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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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El Salvador ‘responsible for death of woman jailed after miscarriage’ | Global development

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The Inter-American court of human rights has ruled that El Salvador was responsible for the death of Manuela, a woman who was jailed in 2008 for killing her baby when she suffered a miscarriage.

The court has ordered the Central American country to reform its draconian policies on reproductive health.

The decision on Tuesday marked the first time an international court has ruled on El Salvador’s extreme abortion laws and was celebrated by women’s rights activists, who believe it could open doors for change across the region.

Since 1998, abortion in El Salvador has been banned without exception, even in cases of rape and incest. Over the past two decades, more than 180 women have been jailed for murder for having an abortion after suffering obstetric emergencies, according to rights groups.

The case of Manuela v El Salvador was brought after the 33-year-old mother of two from the countryside died from cancer after receiving inadequate medical diagnosis and treatment, leaving her two children orphaned. She had been serving a 30-year prison sentence for aggravated homicide after a miscarriage.

When Manuela – whose full name has never been made public in El Salvador – went to the hospital after miscarrying, staff failed to provide her with timely treatment and instead subjected her to verbal abuse and accused her of having an abortion, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Manuela was handcuffed to her bed and denied access to a lawyer while police interrogated her.

“There is no doubt that Manuela suffered an obstetric emergency,” the landmark court ruling stated. “Such situations, as they are medical conditions, cannot lead to a criminal sanction.”

The court also ruled that the state must pay reparations to Manuela’s family, and should develop comprehensive sexual education policies and guarantee doctor-patient confidentiality.

“The Inter-American court has done justice by recognising Manuela was another victim of an unjust legal context that originates in the absolute prohibition of abortion,” said Morena Herrera, at the Feminist Collective for Local Development, one of the parties in the case supporting Manuela’s family.

“Manuela’s story is a sad one, but it represents a change and becomes a path of justice and hope for all women in Latin America and the Caribbean who are criminalised for obstetric events.”

Most countries in the region respect the Inter-American court’s jurisdiction, opening the door for sweeping change, activists said.

“This is a huge advance for reproductive rights, not only in El Salvador but across Latin America,” said Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights, another party in the case. “This is a standard we can apply to the constitutions and states across the region.”

Martínez Coral added that while the ruling was to be celebrated, the issue of poverty affecting access to reproductive rights remained a challenge.

“There are over 180 cases of women in jail, or that have been jailed, over these issues,” said Martínez Coral, who also worked as a litigator on the case against the Salvadorean state.

“What that means is we’re dealing with a state that criminalises women and, above all, criminalises poor women in the most rural and impoverished areas,” she said.

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EU commission unveils proposal to digitalise justice systems

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The European Commission unveiled on Wednesday a proposal to digitalise EU cross-border justice systems, aiming at making them more accessible and effective. Under the new draft law, the EU executive wants to tackle inefficiencies affecting cross-border judicial cooperation and barriers to access to justice in cross-border cases. Shifting paper-based communications to electronic formats would save up to €25m per year across the EU in postage and paper costs.

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Covid limits migration despite more people displaced by war and disasters | Global development

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The coronavirus pandemic had a radical effect on migration, limiting movement despite increasing levels of internal displacement from conflict and climate disasters, the UN’s International Organization for Migration said in a report on Wednesday.

Though the number of people who migrated internationally increased to 281 million in 2020 – 9 million more than before Covid-19 – the number was 2 million lower than expected without a pandemic, according to the report.

“We are witnessing a paradox not seen before in human history,” said IOM director general, António Vitorino. “While billions of people have been effectively grounded by Covid-19, tens of millions of others have been displaced within their own countries.”

Internal displacement caused by violence, conflict and disasters increased to 40.5 million from 31.5 million. Globally, the IOM said governments implemented a total of 108,000 restrictions on international travel, alongside internal restrictions on movement, disrupting migration during the pandemic.

Prior to the report’s release, Vitorino told IOM member states on Monday that international cooperation was needed to ensure people were not stripped of the option of migrating when they needed to.

He also pointed out that people from countries with low levels of vaccination could be excluded from emigrating. “We must acknowledge the deep impacts the Covid-19 pandemic has had for people on the move: people stranded in transit, families separated across borders, migrants left unemployed but unable to afford the return home,” said Vitorino.

“The resulting complex patchwork of measures, frequently changing in scope and application, has placed a chilling effect on cross-border mobility, particularly for those unvaccinated.”

The report said conditions were particularly harsh for people from developing countries working in the Middle East and south-east Asia, with the pandemic affecting their incomes and housing, while they were also often excluded from access to healthcare and welfare.

However, the feared 20% drop in remittances – which can be a key lifeline to poor families during crises – that was predicted by the World Bank in April 2020 did not materialise and had been much lower, at 2.4%. This might be partly related to people being forced to send money to their families through formal routes, the report suggested, because options such as carrying cash were blocked off, as well as many working in jobs on the frontline of the pandemic that continued despite lockdowns.

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