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Morocco's long-burdened 'mule women' face new struggle

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Fnideq (Morocco) (AFP)

After years of back-breaking toil, Fatima el Hanani now fears being reduced to begging in the street because of Morocco's closure of its border with a Spanish enclave to thousands of "mule women".

The impact has been felt on both sides of the frontier, with the Moroccan porters who lugged duty-free Spanish goods left out of work and shops closing as livelihoods dry up for traders.

"They want to turn us into beggars," says Hanani, who had spent all her working life transporting heavy loads from Ceuta to the town of Fnideq in the North African kingdom.

Like thousands of other Moroccan women -- and also men -- she would cross every day into the Spanish enclave and come back laden with merchandise for traders.

Goods brought on foot through the crossing on a hill looking over the Mediterranean are not subjected to import duties, unlike those brought by vehicles.

But four months ago, Morocco suddenly stopped porters from crossing, in a move aimed at curbing the entry of contraband.

"Business was good before," says Hanani, who is in her 50s, but now "there is no more work".

Nicknamed "mule women", the Moroccan porters would often be seen bent double, overburdened by goods approaching or exceeding their own bodyweight.

- 'I don't make money' -

Rights groups repeatedly denounced the work as "humiliating", saying it was tantamount to trafficking tolerated by the authorities.

At least four women porters were trampled to death in 2017, in stampedes at the border post -- the only land frontier between the EU and Africa.

But it was vital work for Hanani, who says she has raised five children on her own thanks to the long-tolerated practice.

Now she sells trinkets in a souk in Fnideq.

"I don't make any money anymore," Hanani laments, her wares spread out on the ground.

The delivery of bundles of clothes, food products and household goods created business that benefited the economy on both sides of the border.

Porters and shopkeepers say they are now waiting for alternative employment.

Meanwhile, a metal gate blocks the passage for porters at the border crossing, under the watchful eye of the Moroccan guards.

- 'Enormous impact' -

The Moroccan authorities have talked a lot about the need to regulate the informal sector, but have largely kept mum about the change.

Nabyl Lakhdar, the country's director-general of customs, told local daily L'Economiste in January that the contraband hurt Morocco's economy by destroying its productive sector.

Lakhdar called the porters "the first victims" of the smuggling, saying "certain mafias" profitted from their "precariousness and sometimes from their suffering."

In 2018, Ceuta authorities and traders launched an initiative encouraging the women to use trolleys instead of carrying the heavy weights on their backs.

But without the porters, the economy in Fnideq and Ceuta is just barely ticking over.

"The impact is enormous," says Abdellah Haudour, a shopkeeper who sells Spanish blankets on the Moroccan side.

"Prices have gone up, purchasing power has gone down. There are no more customers," he says, showing his empty till. "Many have left the town."

The normally packed bus station, used by those picking up goods from across the border, is deserted.

"I now earn a third of what I used to," says Mimoun el Mourabit, a 67-year-old driver sitting on the bonnet of his vehicle.

At the beginning of January, a Moroccan parliamentary report recommended creating an industrial area to provide new jobs for the porters.

But "who will employ 50-year-old, illiterate 'mule women'?" asks Haudour, the shopkeeper.

The Moroccan move has also caused a "serious trade crisis" in the Spanish port city, the Confederation of Ceuta Entrepreneurs (CECE) said in mid-December.

At the entrance to the border crossing, corrugated iron hangars house all types of goods, sent by boat from continental Europe to Ceuta.

The crux of the trade took place here.

Jamal, a grocer, says the crisis is unprecedented and that his turnover has collapsed.

"Our products are expiring," he says as he displays his unsold goods.

Rachid, 48, says from his shoe shop: "Stores have shut. Business is at a standstill. We are wasting our time."

Both men decline to provide their surnames.

"If this continues, I will have to close," Rachid says.

"We depend on the Spanish authorities. We're protected by the social security system. But what about the Moroccans?"

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