The Mules of Melilla

Goods carried by hand over the border from Morocco to Melilla and Ceuta are duty-free, so a cottage industry of porters carry goods worth billions of Euros across the border every year.

AraInfo | Diario Libre d’Aragón [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Melilla and Ceuta are Spanish cities located in the northwestern part of Africa. They used to be free ports, and are still a part of Spain. (They are also regions that are part of the EU despite being on another continent, although they do not share the Outermost Region designation with French Guiana.) They do, however, share a land border with Morocco.

So here’s the thing: Morocco has a customs duty on imports from the EU. They make an exception, however, for any goods physically carried over the border. And when I say physically carried, I mean no vehicles, no carts, no wheelbarrows. Just whatever you happen to have on you… it’s tax-free.

Seems reasonable, but it has led to a large cottage industry of people who are paid to carry huge quantities of goods over the border. They’re known as the Porteadoras, and they have terrible jobs.

The bundles can weigh up to 90kg, and the border is so crowded that if you fall down you’re likely to be trampled. Wikipedia calls it “a job of last resort” for those who cannot find work elsewhere. That means it’s mainly women, frequently old women, often widows and divorced women marginalised by society.

The volumes that cross the border this way are ridiculous: 1.4 billion Euros a year. You can watch a documentary about it all below:

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