Immigration time-bomb

23rd June 2004, Comments 0 comments

A dramatic demonstration in a cathedral in Barcelona recently put the immigration issue back on the political map, forcing the government to promise action. But, as Graham Keeley reports, the issue never went away.

riot police

Riot police remove demonstrating immigrants from Barcelona cathedral

I am walking through Raval, a poor area in Barcelona where many Asian immigrants live.

There is a group of children playing. But it is cricket, not football, which is the game; you might say the choice of sport is symbolic of how society is changing.

Sitting at the table next to me at a café in a well-heeled part of the same city is a group of labourers.

But they don't speak Spanish; only Russian. The sound is all-too-common.

And ask any foreigner who cleans their flat and the answer will inevitably be an Ecuadorian or a Colombian, who usually work illegally, cash-in-hand.

This is the new Spain where even outside the big cities, immigration is never far away.

When as many as 600 illegal immigrants stormed a cathedral and a church in Barcelona recently, demanding papers to give them legal residency, the issue was brought into sharper focus.

Many claimed to have been working for years and wanted the anachronistic immigration system to consider their cases more quickly.

They were forced out by riot police on the orders of the government.

*quote1*Prime minister Jose Lluis Rodriguez Zapatero was not about to accede to their demands for 'papers for all'.

But he has promised to reform the system setting up agreements with countries where many immigrants come from, traditionally South America and Africa.

Although British, German, American and other immigrants from the 'First World' do not face the same problems or obstacles, reforms could have a knock-on effect for them; they might, for example, benefit from a streamlined system to give them residence cards more quickly.

Whatever your nationality, if you are an immigrant in Spain today, you are forced to confront the reality that the country has a mixed relationship with its 2.6 million 'official' foreigners and perhaps another one million illegal immigrants.

Until the early 1990s, Europeans made up two-thirds of immigrants, but now the majority are from the developing world. 

*quote2*On one hand they are crucial to the economy. With one of the lowest birth rates in Europe and a looming jump in pension claims, Spain's EUR 743 billion economy increasingly relies on an influx of workers and taxpayers from abroad to sustain growth – and do the jobs Spaniards don't want to do.

Yet there is a growing hostility toward foreigners.

They seen as a burden for the social security system, steal jobs from Spaniards, cause problems in the schools and drive up the crime rate. Eastern Europeans, like the Russians dining at the café in Barcelona, are conspicuously linked to mafias.

A majority of Spanish people now believe there are too many foreigners in the country, according to an opinion survey published in January by the Funcas foundation for El País newspaper. In 1996, only 18 percent felt that way.

But some believe the Spanish must come to terms with their new arrivals.

Miguel Jiménez, co-author of a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said: "This is one of the major challenges facing Spain. The need for more immigration is very real over the next decades. People need to get used to it."

 With unemployment at 11.2 percent – the highest in the European Union – the army of young, largely unskilled foreigners actually increases employment among Spaniards.

The South American cleaners and nannies, for example, have raised Spain's female employment rate.

Overall, immigrants have also raised employment rates in Spain - Europe's fifth-largest economy - by 27 percent, from 1999 to 2002, according to OECD figures. They also contribute more than twice the tax revenue they consume, the same report found.

And sectors such as construction and tourism, which are crucial to Spain's economic growth, depend heavily on low-paid jobs, many of which are done by foreigners working illegally.

Some consider Spain must come to terms with how society is changing as it is facing a social "time bomb".

Javier de Lucas, professor of philosophy at the University of Valencia, said: "We are sitting on a powder-keg and we are hatching a conflict of incalculable consequences and we do not want to come to terms with it."

[June 2004]

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: Immigration, living in Spain

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