Lives on hold: How coronavirus has affected the women porters of Melilla

With the Spain-Morocco border closed, livelihoods linked to cross-border trade have been taken away

Words: Sara Creta; Photographs: Marcelo Biglia.

Melilla is one of two Spanish cities on Morocco's northern coast. It's also Europe's most fortified border.

It was 1972 when the first physical border separating Spain and Morocco was created. At the time, a cholera epidemic was taking place in the Moroccan territory near Melilla and the Spanish authorities, in order to prevent contamination in the enclave, erected a barbed wire fence along the border area.

History is now repeating itself, but in reverse: due to coronavirus, Morocco has sealed the only land border between Africa and the European Union, with great uncertainty over whether it will ever reopen.

Years and millions of euro since it was created, the border is monitored 24/7 by the so-called Integrated System of External Vigilance (SIVE), involving radar, cameras and sensors. It is a joint collaboration between the Spanish Guardia Civil – a joint military and civilian police force – and the EU border agency Frontex.

In 2014, Moroccan authorities, despite the fact that they do not officially recognise Spanish sovereignty over Melilla, began the construction of a blade-topped fence and increased patrols on their territory in an attempt to dissuade migrants from crossing. Morocco had been increasingly encouraged to take on EU border guard tasks.

But migrants have since continued crossing into Spain from Morocco, often by other means. “Now we see fewer migrants jumping the barrier, but they will arrive in Spain by boats or hiding in vehicles,” one member of the Spanish Guardia Civil of Melilla said.

According to UNHCR, in 2019 only 20 per cent of more than 32,000 arrivals from Morocco to Spain crossed the land border to Melilla and the other Spanish city on the northern Moroccan coast, Ceuta.

People used to enter Melilla dreaming of freedom and safety, hidden in cars or trucks, with false Moroccan identity papers. Some jumped over the fence, or crawled through water pipes.

This tiny Spanish town of 70,000 people has been a major crossing point for Moroccans living in the nearby cities of Nador and Beni Enzar, who could benefit from a visa-exemption regime to enter Melilla freely during the day. As a result, more than 20,000 people (ie, almost one-third of the population of the enclave) used to cross daily to work and earn a living there.

But last March, as the effects of coronavirus started spreading worldwide, the Moroccan authorities ordered the shutdown of the border crossings that connect the Spanish enclave with their country. Many Moroccans have since been waiting for the border to reopen.

Some have been sleeping in the open air or at Melilla’s Muslim cemetery, stranded for months in a state of stress and anxiety, only asking for one thing: to cross the border and go home.

‘Comercio Atípico’

Coronavirus put an end to the "comercio atípico" (atypical trade) – a widely used term in Spanish to describe the organised smuggling of merchandise across the border.

There is no official commercial frontier between Melilla and Morocco, just this practice widely acknowledged to be hypocritical and exploitative, yet effectively endorsed by authorities on both sides.

For almost a decade by now, the ritual has been the same. At the pedestrian border of El Barrio Chino hundreds of people have been involved from Monday to Thursday in transporting smuggled goods from Melilla to Morocco.

Melilla and Ceuta are not included in the EU customs territory, and can import goods at lower tariffs than the rest of the EU. Goods that arrive in the port of Melilla, virtually tax-free, are brought into Morocco informally, bypassing any official trade or tax regulations.

Women are used by smugglers to carry bundles across the border of up to 80kg, earning an average of just €10 a day. Their packages are classed as personal luggage and are therefore duty free.

Many are single mothers, widows or divorcees, young and old who have to make a living to maintain their families in Morocco.

They are known as porteadoras. Invisible and excluded, shamefully exploited as a means to transport contraband goods, and often pejoratively referred to as "mule women". They are unable to escape a cycle of exploitation and left without any other options to survive.

As they arrive at the Moroccan customs officials, symbols and numbers on their packages identify the goods as the property of wholesale smugglers who have made regular payments to the authorities. These goods are declared as basic needs items – like milk, sugar, blankets – but are often in fact goods such as mobile phones and other electronic products, of much higher value.

Some Moroccan authorities take bribes, many women testified, as well as “act in an arbitrary way”, one Spanish official working at the border said.

The goods carried by the porters are estimated to amount to between €300 million and €600 million per year. According to the American Chamber of Commerce of Casablanca, about 45,000 people live directly from this atypical commerce, 75 per cent of them women. Including those affected indirectly by the trade, that estimate rises to 400,000 people.

One in three Moroccan graduates is jobless. Due to the country’s high rates of unemployment men have started working at the border too.

The closure of the border has exposed Melilla's singular dependence on Morocco. Last week, Morocco was included on the EU's list of countries around the world now deemed safe for travel, but Eder Barandiaran, spokeswoman at the Spanish government delegate's office in Melilla, said that "if Morocco does not agree to the new condition of reciprocity, the borders will remain closed".

There are suspicions that Morocco may use the pandemic to put in place a plan that seeks to end, once for all, the atypical trade between the two Spanish enclaves and Morocco.

In a written parliamentary response in June to a question asked in February , Morocco's economy minister Mohamed Benchaaboun said the government intended to "end merchandise smuggling activities, which pose a danger to the health of citizens". Rabat has already said it wishes to turn the border into a gateway for travellers only.

For those whose livelihoods depend on trade across the Melilla border there is now great uncertainty, and the terrible prospect of further unemployment and poverty.


Hurria, who is 42 years old, lives with her daughter in Melilla. After being forced to get married at the age of 14, she escaped her home town in Morocco, only to find herself in prostitution. She struggled for years, in the streets of Tangier and Tetouan in Morocco.

Although the introduction of a new family law – called “Moudawana” – raised the minimum age for marriage, the number of girls forced to get married in Morocco is still very high. Moroccan courts approved more than 25,000 child marriage requests in 2019.

“I was under enforced confinement and seriously sexually abused,” she recalls. At the age of 20, she escaped captivity and travelled to Melilla. Since then she has been living in the city without any documents.

When the border between Morocco and Spain was still open, Hurria used to work there every day, preparing food or helping elderly men and women to carry their heavy packages to the other side.

“My daughter is only six, she needs clothes and books for her school. I don’t want her to miss out on anything,” she says. The money she used to earn daily paid her rent in Melilla, but since the lockdown forced her to stay at home she has no income.

“I have tried to search for other jobs, like washing cars or as a house cleaner, but it was impossible,’’ she said over the phone since our meeting in Melilla. “I used to call one of my neighbours to help me with food and other little things, but it’s very difficult to survive without any income.”


Hafiza, who is 36 years old, lives alone in Nador, Morocco. She suffers a certain stigma as a non-married woman at her age. “I didn’t have a choice,” she said. Hafiza’s family is originally from Fes, although she grew up in Casablanca. Raised in abject poverty, she had to share one room with her mother, younger brother and six sisters.

“I found myself obliged to stop studying after my high school diploma and go to work,” she said. Before the lockdown restrictions were implemented, she used to work at the border and transport heavy loads from Melilla to the Moroccan city of Nador.

She has been doing this work for more than six years, earning between €7 and €10 a day. “Every day I feel like I am in hell. The way we get treated there is very sad. They treat us as if we are not human, or as if we don’t have emotions,” she said.

“Since coronavirus started I had a lot of issues, especially with paying my rent and buying my medicine. Luckily a close sister stood by me, otherwise I would have died,” she said.

“To find a job in Morocco has become very hard, we are suffering a lot here. I don’t have any plan for my future, it’s only God,” she said, on the verge of tears. She tried to say a few more words but choked up when we reached her by phone recently.

JAMILA and YUSRA (mother and daughter)

Jamila, who is 54 years old, and her daughter Yusra, 31 years old, are living in Nador, Morocco. Jamila is originally from Kenitra, a port city 40km north of the capital Rabat, but after her husband died she moved with her only daughter to Nador to try to find work.

She started as a porter three years ago, together with Yusra, who due to the economic situation of her family was obliged to stop her studies and work at the border.

“There is no work in Morocco, and we have nobody we can rely on in this life. Every day at 5am me and my mum, we come to Barrio Chino, and wait for the gates to open. It’s hard work, I wish I had another choice,” Yusra said.

“All the goods are wrapped together into heavy bundles – we don’t know what’s inside, but it’s very heavy, sometimes weighing up to 100 kilos,” Jamila said.

“I have been working at the border for the past three years, we don’t have any other way of earning a living here in Morocco. I wish I could come to Europe and have a good life there,” Yusra said over the phone.

Both Jamila and Yusra stopped working in March. “How much longer will the border stay shut?” they asked. “We need to eat. Our government is doing nothing for us.”

This project was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund