Posted on March 10, 2006

Spain Counts Cost of Growing Intake of Migrants

Anthony Ham, The Age (Melbourne), March 11, 2006

Low-key ceremonies are being held today across Madrid to mark the second anniversary of the 2004 train bombings in which 191 people were killed. But two years after the worst terrorist attack on European soil, immigration is revolutionising Spanish society far more than the terrorist bombings ever could.

In 2000, there were 900,000 foreigners living in Spain. That figure has now risen to 3.7 million (8.5 per cent of the population), an increase of more than 400 per cent. By one estimate, Spain has received more immigrants in the past five years than France received in the previous four decades. Last year, Spain received 560,000 immigrants, one-third of Europe’s total.

This massive demographic shift is starting to take its toll. A survey published in January found that 60 per cent of Spaniards believe that there are too many immigrants in Spain. In 1996, the figure was just 8 per cent.

The poll also found that almost twice as many Spaniards see immigration as a more important problem facing Spain than terrorism and there is a widespread perception that the riots that rocked France late last year may offer a vision of the country’s future.

Low-scale riots in June in an outer Madrid suburb, prompted by the murder of a local youth by a South American gang, were described by one leading centrist newspaper at the time as the “neighbourhood rebellion against the immigrants”. High-profile turf wars between the so-called bandas latinas (Latin gangs) on the streets of Madrid have also helped to make immigration the dominant topic of conversation in bars and restaurants across the city.

“In Spain, you never had to worry about armed people coming into your homes,” Fernando, a Madrid office worker, told The Age. “Now things are different and it’s because of the immigrants.”

There is also something of a sense of siege in Spain fostered by the daily arrival of boatloads of African immigrants along the country’s southern coast and by the storming of the country’s borders in Spain’s African enclaves by hundreds of African immigrants in October.

According to Fernando Vallespin, director of the Centre for Sociological Research, which carried out the survey, the situation is less alarming than the figures suggest. “We are far from being xenophobic in Spain,” he argues, pointing to the clear majority of respondents who said that immigrants should have access to public education and free health care and who identified levels of education as far more significant than whether immigrants were wealthy, Christian or white. But even he acknowledges that the rising concerns about immigration are driven by the fact that “in the last three or four years we’ve seen an increased presence of foreigners in our lives”.

Complicating the issue is the awareness that the future prosperity of Spaniards depends upon large-scale immigration. Spain requires 350,000 immigrants — who, according to a Spanish Government study, generate twice the levels of tax revenues they consume — every year over the next two decades in order to save its generous tax-financed pension system from bankruptcy.