Spain’s Immigrants: A Remarkable Change*

When Bernardo, a shepherd in the village where I have had a second home since 1976 decided to retire the only person he could find to take over his flock was a Romanian. Several women from Latin America look after elderly people and another is a waiter in the village’s hotel. Even the smallest of places in Spain cannot get by these days without hiring immigrants. At the last official count (by the United Nations Population Division) Spain had 4.8 million international migrants, 11% of its population and the tenth largest number in the world. This figure includes everyone from the 761,000 Brits estimated to be living permanently in Spain, including this writer, and so legal immigrants by virtue of being a member of an EU country, Rumanians and Bulgarians who arrive in Spain in hired coaches, North Africans who cross the Straits of Gibraltar in rickety boats and Latin Americans who fly in as tourists and stay. In 1990, Spain was not even among the top 20 recipient countries; in 1975, when the dictator General Franco died, there were a mere 165,000 immigrants in Spain. Further back, in 1957 when the Treaty of Rome was signed, virtually the only immigrants in the then impoverished Spain were some retirees and writers like Gerald Brenan and Robert Graves.

The face of Spain has changed at a brisk pace. The country was a comparatively racially homogeneous society until the mid1990s when immigrants began to arrive in large numbers – a consequence of, and now a contributor to, Spain’s prosperity. Whereas between 1962 and 1974 close to one million Spaniards went to work in Germany, Switzerland and France, and earlier many went to Latin America, now Spain is the favoured country in Europe for immigrants in search of a better way of life. Spain stopped being a country of net migration around 1988. In 2005 the country received one-third of the 1.9 million immigrants who entered the EU illegally. Were it not for its immigrants, Spain would not be able to harvest its strawberries in Huelva, collect its pears in Lérida, build more homes, maintain hotels in tourist areas, find nannies to look after children and people to care for the elderly in their homes. Large landowners would also find it difficult to keep horses that require livery, as many of the stable boys today are Moroccan. So far, immigrants have not taken away jobs from Spaniards; they are doing the menial work that Spaniards are no longer willing to do. Over the past ten years, Spain’s labour force has increased significantly, and yet the unemployment rate has been halved to just below 8%, the lowest level since 1978, albeit with the EU’s largest proportion of workers on temporary contracts (more than 33%). This is a remarkable achievement.

The influx of immigrants has increased Spain’s per capita income, made the labour market more flexible, generated a surplus in the social security accounts and reversed the steep decline in the country’s population. Take population: in 1996 the United Nations forecast that Spain’s population would sharply fall by 2050 to around 28 million because of its very low birth rate. The current forecast by the National Statistics Office is that it will reach just over 52 million, because of the influx of immigrants and the higher number of children that immigrant women tend to have. Spain’s annual growth rate in 2001-05 for those aged between 15 and 64 was 1.5%, its highest ever in recorded history (1.2 points of which was due to immigrants).

Immigrants were responsible for 50% of Spain’s average annual GDP growth of 3.1% between 2001 and 2005, compared with 12% of the 4.1% growth between 1996 and 2000, according to a report by the prime minister’s economic office. Without these immigrants, per capita income in 2001-05 would have been €623 lower (€124 a year). The economy has been growing at a faster pace than the Euro zone average for 14 straight years. The more people than can potentially engage in economic activity the larger a country’s potential output. It is largely thanks to immigrants that the size of Spain’s economy overtook Canada’s in 2004 and became the world’s eighth largest, and in 2009 Spain’s per capita income will overtake Italy’s.

Spaniards have so far been remarkably tolerant of immigrants: there has been no backlash against immigrants nor the creation yet of an anti-immigrant and xenophobic party along the lines of France’s National Front. Spaniards reacted with dignity to the bombs placed on commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004 by radical Islamists living in Spain that killed 191 people (a very large number of whom were immigrants). The only really serious anti-immigrant riots were at El Ejido in Almería in 2000, where hundreds of North Africans are employed in the plastic hothouses that produce Europe’s winter vegetables. The riots were sparked by the murder of a woman by an immigrant. The Moroccan-based Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo described the town as “an eldorado of clandestine work and illegal exploitation.”

Bringing illegal immigrants out of the black economy and into the regulated one was a key factor behind the Socialists’ extraordinary regularisation in 2005, which turned some 560,000 irregular immigrants into legal ones. This was the decent and humane thing to do, although it would have been wise for Madrid to have consulted with other EU Schengen Treaty countries allowing passport-free travel, particularly neighbouring France, whose Interior Minister and presidential hopeful, Nicolas Sarkozy, chastised Spain for encouraging clandestine immigration. Regularisations by both the current Socialist government and the previous one of the conservative Popular Party have benefited 1.2 million immigrants since 1986, the third-largest number in Europe and the United States.

Under the previous law, illegal workers were obliged to obtain contracts from companies or individuals as a condition for seeking work and residency permits. However, under sometimes contradictory regulations, many could not get a work permit unless they had a job, and could not get a job without a work permit. The amnesty put an end to this Catch-22 situation, gave the immigrants basic rights and increased tax and social security revenues by bringing them and their employers into the official economy.

The last regularisation, however, encouraged more immigrants to make it to Spain: the more than 31,000 immigrants who arrived in fishing boats in the Canary Islands during 2006, mainly Sub-Saharans, were four times higher than the number between 2002 and 2005. This human drama was graphically brought home in 2006 by media coverage of those who died while making the perilous 2,000 km journey across the Atlantic to the Canaries. Their bodies were either washed up on beaches or found in the fishing boats used to make the crossing. As a result of the continued human tide and increasing concern among Spaniards who now view immigration as one of the country’s biggest domestic problems, the government began to crack down harder on illegal immigration and sought, as is needed, coordinated EU involvement in tackling this Europe-wide issue.

Spain’s public health and education systems are coming under increasing strain as their expansion has not kept pace with the surge in the immigrant population.

The influx of immigrants includes around 1 million Muslims (2.6% of the population). Although under the 1978 post-Franco constitution there is no official religion in Spain, the Roman Catholic Church remains in a very powerful position, particularly in education. It is ridiculous, for example, that the only religion that taxpayers can give money to in Spain via there annual tax declaration is the Catholic faith. This anomaly does not reflect the secular value at the heart of the European project.

The real test of Spain’s tolerance, however, will come when the booming economy slows down, which it has to do at some point, and with it the intense job creation. Tolerance will also be put to the test when the children of the first generation of immigrants graduate from Spain’s universities and compete head on with Spaniards for the better jobs and do not seek the menial jobs their parents are mostly doing at the moment. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the prime minister, puts it more explicitly and asks whether an immigrant with the same good qualifications and track record as a Spaniard will be allowed to become chairman of a Spanish company. And why not a prime minister?

(*) This article was one of 27 in the book Reflejos Culturales de Europa en España produced in 2007 by the European Commission’s office in Madrid and the German Embassy to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.