A tragic fire that hides another tragedy

The burnt-out settlement, where people lived in precarious conditions, is one of many in Catalonia

The tragic fire in a squatted industrial warehouse in Badalona, with three confirmed deaths so far (there is an undetermined number of missing people, in addition to 22 injured, of which 2 are critically injured and 4 seriously injured), hides a tragedy that affects thousands of undocumented migrants who have no other way out than to live in illegal settlements. In Barcelona alone, the authorities estimate that there are around seventy such settlements. Many more can be found in different urban areas of Catalonia. The one in Badalona was one of the best known and most crowded: it had existed in the same precarious conditions for more than a decade, and until now more than a hundred people lived there. In fact, some witnesses amongst the survivors explain that the fire could have been put out if they had had running water, but almost two years ago their supply was cut off. They had to go to a fountain to get water for cooking, drinking and washing.

The fire, then, is largely the consequence of a collective powerlessness or neglect in tackling the issue of illegal immigration at all administrative levels, from the local to the European level, including the state and the Catalan level. On the one hand, the reality is that social assistance does not reach them. Neighbourhood networks and social entities, which are overwhelmed, do not have sufficient capacity to relieve their situation. The result is that those who do manage to get there -often after risking their lives at sea- receive almost no help at all: few can obtain leave to stay; most end up living outside the system, on the margins, which only leads to difficult survival situations, victims of social exclusion or illegal mafias, and often also victims of racist attitudes.

The xenophobic discourses of right-wing and ultra-right-wing groups that blame immigration feed on this harsh marginality, which is precisely the consequence of the lack of real reception policies and of an EU migration policy that has not ceased, since the crisis of 2015, to favour entry restrictions over human rights. Europe, worried about the rise of xenophobic populism, has built 1,000 kilometres of walls on its borders to stop the entry of people displaced by violence, inequality and persecution. The new EU pact on migration and asylum promoted by Von der Leyen seeks once again, above all, the control of the external borders. In this context, it becomes difficult to think that those who manage to overcome controls will not end up trapped in legal limbo or directly outside the law. The very figure of the mayor of Badalona, Xavier García Albiol, is a paradigm of this incendiary use of immigration and marginalisation as a weapon. Behind the dramatic fire in Badalona is a persistent drama with an unresolved background.

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