July 25, 2020 / 5:00 PM / 9 days ago

Spain to build camp for migrant strawberry pickers after U.N. criticism

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Spanish soldiers have been sent to build a camp for migrant strawberry pickers after a U.N. official criticised authorities for allowing seasonal farm workers to live in “inhumane” conditions, the government said on Saturday.

FILE PHOTO: Farm workers pick asparagus during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Torre del Burgo, Spain, April 20, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

The U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and rights, Olivier De Schutter, said in a statement on Friday that urgent action was needed to improve “deplorable conditions” in worker settlements before people died.

Three fires broke out in migrant shanty towns near the southwestern town of Huelva last week, injuring four people, and health officials have warned that the cramped settlements put workers at risk of catching the coronavirus.

Following appeals for help from local officials, a defence ministry spokeswoman said the troops were deployed on Saturday to look for a suitable location to build a camp to house the workers, most of whom are Moroccan.

“An army logistics team has been sent to try to help prevent possible coronavirus outbreaks in settlements which are in precarious conditions after fires,” she said.

Often dirty and dangerous, and lacking water, sanitation and electricity, such camps have been used as accommodation for Spain’s seasonal fruit-pickers for years.

De Schutter said COVID-19 had worsened the situation.

“This reality of fires and inhumane conditions in the shanty towns cannot be tolerated any longer.

“The situation is deteriorating alarmingly each day, made worse amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” his statement said.

On Thursday, the Health Ministry acknowledged that fruit-pickers were especially vulnerable to catching coronavirus due to overcrowded and insanitary living and working conditions.

Spain is one of the European countries hardest-hit by the pandemic with more than 28,400 fatalities.

Since ending a three-month lockdown in June it has registered 281 new isolated outbreaks, over a quarter of which began in workplace environments.

Authorities in Catalonia imposed two localised lockdowns in Segria and Lleida after a spike in coronavirus cases linked to migrant fruit workers living in precarious conditions.

Reporting by Graham Keeley; Editing by Helen Popper

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