or illegal.”
When it comes to immigration, the Spanish government finds itself in a difficult position. In 2006, before the economic crisis took hold, Senegalese workers had been encouraged by the Spanish government to come here and thousands of temporary work visas were issued. As well as providing Spain with a cheap workforce, this controversial move also reduced the number of dangerous boat journeys because, with papers, the immigrants could travel by plane.
The result of these measures was that more people wanted to come to Spain—in the last twelve years the number of immigrants in Barcelona has risen from 53,428 to 282,178. This influx was needed in the country; until, that is, the crisis hit.
The economic crisis has been as much of a game changer for the Senegalese trolley men here as it has been for everyone else. After having encouraged them to come just six years ago, the Spanish government is now pushing the Senegalese to the edge of society. Policy makers in Madrid are making it almost impossible for them to get work visas; it is now requiring that immigrants live here for three years and have a work contract before qualifying for one.
In the meantime, the Senegalese trolley men are living outside the reach of the authorities. They often live in large groups in low rent housing. Having no papers incriminates those who want to employ them, even business owners who need their scrap metal taken away are breaking the law by allowing it.
Without papers, these men are not qualified for basic social security, including healthcare. They must rely on charities like The Catalan Association of Senegalese Residents (CASR) which is funded by the local government and by the 400 Senegalese members who give a small monthly contribution to help members in trouble.
Brignardelli said: “Imagine if you don’t have papers but you live here. You can’t do anything, you can’t get a job, a flat, healthcare. You are like a ghost in the city.”
If and when the Spanish economy returns to its pre-crisis employment levels, Spain will need to once again look elsewhere for its cheap labour. No doubt, Senegal will be watching closely.
For many of these Senegalese men, working as a chatarrero is an exercise in hope. Momsaurko said: “I do this to eat. All I need is a job but the Spanish will get work before us. But I believe God will give me work eventually.”
Brignardelli wants the work of the chatarrero to be regulated so the authorities can help the men involved. “These men live in undignified ways. We want to regulate their work and to give them cooperative status so they can live with dignity. Their work benefits the city. The only solution is to give these people papers so they can work legally but the Spanish government has closed its eyes to the problem.”
But it seems no amount of EU repatriation operations will deter the Senegalese from seeking a better life in Barcelona. Brignardelli hopes these men get an idea how the crisis is affecting life in the city before they leave Senegal. As he told me, “Someone from Senegal said to me if white people close the doors on them they will come in by the chimney.” Brignardelli added,“People in developing countries want to live in developed countries, they think it will be paradise but they don’t realise how many problems we have now. Every day there is less metal and more people.”
In the meantime, the Catalan Association of Senegalese Residents urges people to get involved with their work helping those suffering the most. CASR manager, Ababacar Thiakh, said, “The government here needs to find solutions by listening to these people, that is where we come in. People can help us to connect with these men and to give them food, clothes and medical care etc. The situation for these people is precarious. Now is the time to act.”