More than 920,000 new immigrants arrived in Spain during 2007, according to data just published by the Spanish National Statistics Institute (INE). This comes on top of the 802,971 new arrivals in 2006, the 682,711 new arrivals in 2005, the 645,844 new arrivals in 2004, and so on. The politically sensitive figures were released during the middle of the summer holidays, presumably in an effort to avoid their detection by the vacationing general public.
All in all, Spain now has a total of 5.2 million immigrants, who make up more than 10 percent of Spain’s population, which has swelled from 40 million in 2000 to just over 46 million as of 1 January 2008. According to the Fundación BBVA [doc] research institute, Spain now has the largest number of immigrants in the developed world after the United States.
But the biggest significance of the new data is not that there are a lot of new immigrants in Spain, which is perfectly self-evident to everyone in the country. What the fresh numbers show is that there are now over one million new illegal immigrants in Spain; this less than three years after Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero tried to “fix” Spain’s illegal immigration problem by granting the largest blanket amnesty in Spanish history to nearly one million other illegal immigrants.
The INE bases its figure of 5,220,577 immigrants on immigrants who are inscribed (empadronado) at the local town hall. Both legal and illegal immigrants have an incentive to register at the municipal level because according to Spanish law, anyone who does so is entitled to emergency medical care. But according to the latest data from the Ministry of Labor and Immigration, at the end of March 2008 there were 4,192,835 immigrants with legal residence in Spain. This discrepancy implies that there are at least 1,027,742 illegal immigrants in Spain today, not including those multitudes that refuse to register at the local level for fear of being deported.
At the time of the unilateral amnesty in 2005, Zapatero, who never misses an opportunity to preach about the merits of multilateralism, earned public rebukes from leaders of most of the major European countries, who said the amnesty would cause a surge in illegal immigration. For example, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “We see the damage caused by the phenomenon of massive regularization. Every country which has conducted an operation of massive regularization finds itself the next month [in a position that] does not allow it to master the situation anymore.”
Spanish Government Turns Against Itself
Sarkozy’s warning was prescient (or perhaps just a dose of plain common sense), because by rewarding illegal immigrants with Spanish (and thus European) documentation, Zapatero unleashed what is known as the “call effect” to people as far away as Kashmir who now believe that Spain is an easy gateway into Europe. Zapatero’s politically correct leniency has, in fact, triggered an avalanche of uncontrolled immigration.
Many economists agree that immigration was the key (cheap labor) to sustaining the construction boom that provided Spain with some of the highest economic growth rates in Europe for more than a decade. But the housing bubble recently collapsed and Spain suddenly finds itself in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis.
Spain now has the highest level of unemployment in the euro-zone. According to Eurostat [pdf], Spanish jobless numbers shot up by 500,000 during the past 12 months to reach 11 percent in July 2008, or 2.5 million. Many analysts see unemployment rising to around 15 percent or up to 3.5 million during 2009, as hundreds of thousands of construction, real estate and service sector workers are made redundant.
This has raised the obvious question of what to do with so many immigrants, many of whom are now drawing from, instead of contributing to, Spain’s financially unsustainable social security system.
Labor Minister Celestino Corbacho recently announced that Spain will stop hiring immigrants in their countries of origin next year because of rising unemployment. The government will cut the number of work visas “to roughly zero” in 2009. “It doesn’t seem reasonable that with 2.5 million unemployed we continue to recruit workers from abroad,” said Corbacho, who wants to pay unemployed foreigners to return to their countries.
That makes a lot of sense to a great many Spaniards, except, of course, to those Spanish Socialists who refuse to let a pesky little problem like unemployment undermine their project to turn Spain into multicultural utopia. Spanish Vice President María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, who also happens to be Spain’s high priestess of political correctness, lashed out at Corbacho with uninhibited rage. In a cabinet meeting two days after his announcement, de la Vega reprimanded Corbacho: “We should not say that phrase,” referring to the words “roughly zero.” She added: “There will be recruitment of foreign workers in their country of origin because we need them.”
The following morning, Corbacho obediently reversed his position, saying “I must have said something wrong,” adding that he did not mean to say that he would severely cut back on the number of work visas to migrant workers. In Zapatero’s feminist government, it’s de la Vega who calls the shots.
Mariano Rajoy, leader of the center-right opposition Popular Party, responded to the Socialist internecine dustup by criticizing the government’s “obscene lack of coordination.” Noting that unemployment among foreigners is now higher than among natives, Rajoy added that Spain was “returning to the past, with 180,000 immigrants collecting unemployment benefits and 20,000 Andalusians heading for France to harvest grapes.”
To which the Socialist government responded with the familiar canards; those who disagree with the government’s immigration policies are “xenophobes,” “racists,” and “extreme radicals.” The Vice Secretary General of the Socialist Party, José Blanco, went so far as to accuse Rajoy of treating immigrants like “slaves.” Such is the enlightened political discourse in post-modern Spain.
Mass Immigration Sparks Fears of Race Riots in Spain
The question on the minds of many Spaniards is how many more immigrants Spain will take in before growing anti-immigrant sentiment turns violent. Those fears were most recently sparked in early September, when race riots erupted in a southern Spanish resort town near Almería.
The fighting in Roquetas del Mar was caused by a dispute between Spanish Gypsies and African immigrants in which a 28-year-old Senegalese man was stabbed to death. Outraged immigrants went on a rampage, setting fire to the home of the man they said was responsible, and erecting barricades, smashing shop windows and for two days keeping riot police at bay with stones and bottles. Police responded with baton charges and rubber bullets in scenes that reminded many Spaniards of last year’s race riots in France.
It was the latest outburst of race-related violence that has been on the rise in Spain. In January 2007, for example, up to 1,000 Spanish youths fought Latin American immigrants in the Madrid suburb of Alcorcón. They said they were reclaiming the neighbourhood from gangs that had arrived from Central America.
With the Spanish economy on the brink and unemployment rising, incidents such as the one in Roquetas del Mar may be a taste of things to come.
Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group