With so much in the media about migrants and refugees, it’s more important than ever to listen to real stories – stories of those who’ve lived through their very own refugee journey and also those of the people who are on the ground following the difficult journeys vulnerable refugees and migrants face each and every day in their work.
With this is mind, let me introduce you to Jesús – a professional photographer working in Malaga (southern Spain) documenting the arrival of refugees across the Mediterranean. Here’s his story.
Hi, my name is Jesús and I’m a press journalist based in Malaga (Spain). In my day-to-day work I focus on a variety of different local, national and international issues. One of the many areas I cover is immigration and in Malaga in particular this involves documenting the influx of refugees arriving in small rubber dinghies. Most people who arrive here have usually travelled from Morocco and this topic continues to gain ongoing media attention as more and more boats are arriving.
On a personal level, I’m passionate about photographing these vulnerable people and documenting their lives because I want to make sure that society doesn’t forget that there are people out there constantly risking their lives in Mediterranean waters. It’s more important than ever to show people the reality of what’s going on so that anti-migrant and anti-refugee abuse can stop – both on a political and governmental level.
In southern Spain, migrants and refugees arrive via the Alboran Sea which is right next to the coast of Malaga, Granada and Almeria on the Andalusian coastline. Over the last few months, there’s been a constant stream of dinghies arriving here in Malaga. Sources say that the number is more than double the amount than those in 2016.
Normally people travel in inflatable boats (called “toys”) in terrible, degrading conditions, risking their lives in the process. Once their boats are spotted in the Alboran Sea, the Maritime Rescue boats pick them up and take them to the port in Malaga (or other nearby locations in areas such as Motril or Barbate).
People usually arrive safely, except for a select few who require urgent medical assistance from the Red Cross. This could include minors, pregnant women or people with either hypothermia or showin signs of other illnesses. Whilst the Maritime Rescue team help new arrivals enter the port, Red Cross staff are responsible for offering humanitarian aid including medical assistance and food inside the port itself in a marquee set up by the Red Cross. This marquee is constantly guarded by local, national police and the Civil Guard.
New arrivals requiring urgent medical attention leave the port and are taken by ambulance to the nearest medical facility. Malaga port is not adequately equipped to offer appropriate medical care, unlike areas such as Motril for example. A lot of people have complained about that and thankfully, they’ve now agreed to set up a space to be able to deal with those people arriving, rather than simply using an open-air space in the port. However, despite the agreed plans, nothing has yet been built.
Every time a dingy arrives into the port, the complex police procedures start. Police forces are on the ground watching over new arrivals in case a fight breaks out or things turns sour. Working as a member of the press alongside the police is difficult. Sometimes they block us from taking photos of people arriving or of covering potentially “compromising situations” such as when someone is being taken away in a police escort – as if they’d committed some sort of crime.
At this point, once the Red Cross have finished their work, lawyers from the College of Lawyers in Malaga are on hand to offer legal assistance and deal with possible asylum and refugee claims etc. Finally, all the migrants/refugees are taken to the police station or what is referred to as “detention centres for foreigners”.
Having experienced the arrival of refugees/migrants on our coast, one thing I have to say that it’s never easy to be there. It’s even harder to take their photos. These are tough, difficult moments in people’s lives, especially when minors are involved. You see how these vulnerable men, women and children are moved to the port to spend the night out in the cold or humid sea air and you get a glimpse of just how truly terrible it is to be travelling in these rubber dinghies, crammed in together, suffering for many long hours at sea. Perhaps the worst moment of their life is when their dinghy is lost at sea and becomes untraceable. In the worst cases, it sinks in the Mediterranean waters with no help from anyone because the rescue forces haven’t (yet) reached them. It’s moments like these that make you feel angry, outraged and powerless.
Despite such tragedy, Spanish society is still talking about the issue as some sort of “mass immigration crisis”. People have so much prejudice, despite knowing nothing about the lives of these people and their reasons for leaving their homeland. Sometimes I think that if we were to hear people’s own stories directly from them – rather than through the media – and listen to everything that was and is happening to them then people’s opinions would change. However, sometimes I just think that society will just carry on being racist and xenophobic. We’re dealing with a moral issue here – people’s lack of respect for and interest in repeated human rights violations against migrant and refugee populations, simply for what they see as a minor “inconvenience” for our government’s administration.
Perhaps one of the biggest things I’ve discovered through my work and in my personal life as a volunteer and human rights activist, is how thankful these people are when they first step onto “Spanish soil”. These people have lived through such immense hardships and faced many more to arrive here and yet almost each and every person who arrives will look at you with such thanks, kindness and sincerity. If you look into their eyes and then look into ours, you’ll see the difference.
It is this that helps in some way to tear down stereotypes and prejudices. It is this that helps us to always see these people as humans, just like any other person endowed with rights. We should recognise that all migrants and refugees must be respected and treated in the best way possible. This lesson is especially true for my current government and the European Union – the main abusers of the human rights of these vulnerable human beings.
Jesús Mérida, 24 years old, is a freelance press photographer based in Malaga (Spain).
He works with the local newspaper Málaga Hoy and the press agency ASNERP, as well as Amnesty International (Malaga).
Jesús’ professional and personal interests are focused around social and human rights issues both locally, nationally and internationally.
Credits and ackowledgments
Text and photography: Jesús Mérida (c) (all rights reserved)
Translation: Elizabeth Arif-Fear (original Spanish text can be viewed here)
Thank you Jesús for sharing your inspiring story and photography and for all the amazing work you do!
Follow Jesús on Twitter @JesusMerida_