Dec 022011


Between 1998 and 2007 Spain’s population rose by an astonishing 14%. Furthermore, immigrants, according to the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica (INE), now account for 9.9% of the population as of January 2007.  More worrying for the Spanish is the sheer speed in which mass immigration has occurred.  In 2000 there were 900,000 registered foreigners in Spain, but by 2007 this had risen to 4.4 million – a threefold increase that places Spain second only to the US in the world league for net immigration.

Of course, Spanish government figures on immigration are very conservative, as they are based only upon properly registered foreigners.  Accordingly, they do not take into account the potentially huge numbers of unregistered immigrants residing in the country.  As a consequence, some commentators suspect the proportion of immigrants in Spain may be closer to 12-15% of the population.

Not surprisingly, immigration has now become a major political issue and one that is set to be considerably aggravated as the recession in Spain deepens.  Unemployment is already rising and the ease of employment originally obtained by immigrants, particularly in the construction industry, is drying up.  As jobs become increasingly scarce, there is a real danger that the underlying tension felt by the native Spanish about immigration could explode into a dramatic social problem.  Certainly, the first overt signs of this friction were seen in street battles last year between Spanish and Latin American youths in the Alcorcon district of Madrid.  This may presage badly for the future.

Immigration has always been a complex subject in Spain, not least because many Spanish families have themselves experienced life, first hand, as an immigrant.  After the Civil War (1936 -1939) and during the 1960s hundreds of thousands of Spaniards fled the Franco regime to live and work across Europe, particularly in France.  Returning to Spain in the 1970’s, they brought back a remarkable tolerance to foreign immigrants that has been notable, to Spain´s credit, over the past twenty years.

In fact, Spain has desperately needed significant immigration, both to sustain its staggering economic boom over the past ten years and to fund its social security commitments.  Certainly, without enormous quantities of cheap labour the economic miracle of Spain over the past ten years would not have been possible.  Plentiful (and very profitable to employers), low-cost labour has powered the construction industry, serviced the tourist sector and provided vital manpower for the brutally hard and intensive work involved in agriculture.

Perhaps more importantly, Spain has required a rapid increase in resident, tax paying, long term committed, young workers to prevent the catastrophic collapse of its pensions and welfare system.  Although Spain’s native population doubled in the twentieth century, the country’s replacement fertility rate stalled after 1980 – resulting in one of the lowest birth rates in Europe.  At 1.37 children per woman, Spain is well below the 2.33 figure that enables a population to replace itself.  Indeed, a UN report in 1996 predicted that Spain´s population would disastrously drop to 30 million by 2050.  Further studies have concluded that unless Spain´s immigration population reaches 20% then the pensions system would be bankrupted as early as 2030.

It has therefore been in Spain´s direct interest to encourage immigration.   However, few countries could possibly hope to assimilate successfully  the sheer numbers of immigrants that have come suddenly into Spain over the past ten years.  Indeed, so many have come that now the INE predict that the population of Spain in 2050 will breach 52 million – a dramatic reversal of estimates only a few years beforehand.

Of course, part of the assimilation process requires a remarkable degree of continued toleration by the Spanish to large numbers of immigrants whose culture is sometimes very different to their own.  In particular, the Spanish have some difficulty with Morrocans and sub-Saharan Africans, who tend not to have the linguistic and cultural ties of South Americans nor the perceived similar values and lifestyles of Europeans.  Further friction arises from the acute overloading of Spain’s social infrastructure, particularly schools and medical centres which are creaking under the strain of the rapidly increased numbers.

A further problem is that the actual monetary value to the state of immigrants is not always easy to calculate, as the money earned does not always stay within the host country.  For example, in 2004 (according to the Morrocan economy received close to $4 billion dollars from its overseas workers – nearly offsetting Morroco’s trade deficit.   A year earlier, Latin Americans in Spain had sent some $900 million to their respective countries.  Meanwhile, illegal immigrants, obviously, pay neither tax nor social security payments.

Spain now faces the problem of how to effectively control immigration.  In 2005 the socialist (PSOE) government under Zapatero, without consulting other EU leaders, provided a three month blanket amnesty to illegal immigrants.  This resulted in 578,000 being legalised.  However, it also created a ‘pull-factor’ for potential immigrants and, if anything, has acted to encourage further immigration.  Certainly, Spain is now perceived as a European ‘gate-way’ for immigrants (possibly a further 1 million illegal immigrants have entered Spain since the amnesty) to the considerable unease of other EU countries.

Sudden and mass immigration has had a tremendous impact on Spain – for both good and bad.   However, native tolerance to immigration is notoriously fickle and dependent upon the well being, at the time, of the country concerned.  During an economic boom all parties tend to benefit from immigration.  However, recessions can place appalling pressures upon immigrants, who see their dreams of a new life of prosperity collapse along with any possibility of work.  Meanwhile, immigrants make an easy target for disenchanted natives upset by cultural differences, the overloading of ‘their’ social infrastructure and any unwelcome ‘foreign’ competition for the few available jobs.

The next few years will be a test of Spanish tolerance, although it would not be surprising if there is an unfortunate surge of nationalism against immigrants.  Only time will tell, but it is hard not to come to the conclusion that too many diverse people, of all nationalities, have come to Spain – in far too short a period.


THE FACTS (Instituto Nacional de Estatistica)


1900               18,616,630
1998               39,669,394
2000               40,499,791
2007               45,120,000


Total Resident Foreigners

1998                  580,195 (including 254,264 from the EU)
2000                  923,879 (including 429,844 from the EU)
2007               4,480.000 (including 1.700,000 from the EU)

Most Populous Resident Foreigners

2007                                         1998

Morroccans               576,000                                  103,225
Romanians                 525,000                                       2,260
Ecuadorians              421,000                                       3,745
British                          314,000                                     69,818
Columbians               259,000                                       9,884
Bolivians                    200,000                                       1,190
Germans                     164,000                                     55,475
Italians                        135,000                                     13,261

Areas With The Highest Percentage Of Resident Foreigners

Balearic Islands                      18.4%
Comunidad de Valencia      14.9%
Murcia                                        14.4%
Madrid                                        14.1%
Catalonia                                   13.4%


“23% of clandestine immigrants who enter Europe do so through Spanish territory”
Consuelo Rimi (2004) Immigration Secretary.

“There is no wall that can obstruct the dream of a better life”
Prime Minister Zapatero (2007)


The Hungarians

Imre Szeman and Dagso Zoltan are Hungarians from Debrecen who have lived in Spain for the past six years.  Fully registered and legalised, they work together and enjoy a high reputation in their local area.  Omni-competent and extraordinarily hard working, they represent immigrants who have successfully integrated into Spain.  Both Imre (24) and Dagso (48) speak excellent Spanish and radiate energy and enthusiasm.

“We are here for the foreseeable future,” says Dagso, whose girlfriend is Imre’s sister.  “Whilst we miss our families in Hungary, Spain offers us a much better long term life.  Here we can build a secure and decent a future – that in Hungary will not be possible for maybe fifteen or twenty years.”

“It’s true,”confirms Imre.  “And we think of ourselves as Europeans – rather than Hungarians or immigrants.  This is our home now.  Spain offers us a much better life and one that is worth all the hard work involved in building a future from nothing.  For us, every day life gets better here!”

The Bolivian

Elio is 26, an illegal immigrant from Cochabamba in Bolivia and has been in Spain for three years.  He is well educated and was a graphic designer working for magazines and newspapers in his home country.  However, now he works in construction on the coast, after a brief spell in Sevilla.  He has been joined by all of his 6 sisters, who are now also living in Spain.  He is softly spoken and, despite his muscled build, mannered and thoughtful.

“Of course, making money here is much easier than in Bolivia but I miss doing what I trained for – together with my friends at home, who were educated, lively and well read.  Most of the other Bolivians that I know just work and sleep and have no intellectual interest in life. The trouble is that when I do go back, I shall have to start from zero again and that will be hard.

I shall stay in Spain whilst I have work.  Once that becomes a problem, I shall return.  I love my country, it is beautiful and it is where my parents remain.  I cannot imagine living here permanently.

On the whole coming to Spain has been a good experience.  It has been great to see the tourist attractions, such as in Sevilla and Valencia and wonderful to be beside the sea.  However, I have found the Spanish to be quite racist, which has saddened me and made the life here less pleasant.”

Nick Snelling
(Noms de plume: Alexander Peters, Elena Suarez, Alberto Diaz)

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  One Response to “The Big Issue, how immigration is changing the face of Spain”

  1. I think that increasing the population of Spain has caused more Immigrants to come to the United States. I do not think immigration is such a good idea because many immigrants have been taking over simple jobs that can be handed to high school students who need experience in the work force or need money to save for college. However, I highly respect that immigrants want to come to the United States to have a better life. I admire them for that.

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