PC: Javi Martínez por El Mundo
In Spain, they’ve been assigned the alias, Los Manteros, the blanket people. They spread their livelihoods—namely counterfeit purses, tennis shoes, belts, bags, and other emblem-bearing items— on bedsheets laid out on the pavement. The sheets are tugged taught and set with care, presented for passerby’s to peruse through and pick over. When the sheets are stepped upon, it is almost always a conscientious dark hand that smooths their edges back into place. As the world they walked into walks by, they wait by their wares, ready to sell or dismantle quickly.
“Most manteros are migrants from Africa who have often risked their lives fleeing violence or poverty. But many find when they reach the European Union that landing a regular job without the correct papers is almost impossible — especially in high-unemployment countries like Spain" (New York Times, 2018).
While the local labels assigned to them vary according to country and region, the Mediterranean possesses a different relationship with migrants than other receiving countries. Because all asylum-seeking persons are processed in the country they first landed in, this places a different type of pressure on the receiving institutions and social perceptions within the sending, transitioning, and receiving locations of the Mediterranean respectively. The first (and most obvious) symptom of their diversified experiences being that each of the different regions associate the onset of the crisis at staggered timeframes. For example, in Turkey and other regions around the MENA, it is commonly held that the crisis began in 2013. By this point, the ongoing Syrian War had been underway for 2 years and the number of refugees pooling in neighboring regions (predominantly Turkey) was swelling beyond the institutional capacity of these countries. Likewise, another stream of West African migrants attempting to flow North and West into the EU was dammed in the Maghreb (Altai Consulting for IOM Nigeria). It wasn’t until 2015 that the crisis came to light in Europe, at which point it became the hammered focal point of all global media outlets. However, the novelty of migration acceleration and the refugee crisis faded in 2016 to accommodate unprecedented headlines such as “Colombia Strikes a Peace Deal,” “Brazil and South Korea Impeach their Presidents,” “Eastern Aleppo Falls,” “The Coup in Turkey Fails,” “Rodrigo Duterte Becomes President of the Philippines,” “The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Flops,” “North Korea Conducts Missile and Nuclear Tests,” “Britain Votes to Leave the European Union,” “Russia Interferes in the U.S. Presidential Election,” “Donald Trump Wins the U.S. Presidency,” and “Zika Virus: a Global Health Emergency" (The Atlantic, 2016). As the refugee crisis slipped out of the limelight following 2016, the gritty reality of the situation did not. Nascent institutions were no less strained than before, yet the influx of persons had increased.
Politically, the world looked away too early. Between 2016 and 2018, bilateral relations betwixt countries of the Mediterranean spiked. Particularly, the increased collaboration between Spain and Morocco made the Western Migration Route (WMR) so difficult that migrants responded by shifting Eastward. For example, initiatives such as Operation Sofia (i.e. The European Naval Force Mediterranean) was a militarized EU operation initiated in the wake of a series of fatal maritime migration crossings departing from Libya in 2015. It stated objective was to limit smuggling routes. Another instance of this can be found in the infamous agreement between Turkey and the EU, informally dubbed as the “Dirty Deal.” Spain donated quantities as high as 30 million euro to Morocco explicitly designated to slow the rate and flow of persons from Morocco to Europe via Spain, which was reinforced by a140 million euro EU stimulus that cumulatively resulted in a 27% decrease in irregular migration in the Western Migration Route (WMR) from Morocco to Spain (El País, 2019). Political actions presented a blend of policy decisions ranging from genuinely effective to morally questionable (Brookings, 2017). Socially, labels like Los Manteros and (other regionally generated slurs) exemplify the degree to which society has simultaneously ‘created’ an identity schema for them, both normalizing their presence to a certain degree and othering them.
This isn’t just a symptomatic clue that society has numbed itself to the extreme instability which these individuals must live with on a daily basis. It also actively reinforces a new form of inequality between social classes who are living side-by-side, yet within totally different worlds. Although the dramatic rise of stateless individuals is indeed a phenomenon of the modern era, the most basic concept of a community (a group of people living in the same place) should still imply that some minimum level of dialogue exists between the members of that community, be they citizens or asylum seekers. Fundamentally, this social distance paired with an unspoken social divide between locals and migrants freezes any genuine dialogue that might otherwise exist between the vender and the passerby. In my view, this is wholly unproductive to achieving any level of harmony and understanding.