European immigration plans spark Bolivian exodus
By Eduardo Garcia
Tuesday, November 7, 2006; 8:08 AM
SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (Reuters) – Every day, thousands of people pack the airport in Bolivia's eastern city of Santa Cruz to wave goodbye to friends and relatives.
The people they are saying goodbye to are mostly traveling to Spain under rules that allow tourists from Bolivia to enter Spain without visas. But the travelers are in search less of a vacation than of a better way of life.
Bolivia, land-locked and poverty-stricken, has been in the midst of an exodus of its workers since August, when the Spanish government said it may start requiring Bolivian tourists to get a visa before coming to Spain.
Since then, the number of Madrid-bound planes departing from Bolivia has more than quadrupled.
Bolivians queue for days to get passports, which have become scarce as government supplies dwindle.
And, when Bolivian airline Aerosur unveiled its new 530-seat jumbo jet, which will start flying to Spain twice a week in November, local daily El Mundo ran a picture of the aircraft on its front page with the headline: “This way we can keep on leaving.”
At the airport, Rossie Gutierrez does good business selling packets of tissues to weeping relations as they say their goodbyes.
“It is a very sad drama… nowadays our main export is people, and it's breaking families apart,” says Gutierrez, who has two brothers living in Spain.
To pass as tourists, Bolivian job-seekers book hotel rooms in advance, buy travel insurance, and learn about Spanish landmarks in case immigration authorities ask them what they plan to visit.
Clara Rojas, a 46-year-old unemployed woman, is leaving three grown-up children and five grandchildren, hoping to find a job as a maid in Madrid, as her sister did two years ago.
While she packs a suitcase with her few belongings at her rundown home on the edge of Santa Cruz, Bolivia's most populous city, she says she has no choice but to “make a little money for my old age.”
Her husband, a truck driver, is staying behind, but borrowed money from his boss to gather $3,000 for her trip.
Her 23-year-old daughter, Gladys, a mother of two, is planning to follow in a few months time.
Despite the hefty investment, she knows she might not get any farther than Barajas airport on the outskirts of Madrid.
On October 21, as some 800 people boarded two flights to Spain, some 70 Bolivians flew back into Santa Cruz after their dreams of a better life were cut short by Spanish immigration officers.
Up to 80 Bolivians are denied entry into Spain every day, according to Bolivian immigration officials.
“I am afraid of being rejected but you have to take risks. If you don't take risks you'll never know,” says Rojas.
A 23-year-old man about to board a flight to Madrid said he was trying to get into Spain for the third time — having been rejected twice by Spanish immigration officers.
“You have to persevere says the Lord,” said the man, who asked not to be named.
An airline official said many Bolivians are rejected for “not looking enough like tourists.”
Several women waiting to board a Madrid-bound plane wore sandals, colorful vests and sunglasses.
“Spain is in need of foreign workers, and Bolivians are contributing in great measure to our country's wealth. There are about 60,000 Bolivians with (immigration) papers working in Spain,” Spanish Ambassador Juan Francisco Montalban told Reuters.
“Tourists are also welcome, but many are using their tourist status to look for work in the country, and that is not acceptable,” he added.
Spain is struggling from a wave of African as well as Latin American immigration. Some 24,000 Africans have tried to enter Spain through the Canary Islands already this year, five times more than in all of 2005.
Workers at Santa Cruz's immigration offices are doing double shifts to meet the sky-rocketing demand for passports, with hundreds of applicants sleeping on the street for days in a queue that permanently circles a whole block.
“We are facing a crisis here… We are running out of passports,” says Olga Lidia Espinoza, head of the local immigration office, which typically issues 60 percent of passports produced in Bolivia.
Since August, she has been signing up to 800 passports a day, twice the usual amount.
On the line outside, a man pushing a rusty bike offers lukewarm coffee, a neighboring market charges people to use its toilets, and vendors offer everything from mobile phone cards to a breakfast of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes.
Profiteers offer spaces at the front of the line for around $50 — a steep sum in South America's poorest country.
Last month, some people tried to storm the passport office after the government announced it was running out of passports, reducing the number of passports allocated to Santa Cruz to 200 a day.
Bolivia's leftist president, Evo Morales, told reporters the situation worries him, but that if Europe and the United States want fewer immigrants they have to open their markets to Bolivian products so the economy can generate jobs.
“The moment our products are allowed in, the number of our families, our brothers, our neighbors going to Europe will decrease… that would be the only way to halt migration,” said Morales.