Madrid, Spain (CNN)More than seven thousand Moroccans, most of them women, are stranded in Spain after their country closed its borders to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
They arrived in Spain to pick fruit in March, sending their earnings back home to families, and were trapped when the season ended in May. Now, 7,200 people are in limbo in Spain's southern Huelva province with almost no money, according to a statement released earlier this week by a group of Spanish and Moroccan non-governmental human rights organizations, including local Andalusian group Mujeres 24h.
On Thursday, a group of 15 women staged a protest in in Cartaya, Huelva. The women, who work on one of the farms involved marched with banners demanding to be allowed to go back home.
"We are here without a job, we have nothing, the money we had we sent it to our family. We are out of money to eat, we need to go back. We ask [King] Mohammed VI to send someone to help us so that we can return," Fátima, one of the protesters, said, in a video of the protest obtained by CNN.
"Our children are alone in Morocco, they have nobody to take care of them, we need to go back," she said. A video of the protesters discussing their situation was obtained by CNN from an activist group.
How to get home
Morocco's Foreign Affairs Ministry says its borders will reopen to citizens and residents starting July 14, but it's unclear how helpful the measures will be for the stranded women, as ferries to Morocco will be scheduled exclusively from the ports of Sète, in France, and the Italian port of Genoa -- which are both more than 1,000 km away from Spain's Huelva province.
Travelers on both ferries and flights back to Morocco will also have to provide a coronavirus test which is less than 48-hours old and to comply with strict hygiene measures that were not specified. But many of the women work in isolated areas and lack the money to travel to the ports, to fly or to be tested according to volunteers at Mujeres 24h.
Interfresa, one of the biggest strawberry pickers associations in Spain said that some workers had been in the country as early as December, and said it was in "daily contact" with the governments of Spain and Morocco.
The two countries signed an agreement in 2001 granting the seasonal workers temporary visas to harvest fruit in Spain. The Spanish government has extended residency permits for the women until September. 30, but has expressed its wish that they return to their homes.
"We are in permanent contact with the Moroccan authorities. It is a complex operation and the details have yet to be defined," a spokesperson for Spain's Foreign Minister told CNN on Thursday.
A spokesman for the Andalusian regional government, which includes Huelva province, told CNN that so far, it had successfully repatriated 106 affected women and five infants to Morocco through charter flights. Local officials have provided food and essential items to the workers and their employers have agreed to let them stay in their designated accommodation, the spokesperson added.
But Spanish NGOs -- which have repeatedly denounced what the conditions of seasonal farm work -- worry about the workers' living conditions.
"The farms that we have been able to access are not suitable for a long-term stay, many are prefabricated modules, they are designed for non-extreme weather conditions, with a large concentration of people in very small spaces, which doesn't meet what rules of the hiring in origin agreement," said Angels Escrivá, a spokesperson for NGO Mujeres 24h.
"When it has rained, they have told us that they have gotten wet and now with the heat, they have had to sleep on the ground outside," Escrivá added.
NGO workers at Mujeres 24h told CNN that some of the workers live in accommodation without running water and electricity.
Some of the women also dispute the local government's claim to have provided food, saying they are dependent on the charity of their employer.
In the video of the protest Thursday obtained by CNN, another seasonal worker pleaded. "Please help us, we are abandoned here. I have 4 children who are with my mother-in-law, who is doing me the favor.
"The work is done," said the woman, who was not identified. "We are no longer doing anything, we can only be at home, please help us, we have been like this for a month."