Sadio Keita, a 28-year-old lorry driver from Guinea, is both lucky and unlucky. He was lucky to survive the hazardous boat journey from Senegal to the Canary Islands last year, thus reaching Spain, one of the most lenient European destinations for illegal immigrants. He was unlucky to arrive just as Spanish economic growth began to slow.
“I have not found any work at all,” says Mr Keita, speaking in French at an immigrant reception centre run by a Jesuit foundation in the Madrid neighbourhood of Ventilla. “If I had known it would be like this, I wouldn’t have come.”
Other immigrants poring over classified job advertisements at the Pueblos Unidos (United Peoples) help centre are finding it equally hard to find work as the Spanish welcome mat is withdrawn.
Javier Medina, a Chilean machine operator, lost his job installing air conditioners when the property bubble burst and the construction sector contracted sharply. “The economic crisis is the cause,” he says.
Over the past decade Spain has been the biggest importer of labour in the European Union. Waves of migrants from north Africa, South America and eastern Europe poured into Spain—once an exporter of cheap labour—to work as builders, domestic workers and waiters. Construction, tourism and the broader economy were thriving.
By 2007, there were nearly 4.5m foreigners living legally in Spain, as well as hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants. Legal migrants alone, including those who have gained Spanish nationality, account for 12 per cent of the population, up from 3 per cent in 1998.
This rapid transformation of the face of Spain—parts of Barcelona and Madrid seem almost as cosmopolitan as London or New York—occurred with little animosity or racial tension. Spaniards welcomed the cheap labour needed for building sites, hotels and farms. The newcomers took advantage of public services such as schools and hospitals that are open even to illegal immigrants.
“Those were the good times,” says Xavier Vives, economics and finance professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona.
“Now the times are worse, and constraints in public services are beginning to bite.”
A combination of fastrising unemployment—now at 2.5m, or 11 per cent of the workforce—and grumbling about foreigners among native Spaniards has prompted a hasty reappraisal of immigration policies by politicians of both left and right.
An outbreak of rioting earlier this month by immigrants in the southern town of Roquetas de Mar after the fatal stabbing of a Senegalese man further worsened the atmosphere.
A few days earlier, Celestino Corbacho, labour and immigration minister, had sparked a political row by explicitly linking unemployment to immigration and declaring that the number of visas for migrant workers would be cut to “roughly zero” next year.
Mr Corbacho was obliged by his fellow Socialists in the government to retract his statements.
Spain, nevertheless, joined other EU states this week in approving a deal to crack down on illegal immigrants while encouraging an inflow of highly skilled foreigners.
Spain has also launched a plan to pay jobless immigrants their unemployment benefit in advance, provided they go home and promise not to return to Spain for three years. About 165,000 legally resident, non-EU citizens—mostly from Ecuador and Morocco—can take up the offer, but officials think only about 10,000 will do so.
With the jobless total rising by some 3,000 a day, the impact of the scheme is likely to be small. But it shows that the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is groping for a solution to an unemployment problem certain to worsen in the months ahead.
For Daniel Izuzquiza, co-ordinator of the Pueblos Unidos centre in Ventilla, the scheme is wrong because it suggests a link between immigration and unemployment and labels immigrants as second class.
In this working-class barrio , which has readily absorbed new residents of Moroccan and Latin American origin over the past decade, elderly Spaniards have begun blaming immigrants for queues at the doctor and the lack of nursery school places for their grand-children.