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Spain still wrestles with immigration

As the country’s economic slump stretches on, the challenge of dispelling misinformation about immigrants and encouraging their integration stiffens.


A recent study showed that 48.9 percent of Spaniards believe immigration brings the quality of education down, yet the reality is different.

Last month saw the release of the film Alacrán enamorado, the story of promising boxer Julián and his group of heavily-tattooed, neo-nazi friends, who spend their days in the ring and their nights beating up immigrants and members of ethnic minorities.

Despite some strong performances, instead of tackling the complexity of the subject full on, this adaptation of Carlos Bardem’s third novel is ultimately a superficial story of love and triumph against the odds.

All of which is a shame, as Alacrán enamorado raises some potentially interesting questions regarding race relations in Spain. Figures published by the Spanish Institute for National Statistics reveal that immigration has risen exponentially since the start of this century. From 3.33 percent in 2001, immigrants now make up a total of 12.1 percent of the national population, according to figures published last year by the National Statistics Institute (INE) – a slight drop since 2009.

Figures aside, Spain’s immigrant population is no longer an invisible statistic. Across the country, communities from Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia are making their presence felt. When the current recession ends and immigration rises once again, it is the social rather than the economic implications that will need to be dealt with head on.

Thankfully, barring certain isolated incidents, the days of the sort of racial prejudice seen in Alacrán are mostly behind us. Here, as in most countries across the developed world, it is a modern form of racism that will be the potential root of any social tension; beliefs, says Julen Aranguren, Immigration Coach for the Basque town of Zarautz, such as the notion of “the inability of several cultures to co-exist” or that “immigration is positive only as long as it serves us economically.”

Responsible for organising events that facilitate the integration of immigrants into the local community, Aranguren is well aware of the need to foresee and prevent likely difficulties. Despite the Basque Country having one of the lowest levels of immigration in Spain, at just 5.4 percent, according to a recent survey, there are some major misconceptions where immigration is concerned, particularly regarding actual numbers. 31.4 percent of those canvassed in Alava, for example, believed there were too many immigrants in the region, a figure which dropped to 6.4 percent once they were told the true percentage.

Fighting the rumours

Coupled with these kinds of errors is an almost accepted culture of misguided rhetoric and urban rumour, usually aimed at the same ethnic groups. “Among unknown (cultures) North Africans are the least liked,” says Aranguren, who believes there is a significant degree of latent Islamophobia across the country. “There have been ‘moors’ in Spain for centuries and there are many expressions in the language that paint Arabs as the bad guys. Added to the events of the last 10-15 years this creates a breeding ground for prejudice.”

Given the fact that 27 percent of the Spanish population is now out of work, the climate is ripe for those age-old adages, “they take all our jobs” and “live off benefits”, to mushroom. As is the case in most western countries, however, immigrants often fill jobs the local population no longer wants and are usually the first to go when redundancies are made.

Among the events organised at local level, Aranguren tells me, are “anti-rumour workshops” designed to counteract many of the prejudices that form as a result of harmful hearsay. In one Basque town, for example, at least one property firm has taken the decision to no longer rent to either Moroccans or Pakistanis, purportedly after several “bad experiences”. By all accounts most local residents involved consider it a logical move; some, no doubt, with good grounds.

But as always such actions set a dangerous precedent. In his article, This is how racism takes root, Joseph Harker, writing in The Guardian, talks about the double standards shown by the UK press in its extensive coverage of the Asian sex gangs incident uncovered in Rochdale in May last year, while a similar case in Derby around the same time hardly caused a stir. In the latter case most of those involved were white.

Grown men preying on vulnerable minors is sadly becoming old news, but the Rochdale case entered the national psyche as proof to many of the supposedly depraved nature of Asian men, specifically Muslim Pakistanis: “The case showed,” writes Harker, “how shockingly easy it is to demonise a community”.

“No integration without equality”

Immigration may not be causing war on Spanish streets. It rarely does. But politicians, all too aware of the economic benefits – indeed, necessity – of immigration, must appreciate the need to promote effective integration.

A three-year Integration Plan established by the Spanish government in 2011 stated among its aims the elimination of “all types of discrimination… (promotion of) co-existence based on democratic values and tolerant attitudes and (the mobilisation of) society against racism and xenophobia.”

Evidence suggests, however, that there is little parity between the official model and actual attitudes regarding co-existence and tolerance on the part of the Spanish population.

The 2011 Plan also highlighted the important role played by schools in creating a healthy melting pot of cultures, but education is one of the areas where immigrants are frequently scape-goated. A recent study showed that 48.9 percent of Spaniards believe immigration brings the quality of education down. Yet the reality is that, while attainment averages may drop in some areas (due to the socioeconomic situation of both immigrant and “native” students) immigration per se does not affect overall quality.

To quote Trevor Philips, head of the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality, “there can be no true equality without integration and … no true integration without equality.”

Recent education reforms by Spain’s conservative government, however, will almost certainly see a move backwards in this respect.

The changes introduced by Education Minister José Ignacio Wert promote sidelining those deemed least capable and incentivising state-financed private schools. Given the disproportionate number of immigrant families on low incomes, and the frequent correlation between students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and their academic achievement, this is bound to push many pupils from immigrant families to the bottom of the ladder.

Such a situation would inevitably lead to what Philips describes as the “fracturing and division of society based on classism,” which at its ugliest takes the form of ghettos, an all-to-frequent by-product of immigration.

The Spanish government would need to work hard to avoid such a scenario. Sadly, their latest legislation suggests they do not consider it in anyone’s interest to do so.

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Published: May 29 2013
Category: Featured, Politics, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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