"Comercio Atípico": The History of the Porteadoras of Melilla

Due to a regulation, it is in principle possible to carry goods as “hand luggage” across the European-African border between Melilla in Spain and Nador in Morocco. Smuggling in both directions is not a new phenomenon at the Melilla border and dates back to the 19th century. Until the 1970s, however, this was mainly in male hands. Then more and more mainly single women from the border region began to transport products from Melilla to Nador on a small scale for lack of money.

This gave rise to the “Comercio Atípico” (“unusual trade”). International wholesalers made big profits while they had Moroccan women working for them as porters (porteadoras). The porters took on the task of transporting goods from Spain to Morocco on their backs, while wholesalers and forwarding companies planned their delivery and onward transport. With the first border fence at Melilla in 1998 and increased border controls, the system professionalised into an internationally networked “smuggling industry”. This attracted more and more women and later also men from all over Morocco to work as porters in Nador. Over time, the “packages” weighed up to 80 kg.

On the one hand, the border made it possible for people without schooling or vocational training to work and to secure the most basic needs. The thousands of porteadoras from Melilla and Nador thus ensured survival for themselves and their families, and guaranteed an income for about 450,000 other people in Morocco alone. On the other hand, they worked under very adverse conditions, with no job guarantee and no protection. In addition, their work depended heavily on bilateral relations between Morocco and Spain and the goodwill of the border guards.

In 2018, the Moroccan government banned this border trade as well as the commercial import of goods into Morocco via the port of Melilla.

"I set off for the border as early as 4am to safely grab a package to transport. I need the money to take care of myself, my sick husband and my children. If the border stays closed, it is a big problem for me because I don't know how else to shop."

Hakima R.
Porteadora, 2018

"I grew up with my mother and grandmother. In the 1980s, my grandmother sold products from Melilla in a small shop in the Nador market: kitchen utensils, soap, plates, etc. My mother was a porteadora who brought things from Melilla to sell in her shop. She crossed the border every two or three days, like all single women at that time. First she entered, then she went shopping and waited for permission to cross the border again. If they didn't get permission from the police, sometimes the women would gather for a march and cross the border together."

Abdellah B
Artist, Nador, 2019