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Chariots of steel: Barcelona’s hidden army of scrap recyclers | Global development

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They are everywhere and yet they are almost invisible, living below the social radar as they crisscross the city pushing supermarket trolleys piled with metal tubing, old microwaves and empty beer cans.

The chatarreros are Barcelona’s itinerant scrap-metal collectors, and there are thousands of them. Most are undocumented migrants and so there is no official census, but Federico Demaria, a social scientist at the University of Barcelona who is conducting a study of the informal recyclers in Catalonia, believes there are between 50,000 and 100,000 in the region. About half are from sub-Saharan Africa; the rest are from eastern Europe, elsewhere in Africa and Spain.

They may be under the radar but they play a vital role in recycling, collecting an estimated 100,000 tonnes of metal a year in Catalonia alone, in a business that the Spanish recycling federation estimates is worth €10bn (£8.6bn) annually.

“What I’ve collected today is only worth about €3,” says Suleiman, resting on a bench en route to the scrapyard. A bed frame and bits of twisted metal are crammed into his shopping trolley. “Steel is worth less than 10 cents a kilo.”

Suleiman arrived from Guinea in 2005 and, although he has his residency papers, says it’s impossible to land a proper job. “Next month I’m going to Lleida [a city 100 miles west of Barcelona] to dig potatoes and pick cherries,” he says.

A chatarrero or scrap-metal collector in Barcelona,
Chatarreros are only paid what they receive for the scrap metal

Víctor Mitjans, a recycling expert employed by the Barcelona Metropolitan Area, says: “The informal collectors are exploited by scrap merchants who, knowing these people are ‘illegal’, offer a price and it’s a case of take it or leave it.”

The waste belongs to the city, so collecting it is technically theft. “The city isn’t going to prosecute these people and most are prepared to turn a blind eye to their activities,” he says.

While the city pays private companies to collect and separate waste, the informal collectors are not rewarded for their work beyond what they receive for scrap. Recycling metal isn’t part of the formal system of collecting glass, paper and plastic.

“If you recognise their environmental service then they should be compensated for it,” says Demaria. Contracts for waste collection in Barcelona city are worth €2.3bn. The problem is that the migrants are trapped in a catch-22 due to Spanish immigration law: they cannot get a job because they are undocumented but they cannot get legal status without a job.

A chatarrero or scrap-metal collector in Barcelona,
Around half of the pickers are sub-Saharan Africans; the rest are from eastern Europe, elsewhere in Africa and Spain

To get legal residency you have to live in the country for three years, prove that you have had a fixed address for at least a year, show that you are learning the language and have a work contract for a minimum of one year. For many, it is impossible to fulfil these conditions, and even if they get legal status, they have to register as self-employed and pay a statutory monthly “quota” of €300, regardless of income, which they do not earn enough to pay.

The self-employed quota forces tens of thousands of people in the lowest-paid jobs, such as domestic workers and carers, into the informal market. They are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, because they have no way of claiming compensation for lost earnings from the state.

“What can you do? Steal? Sell drugs?” asks Ababacar Thiakh Sylla, who came to Spain from Senegal 23 years ago. “If you don’t want to do that the only option is collecting scrap or being a street vendor. It’s social exclusion, nothing more nor less.”

Sylla arrived from Dakar, Senegal, with a university degree that was not recognised in Spain, and so spent the next six years working illegally as a street vendor before obtaining a history degree from the University of Barcelona. He now works for a city-funded cooperative that helps undocumented workers find jobs.

Chatarreros in Barcelona.
Pickers collect an estimated 100,000 tonnes of metal a year in Catalonia alone

A 2013 report by the International Labour Office estimated that only about a fifth of the 24 million people worldwide working in waste management are formally employed. The remainder are the 19-million-strong global army of informal waste pickers.

“These people provide this recycling service and they invest their whole life in it because it’s the only way they can survive,” says Lucía Fernández, who helped to establish the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, speaking from her office in Montevideo, Uruguay.

“The chatarreros of Barcelona are at the bottom of a pyramid, with multinational capital at the top,” she says – something that has long been the case in the global south but is a new phenomenon in the north.

Demaria agrees. “It’s got a lot to do with inequality and we’re seeing a convergence between the north and the south because now in the global north we have a lot of people who live in extreme poverty,” he says.

Collected scrap is sorted
It is thought there may be between 50,000 and 100,000 informal recyclers in Catalonia

Fernández says that, while governments spend millions on sophisticated waste collection services, in parts of Brazil waste pickers gather as much as 60% of what is collected for recycling.

“We need to see these people’s work not as a problem but as a solution, but to do that we need to change the system,” Fernández says.

More and more Africans are making the perilous journey to Spain, where a tough and precarious existence awaits. “When people who have worked here, even as a waiter, go back to Senegal, what people see is someone who has made a success of life in paradise,” says Mamadou Saliou Diallo. “They’ve got their lives sorted. People sell their homes so that their children can cross the sea in a canoe.”

Diallo arrived 11 years ago, alone, aged 16 and determined to be a professional footballer. He did play for Sant Andreu when it was in the second division, but was dropped when new management took over.

As well as working for a bicycle hire firm, he has set up the NGO Diandé frica, which helps fund the education of 500 children in his home town of Ziguinchor, south Senegal, while also running a day nursery and a jam-making project in the Raval district of Barcelona.

Chatarreros’ tents in Barcelona.
Chatarreros’ tents in Barcelona

For Karim, who in 2006 was among 30 people who set off from home in a small boat for a new life, Senegal had little to offer. After 15 days at sea they arrived in the Canary Islands, the longest and most dangerous of the African migrant routes to Europe.

In one week last October, nearly 500 migrants drowned attempting this crossing. Karim says he was never afraid, however. “Yes, it’s dangerous, but if things are bad in your country and your family is suffering, if your life is already a living death, at least you tried. Maybe you’ll drown but you can feel proud that you tried.”

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Covid-19: Valencia health chief concerned over rise in coronavirus infections among tourists in Benidorm | Society

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A bar in Benidorm in June.
A bar in Benidorm in June.Mònica Torres

Coronavirus infections among tourists visiting the city of Benidorm, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, have risen sharply since October 5, according to the Valencia regional health chief Ana Barceló. But the politician, speaking on Tuesday, sought to avoid causing alarm with the news.

The incidence of the coronavirus in the city, which is located in Alicante province, is currently at 286 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the previous 14 days, compared to the average in Spain of 46 and 49 in the Valencia region as a whole, according to the latest Health Ministry data released on Monday evening.

Of the latest cases detected in Benidorm, 53% were among the foreign population. British tourists usually account for 45% of the population of the city, although that number is currently at around 24%. In recent weeks that percentage has been rising, now that Covid-19 restrictions on travel have been relaxed.

There is no reason to create concern, either among the tourists who are currently visiting us nor among residents

Toni Pérez, mayor of Benidorm

In the United Kingdom, coronavirus infections have recently shot up once more and the situation is of great concern to health experts. The 14-day incidence in the UK is currently 928.22 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to data released on Sunday. There is currently no legal obligation in England to wear masks in any situation, although they are still necessary inside stores and some other indoor settings in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

On Tuesday, Barceló expressed the “concern” of her department given the situation in Benidorm and announced that there will be “monitoring in order to adopt measures if necessary to control the situation presented in the city.” She added that the infection curve began to rise on October 5, coinciding with the arrival of mostly British tourists, although there have been recorded cases among visitors from other countries as well.

There has not been any rise in hospitalizations in Benidorm due to Covid-19, meanwhile, nor in the surrounding areas. The majority of tourists visiting the famous city are supposedly vaccinated against Covid-19 before arrival.

For now, Barceló – a member of the PSPV-PSOE, the Valencian branch of the Socialist Party (PSOE) – has ruled out modifying the system for monitoring the cumulative incidence, in order to include the floating population as well as official residents. This has been called for by the Benidorm city council, which is run by Mayor Toni Pérez of the conservative Popular Party (PP), as well as the tourism association Hosbec.

On Monday, Pérez pointed out that there are 75,000 people officially residing in Benidorm while in reality the city is home to 180,000 citizens – “three times more,” he stated. He insisted that the real coronavirus incidence is “very different from what is being published by the health authorities.” If the regional health chief examined the data according to the real population levels, he continued, the city of Benidorm would “be in the ballpark of the figures from any other municipality in Spain.”

Tourists enjoying the beaches of Benidorm in September.
Tourists enjoying the beaches of Benidorm in September. Efe

The mayor expressed his concern for the message that is being conveyed about Benidorm and added that “there is no reason to create concern, either among the tourists who are currently visiting us nor among residents,” because “safety is a priority for us.”

In a statement, Hosbec also said that the incidence data for Benidorm should be “qualified and extrapolated to the effective population,” given that the data being supplied does “not reflect the real situation and creates distortions that damage the image of the destination.”

The association added that if the figure of 180,000 inhabitants is used, the cumulative incidence would come in at 100 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, something that “is more in line with the real situation, and would dispel any situation of concern.”

Barceló explained on Tuesday that the regional health department takes into account positive cases that are detected independently of where they take place, because even if they are among tourists “they can infect others just the same” while they are residing in the area. She insisted that they must be included in the data even if they push up the cumulative incidence, and that the region’s health authorities have to register them independently of the person’s country of origin.

She added that it is very difficult to determine the exact numbers of the floating population, and that not even local councils have up-to-date, accurate figures.

Sources from Benidorm council, meanwhile, claim to have a very accurate daily estimate of the number of visitors to the city thanks to the consumption of water and the amount of trash that is generated. What’s more, they say that they have been monitoring the current situation of the pandemic in the main countries from which their tourists travel.



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‘The Taliban killed a midwife who refused to leave a woman in labour’ | Afghanistan

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When Afghanistan’s first midwife-led birth centre opened in the impoverished district of Dasht-e-Barchi in western Kabul this year it was a symbol of hope and defiance.

It began receiving expectant mothers in June, just over a year after a devastating attack by gunmen on the maternity wing at the local hospital left 24 people dead, including 16 mothers, a midwife and two young children.

For Zahra Mirzaei, its launch – along with a second birth centre in the east of the capital – marked the culmination of a decade advocating for women’s birth rights.

As president of the Afghan Midwives Association (AMA), Mirzaei was instrumental in establishing the midwife-led units promoting an ethos of respectful, bespoke care away from an over-medicalised setting.

“In our country this approach to pregnant women is groundbreaking and there was a great feeling of hope when we opened our doors,” she says.

“Women who had previously experienced undignified, low quality care in poorly staffed hospitals were pleasantly surprised to discover there is another way of doing things.”

The units in Dasht-e-Barchi and Arzan Qimat were established with technical support and training from the Europe-based Midwifery Unit Network (MUNet) and funding from two NGOs which we cannot name for security reasons.

A woman is supported in active labour by three midwives.
A woman is supported in active labour at a birth centre in Arzan Qimat. Photograph: Nooria Omidy/Handout via Hannah Summers

In the initial weeks the centres, staffed with a total of 75 midwives, were each welcoming 10 to 13 newborns a day. But as word spread, increasing numbers arrived and this soon climbed to 25 to 30.

By late July, Mirzaei was preoccupied with how to manage the rise in cases. But her work was overshadowed by a growing awareness of the Taliban’s military offensive, which had gathered unexpected pace.

News of the Afghan government’s imminent collapse amid the withdrawal of US troops was, to Mirzaei, personally and professionally shattering.

“Suddenly everything I had worked tirelessly for was under threat,” she says. As a Hazara Shia and a longstanding campaigner for women’s rights, the 33-year-old knew she and her three children were at risk.

“Previous Taliban governments have killed thousands of Hazara people without any reason. Also I knew my feminist work and belief in women’s equality would never be accepted by the Taliban regime,” says Mirzaei, who in 2020 was named one of 100 outstanding female nurses, midwives and leaders providing health services in difficult times by Women in Global Health.

As the US and its coalition partners scrambled to airlift thousands of people from the country, warnings were filtering through from Mirzaei’s home town that she was a potential Taliban target.

On the day Kabul fell, plunging the country into turmoil, she left her office for the last time, fleeing in such a hurry she was unable to collect her shoes. “We didn’t expect the situation to escalate so fast,” she says.

Later that night she was woken by the sound of her eight-year-old daughter sobbing: “I went to her and she said: ‘Mummy, I’m scared that when I’m 12 the Taliban will come and take me to get married and I won’t be able to go to school.’ That was so painful to hear that I promised there and then to get us out.”

After calling every contact she could think of, she heard from a friend in the US who could help. Mirzaei left home with her family at 1am on 23 August, still wearing the flimsy slippers in which she’d fled her office.

They spent a harrowing 12 hours waiting in a sewer near the airport before being rescued by US troops and airlifted to Qatar. From there they were transferred to a refugee camp in southern Spain.

Mirzaei in a refugee camp in Spain
Mirzaei, who is now in a refugee camp in Spain, says she was was heartbroken to give up the role of president of the Afghan Midwives Association. Photograph: Katie Cox/The Guardian

Speaking from the Spanish naval base in Rota, Mirzaei explains how leaving Afghanistan also meant, regrettably, stepping down as president of the AMA.

While she was heartbroken to give up the role, she remains a member of the advisory board and is working remotely to support the organisation including her successor – a woman from a different ethnic group who is more likely to be accepted by the regime.


As the eighth girl of 10 siblings, Mirzaei understood from a young age that boys and girls were not seen as equal. “I had two brothers but my father wanted more boys and it made me sad girls were not allowed to reach their full potential in our community.”

Growing up in the province of Sar-e Pol, where poverty was widespread and literacy rates were poor, 16-year-old Mirzaei found education opportunities were limited.

An encounter at the local hospital set her on the path to becoming a midwife. In the waiting room she witnessed a woman desperately searching for a midwife only to be abused by a health worker.

“This incident really affected me – the way they treated her was shameful. When I saw the doctor I asked her what a midwife was and why it was so important.

“I liked the sound of midwifery – it spoke to the feminist in me. That kind doctor changed my life by explaining how I could enrol on a community education midwife programme.”

A year later Mirzaei graduated with a diploma having already joined the AMA as a student. “I was inspired by its plans for improving the profession. For me the most important thing was for women to receive evidence-based, respectful maternity care.”

But starting out as a hospital midwife in 2006 she was concerned by what she saw.

A midwife supports a woman breastfeeding her newborn baby.
Early breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact and delayed cord clamping was encouraged at the units Mirzaei helped to create. Photograph: Nooria Omidy/Handout via Hannah Summers

“There would be 150 deliveries a day in a hospital with only four or five midwives. Women would be left to give birth in the corner or in the toilet. The most painful thing was seeing how exhausted the midwives were – they couldn’t support pregnant women emotionally and there was even physical abuse.”

While women in remote areas typically give birth without medical assistance, or sometimes with a midwife, childbirth in urban hospital settings is highly medicalised.

“These facilities are staffed by doctors who don’t seem to know their job description because they are overrun dealing with straightforward births,” says Mirzaei. “The care is dehumanised and the use of hormone drips and episiotomies is routine practice.”

Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, although the number of women dying in childbirth has slowed from 1,450 per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 638 in 2017, according to UN data.

In 2012 Mirzaei became a provincial director for the AMA and later moved to Kabul to coordinate a midwives’ mentorship programme for the organisation.

She joined a small but growing cohort to achieve a BA in midwifery after graduating from Zawul Institute of Higher Education in 2016. Two years later she was elected president of the AMA and made it her mission to establish midwife-led units.

The model would move away from medical interventions towards a focus on active birth, skin-to-skin contact and early breastfeeding.

In 2003 there were just 467 midwives operating in Afghanistan – the severe shortage brought about by the Taliban’s ban on educating girls and women during the preceding years. This figure has since grown to 6,376 currently in clinical practice.

A 2018 Afghanistan Health Survey found just a fifth of pregnant women had received the recommended four antenatal care visits and fewer than 60% of births were overseen by a skilled healthcare professional.

There were 119 attacks by terrorist groups on healthcare facilities in Afghanistan in 2019, according to the World Health Organization. Then in May 2020 came the massacre at the maternity ward of the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital.

Among the dead was a midwife colleague of Mirzaei, Maryam Noorzad. “She was killed because she refused to leave a woman alone in labour. The baby was coming and after it was born a gunman entered and killed all three of them.”

Not only was the attack a horrific crime against pregnant women, babies and hospital staff – it was also a devastating assault on decades of work to reduce maternal and newborn mortality in Afghanistan.

Despite the security fears, the AMA wanted to establish one of the midwife-led units in the same district to plug the gap left by the attack on the hospital, where there had been 16,000 babies born in 2019. Many of the midwives who survived the 2020 attack were among the highly trained staff taken on by the AMA to run the new centres.

A newborn baby on a maternity ward in Herat in February
A newborn on a maternity ward in Herat in February. It is feared decades of work to reduce maternal and newborn mortality in Afghanistan could be threatened by the Taliban’s return to power. Photograph: Jalil Rezayee/EPA

The success of the centres relies on one-to-one care and requires numbers to be kept at a manageable level. To meet the demand it was Mirzaei’s ambition to open more units across Kabul and beyond.

But for now, at best, her dream is on hold. The centres closed after the Taliban takeover and while one has recently reopened many staff remain too fearful to go to work. Some midwives have already been interrogated by the Taliban for moving around without a chaperone.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has estimated that without immediate support there could be 51,000 additional maternal deaths between now and 2025.

In Spain, Mirzaei is preparing to fly to the US to start the next chapter of her life. Her immediate future is uncertain but she has accepted an offer to study global maternal health at City, University of London, which she’s had to defer until she can arrange a visa.

“Every day I open my phone and look at photos that were taken at our birth centres. It gives me hope. Their immediate success rests on the wider political situation but we will not cease our efforts to do everything we can for girls and women in Afghanistan.”

  • Many midwives who have campaigned for women’s rights in Afghanistan now find themselves targeted by the Taliban and have been forced into hiding, while others are at risk because of their ethnicity. The Association of Radical Midwives is raising funds to help those seeking to settle in the UK. To donate please visit this crowdfunding page.

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EU to open new mission in Kabul

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The EU foreign service is to open a mission in Kabul by the end of November, the FT reported Sunday, citing sources. The representation would not be an embassy, as the EU has not recognised the Taliban government. The EU office is also to be used by member states’ diplomats. “There’s only so much you can do from Doha,” a source said. China, Russia, and Turkey never closed their embassies.

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