Immigration: Bonus or bain?

18th December 2006, Comments 0 comments

Immigration is Spaniards' number one worry. Fernando Puchol examines the scale of the problem.

Still they come: But will immigrants help build Spain?

Confronted with images of migrants storming fences to enter Spain's North African enclaves and taking to the sea by the thousands for the dangerous voyage to the Canary Islands, Spaniards are growing worried about immigration even as evidence mounts that the phenomenon is making their country richer.

Immigrants now make up 10 percent of Spain's population, according to official figures, and if the present trend is maintained the percentage will only increase, given Spain's location on the European Union's southern border and its robust economy.

Spain's southern coast is separated from North Africa by only 14 kilometres (8.7 miles) at the Straits of Gibraltar, which for years was the main route for thousands of Africans to leave poverty behind in their home countries and try to achieve the European dream.

The increase in security in that area has diverted the activities of the thriving migrant-trafficking gangs to the African coast nearest to Spain's Canary Islands archipelago, the southernmost territory in the 25-member EU.

Although it is more than 1,000 kilometres from the mainland to the islands, in 2006 hundreds of often less-than-seaworthy vessels attempted the dangerous voyage crammed with sub-Saharan men, women and children, each of whom paid up to EUR 684 for the passage.

According to official figures, this year 30,259 undocumented migrants arrived in the archipelago via this route, most of them during the summer.

The authorities know of the ones who arrived alive, but there are only estimates of the number who drowned en route when their rickety and overcrowded vessels sank.

According to Spanish lawyer, Paulino Rivero, more than 3,000 people perished at sea trying to make the journey.

The media images of the boats arriving on Canary Islands beaches, sometimes right under the noses of tourists and sunbathers, has sparked intense debate about immigration and turned it into the Spanish public's main concern.

Public opinion surveys conducted by the Sociological Research Centre reflect the change in the society that produced thousands of emigrants up until the 1970s, but which has now become a magnet for those in many less developed countries seeking a better life.

Some 4.4 million foreigners, with Latin Americans making-up the largest sub-group, have received authorization to live in Spain, according to the most recent report by the Permanent Immigration Observatory, a 4.9 percent rise since 2005.

By nationality, the most numerous groups of immigrants in Spain are Moroccans, Ecuadorians, Colombians and Britons, who together account for more than 51 percent of the foreign-born legal residints in Spain.

To that must be added the number of foreigners who are in the country illegally, which the opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) claims is 1.6 million and the leftist CCOO labour federation at 1.2 million, although both those figures are questioned by the Socialist government.

In 2005, the administration of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2005 granted an amnesty to some 800,000 illegal immigrants in a move that was applauded by immigrants' associations and criticized by the PP, which accused the government of effectively encouraging more unauthorized immigration.

The conservatives, supported by European leaders like French Interior Minister - and presidential hopeful - Nicolas Sarkozy, reproached Zapatero for having opened wide the door to Europe via the extraordinary process of immigration status regularization.

The Spanish government argued integrating illegal  workers into the system creates an additional source of income for the state and combats the black market for labour.

A recent study by the savings bank Caixa de Catalunya revealed that Spain's economy has grown 2.6 percent annually over the past 10 years thanks to the contribution of immigrants.

Without them, the study said, the Spanish gross domestic product

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