Labor Pains: Spain's Migrant-Worker Problem

By Levitin, Michael | Commonweal, September 24, 2004 | Go to article overview

Labor Pains: Spain's Migrant-Worker Problem


Levitin, Michael, Commonweal


It's difficult being a foreigner in Spain these days. The government labels you illegal three months after you arrive. Residency and work permits are nearly impossible to obtain. You can't legally rent an apartment. And that's if, like me, you're an American. If you're an immigrant from a poor country, life can be much grimmer.

Consider Spain's detention center in the Canary Islands, where thousands of African migrants wash up each year in small wooden boats after braving the Atlantic journey from the Western Sahara. Known as "Guantanamo 2," the former airport-cargo terminal where the migrants are processed has been condemned by Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders for its inhumane treatment of detainees. Ill and dehydrated, the migrants are typically caged in overcrowded and unsanitary cells for up to forty days without access to a phone, lawyer, or family members. "It's a prison," a migrant told Human Rights Watch upon his release in 2001. "I didn't see the sun for three weeks."

More than sixteen thousand sub-Saharan migrants have passed through the detainment camp in the last four years. They are from countries like Liberia, Ghana, and Ivory Coast. Some of them are deported. Those who, for various reasons, aren't deported are flown to mainland Spain and given expulsion orders. Predictably, many do not leave, but remain in Spain illegally, without residency papers or work permits, documents they need to legally apply for a job. This has contributed to a growing crisis in Spain: out of the country's 2.5 million immigrants, more than 1 million are here illegally.

In August, Spain's new Socialist Party government announced that immigrants with work contracts would be offered residency papers--making them legal, or "regularized." (Employers are required by law to offer contracts to their workers.) This is a good first step toward addressing the immigration crisis, but more reforms are needed. Only a small number of immigrants hold work contracts, so the proposed reform will not help thousands of foreigners. In the coming months, the new administration will have to find a middle ground between the harsh immigration laws that have been employed thus far, and looser regulations that might attract more immigrants than Spain can handle. Whatever road the government chooses, it will have implications for the rest of Europe: one-quarter of all immigrants to the European Union arrive via Spain.

Spain has traditionally been a country of emigrants, not immigrants. Apart from distinct regional cultures in Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque country, Spain was more or less homogenous until the 1960s, when Muslims started arriving from Africa and the Middle East. The first to come were students from Syria and Egypt, then later Moroccans who settled into their own communities. (Illegal immigration of Moroccans across the Straits of Gibraltar has been a major problem in the last decade.) A larger boom began in the 1990s, when Spain's growing economy attracted immigrants from all over the world. Between 1996 and 2000, the foreign population quadrupled to one million.

Although Moroccans still represent the largest immigrant group--about four hundred thousand live here legally, and at least as many are without residency papers--the number of immigrants from Pakistan, China, and Eastern Europe is rising fast. So is the number from Latin America. Nearly two-fifths of Spain's foreign residents come from the Latin diaspora--mostly from Ecuador and Colombia, but also from Argentina, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil. (The number of women and youth in particular has jumped.) Many have taken jobs in the booming service and tourism industries, opening Internet shops, restaurants, and other small businesses. In June, the International Organization for Migration reported that last year Latin Americans living in Spain sent more than $1 billion to their home countries. …

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