Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 October 2006, 14:21 GMT
Romanian influx challenges Spain
By Danny Wood
BBC News, Madrid
“It's sarcastic, it's a joke and it's profoundly unjust.”
Miguel Fonda, president of Spain's Federation of Romanian Associations (Fedrom), does not mince words when assessing the UK government's decision to restrict work permits for Bulgarians and Romanians when these countries join the EU in January.
There are about 200,000 Romanians working legally in Spain.
But if illegal migrants are included, unofficial estimates suggest at least 800,000 Romanians could be living in Spain.
Many of them work in the construction and service sectors without legal papers – two areas of Spain's economy that have boomed in recent years.
Mr Fonda says the decision to restrict work permits is a grave error that contradicts European economic policy.
(“I think Romanians have a very similar culture to ours, a Latin culture,” Maria, Madrid student.)
Anger at UK curbs
“You can't, on the one hand, say you're in favour of free markets and on the other hand, prevent the free circulation of workers.”
“It's been demonstrated that immigrants bring wealth to a country, they don't take it away,” says Mr Fonda.
And they also stimulate the economy back in Romania.
Immigrants in Spain often send up to half their income home.
For a Romanian working as a waiter and earning about four times as much as he or she would at home, this could mean about 500 euros ($636, 334) a month.
Spain plans to give Romanians and Bulgarians free access to its job market two years after their countries join the European Union, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos announced on Tuesday.
He said Spain's labour market policy would be the same as for the 10 countries which joined the EU in May 2004 – the last major enlargement.
Meanwhile, the restrictions announced by Britain and Ireland are a departure from the open-door policy they had for the May 2004 accession countries.
Spanish trade unions argued for a moratorium like Britain's, to apply during a transitional period, to prevent distortion of the labour market.
Many Romanians in Madrid work in the city's burgeoning building sector
During that time, Romanians would be able to live in Spain and set up their own businesses but would only be able to take up jobs if they were contracted for work in Spain while actually in Romania.
There is no doubt that immigration is helping to fuel Spain's buoyant economy.
Rather than clamp down on migrants, a study commissioned by the Catalan regional government shows that Spain will need four million more migrants by 2020 to meet the labour demands of its growing economy.
But trade unions are reflecting a growing concern in Spain that immigration needs to be better controlled.
Spaniards are particularly sensitive to this issue in a year that has seen record numbers of African migrants – about 28,000 – arrive in the Canary Islands illegally by boat.
But on the streets of Madrid, people are generally very positive about migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.
“I think Romanians have a very similar culture to ours, a Latin culture,'' says Maria, a psychology student. “I can speak from experience, I have some good friends [who are Romanians]. The positives outweigh the negatives.”
Oscar, a salesman, says Romania and Bulgaria have a right to be fully included in Europe.
“Spain had an economic situation very similar to these countries 25 years ago,” he says.
“We were also neighbours of Europe, we were part of Europe but outside Europe. And I think they are in the same situation – part of Europe but outside Europe, yet they have a right to be in Europe.”
But there are some concerns about social integration and – despite studies demonstrating the opposite – worries that Spain's economy will be unable to cope.
“I think some people don't agree with accepting Romania and Bulgaria into the EU because of the social problems that that will bring to us – like unemployment,” says Silvia, a tour guide.
“I think this sort of massive immigration brings some problems for society with it – unemployment and criminality – and this can provoke racist feelings.”
Cristina Lincu is a young Romanian who has lived and worked in Spain for six years in a mixture of jobs, ranging from US money-lending companies to Romanian newspapers.
She secured her legal working papers during a regularisation of immigrants that took place in 2001.
Cristina says the media exaggerate negative stereotypes associated with Romanians and other Eastern Europeans, like mafia crime.
“When people have direct contact with Romanians, when they work with Romanians, they really change their ideas, because they understand more about our culture and they finally understand that this is only delinquency and not a label that you can apply to all Romania.”
Cristina says that so far there have been few obstacles for Romanians seeking work in Spain – either legally or illegally – and she hopes this will not change.
“I can understand the preoccupation [about immigration],” she says. “But, on the other hand, as a country belonging to the European Union we should have the same rights and obligations as every other European country.
“I think Spain will be more open to Romanians because so many of us are already integrated and working here so well.”