The ‘mule women’ of Melilla

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - BULLETIN -

the bor­der be­tween Spain and Morocco rep­re­sents many other borders too: not least the line be­tween the eco­nomic pros­per­ity of Europe and the poverty in North Africa. For some, this bor­der is more per­me­able than for oth­ers. In the re­gions im­me­di­ately sur­round­ing Melilla, a Span­ish en­clave on the North African coast, Moroc­can cit­i­zens are per­mit­ted to cross the bor­der with­out visas, and ev­ery­thing that can be phys­i­cally car­ried over is not sub­jected to im­port duty. Since the bor­der closed over two decades ago, women in the re­gion have been earn­ing a mea­gre wage cart­ing bun­dles across the bor­der, mak­ing use of the tax loop­hole sur­round­ing ‘per­sonal bag­gage’. (They’re some­times re­ferred to as ‘mule women’.)

Re­cently, the work has be­come all the more ruth­less: with in­creas­ing un­em­ploy­ment, the com­pe­ti­tion has be­come fe­ro­cious and the bun­dles ever big­ger. Many more men are com­pet­ing. The aver­age pack­age now weighs about 72kg, and they can be as heavy as 100kg. In­juries are fre­quent, and the pay is pal­try: be­tween €3 (about R45) and €10 (R150) a trip. There’s de­bate about how to change the prac­tice: ban­ning it might be even more detri­men­tal for the women who turn to the work as a last re­sort. But the need for reg­u­la­tion and as­sis­tance is also ur­gent. ‘If you come here ev­ery day, you be­gin to think that what you see is nor­mal,’ Ar­turo Ortega, an of­fi­cer with the Guardia Civil at the bor­der, told The New York Times. ‘But it isn’t nor­mal.’

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