Spain closes the door

Observations on immigration

When Ramiro Perales arrived in Barcelona in 2006, his family was very proud of him. The first in his family to go to university, the indigenous Bolivian knew that the only way to progress in his career and save up for his master’s degree would be to find work in Spain. But one morning last November, he was arrested on his way to work as he came out of Barcelona’s Paseo de Gracia’s metro station.

For Ramiro and thousands of other undocumented immigrants, the party is over. After ten years of “open-door” immigration policies, Spain now has the highest deportation statistics in the EU.

According to a 2008 poll by the Real Instituto Elcano, 46 per cent of Spaniards see immigration as a serious threat. Unemployment has reached a catastrophic 17.4 per cent, the highest in the EU.

With reports this week that the UK suffered more job losses in the first three months of 2009 than any other EU country, the Spanish predicament should serve as a warning of the discontent that may lie ahead for the UK.

“Anyone who is black, Asian or Latino gets stopped,” says Veronica Chelotti, an Argentinean journalist and campaigner for immigrants’ rights. “As I’m white, I look as if I could be Spanish, and it wasn’t until the police overheard me speaking in an Argentinean accent that I got stopped, too.” Spain’s Socialist government is soon to present a controversial draft bill to reform immigration law. Its provisions include indefinite detention of undocumented immigrants and criminalisation of NGOs that assist them.

However, the clampdown on immigration has been met with fierce criticism. Ramiro Perales’ story has brought the plight of immigrants to the fore, and a collective of Barcelona-based Latin American journalists has launched a campaign for his release. The journalists behind the campaign, Chelotti, Felipe Villa and Gustavo Franco, have now launched a wider awareness campaign called “Todos somos inmigrantes” (We Are All Immigrants), calling for an end to the “political persecution and criminalisation” of undocumented immigrants. “We have all been immigrants at one time. Some years ago, there was massive immigration from Spain to Latin America, but now Latin Americans are coming to Europe. Immigration is cyclical,” said Villa, editor of the newspaper Mundo Hispano.

The crackdown has faced legal opposition, too. Olga Hernández de Paz, president of ACPE, the Catalan immigration lawyers association, says: “The government is in danger of compromising its obligations under international human rights law and it shows a total failure to respond to the social reality of Spain.”

Documented immigrants have also been targeted. The Voluntary Repatriation Initiative allows jobless immigrants to receive an advance on their unemployment benefits in a lump sum to go home. But the snags are that, in accepting, they relinquish their Spanish residency and are banned from re-entering Spain for three years; and the red tape involved makes the government’s offer virtually impossible to take up. So far only around 4,000 documented immigrants, mainly Latin Americans, have done so.

What is more revealing is that the Latin American airlines AeroSur and Avianca have released figures showing that nearly 25,000 regularised Bolivians, Ecuadorians, Colombians and Peruvians have bought one-way tickets to their countries of origin in the past few months. While they lose out on the government’s cash incentive, they keep their right to reside in Spain in the future.

These statistics show the Spanish government has underestimated the determination of Latin American immigrants to hold on to their hard-won right to live and work in Spain.