Much has been made of the controversy over the Spain vs England ‘friendly’ football match last week in which black English players were greeted with ‘monkey chants’ every time they touched the ball.
SOS Racismo, a Spanish campaign group, warned the chants at the game were a symbol of the reaction of Spanish society to the fact it has now the fastest rising level of immigration in Europe.
Campaigners fear more instances like those will follow as Spain struggles to come to terms with its rising immigrant population.
“A few years ago it was bad to be a racist . . . now there is more impunity,” complained Begona Sáñchez, a spokeswoman for SOS Racismo.
“This is not an isolated incident. It is a signal that, although the vast majority of Spaniards are not racists, this is something that is consolidating here.”
Campaigners welcomed the condemnation that eventually came from the Spanish authorities.
But they warned that it was time that Spaniards, who were mostly upset that anybody should think they might be racists, took the threat seriously.
“We have a problem with racism,” said Esteban Ibarra of the Movement Against Intolerance. “Either this is stemmed now, or something grave will happen.”
But aside from last week’s incident, what is the real situation with immigration in Spain and who are the foreigners living here?
Kashif and Farisa Habib have been living in Barcelona for eight years.
For them it is very much home and where they want to bring up their four-year-old daughter and baby son.
Kashif, 33, has a well-paid job with a multi-national company, and 27-year-old Farisa has just left work to spend more time with their children.
Both are Muslims whose families were from Pakistan but lived in Rochdale, near Manchester in the UK.
The Habibs are typical of the kind of young professional family moving to Spain in increasing numbers.
But although more and more people are arriving in Spain from other parts of Europe, the real picture of immigration is more complex.
Many more foreigners earning a living here are from Latin America and Africa.
The Spanish Foreign Ministry revealed the full scale of the numbers who are now settling in this country.
The number of legal foreign residents soared to 3.3 million this year- four times the 1998 figure.
Immigrants now represent 7.5 percent of the Spanish population of just over 42 million.
In 2003, there were 323,010 new arrivals alone—a 24 percent rise on the year before.
More than a third are people from the European Union. The British are by far the biggest contingent, with 105,479 permanent residents (6.4 percent of all foreigners).
Next come the Germans with 67,963 (4.1 percent) settled in Spain. Other large communities are the Italians who make up 59,745 (3.6 percent), the French with 49,196 (3 percent) and the Portuguese, of whom there are 45,614 (2.8 percent).
But the largest contingent of foreigners are the Ecuadorians, who make up 14.6 percent of the foreigners registered in Spain.
Next come the Moroccans with 174,289 residents, or 10.6 percent and the Colombians with 107,459 people or 6.5 percent.
Other large foreign communities come from Peru (57,593, or 3.5 percent), Argentina (43,347, 2.6 percent) the Dominican Republic (36,654, 2.2 percent), China (56,086, 3.4 percent), Cuba (27,323, 1.7 percent) Bulgaria (24,369, 1.5 percent) and Romania (54,688, 3.3 percent).
Unsurprisingly, most immigrants move to the big cities to find work.
The largest number of foreigners is in the capital, where 355,035 vie for jobs with the Spanish.
Madrid’s population of ‘extranjeros’ is predominantly from South America, though after that the number of Europeans appears to be rising.
Barcelona, by contrast, has an African population which is also increasing, with 147,288 making up 16 percent of all foreigners.
Its place as a port may have a historical role to play in attracting more people from abroad.
After these two major cities, Murcia, Alicante, Valencia and Malaga have large immigrant populations.
Illegal immigration from Morocco and Latin America is a controversial topic in Spain.
Each week many thousands of Moroccans make forlorn journeys in tiny, dangerous boats called ‘pateras’ across the sea to the mainland or the Canary Islands.
Many have died or been arrested by the Spanish police and subsequently sent back.
Often they have spent all their savings paying the human traffickers who arrange the journeys in the vain hope they could find a new life in Spain.
More than 92,679 were repatriated in 2003.
For the ‘clandestinos’, or illegal immigrants, who make it, working in the ‘black’ economy can be desperately hard.
A 25-year-old painter from Mozambique, who arrived in Spain last year finds occasional work in Madrid, told of the difficulties.
‘Miguel’, who did not want to give his real name, said: “It is difficult to find work.
“I have been for many jobs but when they know you have no official papers, they don’t want to know.
“When I did get work, the boss tried to cheat me out of money because he knew that I could not complain to the police.”
But he added: “I was lucky because I knew people here in Spain. If you know no-one it is very hard. I know of Africans living with up to 20 people in a room.”
Kashif Habib believes Spain is still adjusting to a rising immigrant population and its attendant problems.
As an Asian, he has only experienced one instance of racism in eight years, but he believes some Spaniards will no doubt react against the tide of immigration.
He said: “When I first arrived here, there were few immigrants from Asia, and now parts of Barcelona are like Pakistan.
“I think Spain is today where Britain was in the early 1970s in terms of the numbers of immigrants living in the country and the feeling towards them.
“In Britain there was a feeling of open racism whereas here it may be more or less open. But I think it is there. I believe there might be a backlash like this here in Spain.”
In June, illegal immigrants staged large-scale demonstration in Barcelona, in which hundreds stormed a cathedral and staged a sit-in brought the issue to head.
It proved hugely unpopular and was condemned by unions and other groups who might be sympathetic to this issue. So perhaps the backlash has started?
Campaigners have long been demanding a change in the regulations governing how immigrants can get legally registered.
Already, Socialist prime minister Jose Lluis Rodriguez Zapatero has promised that by next year, those with six-month contracts will be able to apply for residence and work permits.
The Socialists claim this will bring many ‘illegals’ into the system. In exchange for legal status, they will of course pay tax and social security payments, which the state has so far missed out on.
The government believes this will benefit Spain, whose birth rate is still one of the lowest in Europe; more foreign taxpayers will finance the increasing cost of caring for the country’s rising elderly population.
But critics have said new system will be unworkable; the ‘black economy’ will continue unabated, with bosses being reluctant to offer contracts to illegal immigrants is they they think they can pay less to illegals.
Despite potential penalties for not providing contracts, many believe most employers will continue to avoid offering contracts to illegal immigrants.
And, even if immigrants are ‘legal residents’, will this make any difference to how they are perceived by mainstream Spanish society?