Posted on January 4, 2007

Catalans Grapple With Migrant Influx

Marian Hens, BBC News, Jan. 3, 2007

Mohammed Chaib says he is not an example, but he is certainly an exception.

Last November, he became the only Muslim MP elected to the Catalan Parliament — a unique event in the region and in Spain.

His election came as the debate about immigration in Catalonia and its impact on national identity deepened.

Since 2000, Spain has absorbed around four million immigrants. Just less than a quarter have settled in prosperous Catalonia.

It has been a sudden and dramatic change for Catalans.

And — as in the rest of Spain — immigration has become the main concern, ahead of terrorism and unemployment.

But in this region there is an additional element of unease.

Catalonia has recently gained more autonomy with a new statute approved by the Spanish Parliament, and nationalists are worried immigrants will dilute their hard-fought Catalan identity.

Mohammed Chaib arrived in Catalonia as a child some four decades ago.

He says he wants to help Muslim immigrants find a balance between cultures.

“I want to promote understanding between the Catalan people and immigrants — mainly the Moroccans, but also the North Africans and the Pakistanis, who have come in large numbers to Barcelona,” he said.

But he is finding that pushing for the integration of Muslims into Catalan life is not an easy task.

‘Good Catalans’

Suspicion thrives — as Mr Chaib found during the regional elections in November.

As part of its campaign, the main nationalist party, Convergencia i Unio, suggested that only immigrants who could prove a good knowledge of the Catalan language and Catalan culture should have the same access to social services as other Catalans.

And the party’s campaign head stated they favoured recruiting workers from Eastern Europe but not from North Africa because Muslims found it harder to integrate.

Moderates branded these remarks xenophobic.

The nationalists were forced to backtrack. But Mr Chaib remains critical of an attitude he finds still prevails among certain politicians — and even some employers.

“What do they want? To pick and choose immigrants of a certain type — white with blue eyes? For me this is a really racist message,” he said.

“If they continue along these lines, we will have a problem living together in Catalonia,” he added.

“And where would we draw the line on saying who is Catalan and who isn’t? We would create a society of good and bad Catalans. I think this is totally inappropriate.

“No culture is better than others. What we need to do is identify the positive characteristics of each culture and share them.”

Message of hope

And that is the agenda of Ibn Batuta — a cultural centre located in Mr Chaib’s constituency, at the heart of the Raval, an immigrant neighbourhood in Barcelona’s medieval quarter.

Over the last few years it has experienced something of a renaissance with shops and cafes set up by some of the many newcomers.

Ibn Batuta — where Mr Chaib is director — offers Catalan classes, legal advice and even workshops on identity.

He says he is trying to help people in his constituency to fit in. The message he sends out as an elected MP is one of hope.

“If my presence in the Catalan Parliament can teach young people that you can succeed in politics in Catalonia even if you are an immigrant, then I will be very satisfied,” he said.

“And if Catalan people can see a person called Mohammed, Ahmed or Mustapha and believe they will defend the interests of Catalans equally, I will be really happy.”