No Regrets, As Home Beckons After The Boom

No regrets, as home beckons after the boom

Migration Correspondent
The Irish Times
Monday, July 20, 2009

Unemployment among immigrants in Spain could reach 30 per cent by the end of the year, writes RUADHN Mac CORMAIC, Migration Correspondent

REGRETS? Pedro Martn Galn leans back in his chair, shrugs a shoulder and ponders the question for a moment. To be human is always to regret. But a decision that you take to do well by your family is not a decision I feel I can regret. As he prepares to leave Madrid, his home for the past five years, and return to his native Ecuador, Galn consoles himself with the belief that he has been left with no alternative.

In 2003, the 43-year-old former journalist left his wife and daughter and joined tens of thousands of his compatriots in leaving for Spain at a time when its economy was creating almost as many jobs as there were new arrivals. Like many of Madrids undocumented immigrants, Galn looked for work on the citys periphery, where police checks were less frequent and employers more likely to hire workers without any papers, and found a job as a concierge working 14 hours a day for 3.20 an hour.

From the heart of one of Spains industrial motors, Galn had a front-row view of the countrys dramatic economic turnaround. Much like in Ireland, a construction boom and a growth in service industries created an apparently insatiable demand for foreign workers and this, helped by liberal admission policies, in a remarkably short time turned a traditional country of emigration into one of the most attractive destinations. Such was the scale of inward traffic from north Africa, eastern Europe and South America that immigrants rose from 2 per cent of the population to more than 10 per cent in about a decade.

At this point two years ago, Spain was Europes best-performing major economy, with an unemployment rate that had fallen from more than 20 per cent in the late 1990s to 8.6 per cent.

The effects of the influx were felt across the country. Romanian and Arabic began to rival Spanish as the working languages on building sites, Peruvian women cleaned homes and cared for the elderly, while minimum-wage jobs in agriculture, tourism and catering were eagerly filled by new arrivals from Bolivia and Bulgaria. The main boulevard in Tetun, a district in northern Madrid, is filled with Moroccan furniture shops, wire transfer shops and ethnic food shops, and Ecuadorian accents are almost as commonly heard as Madrileno ones. In Coslada, a town outside the city, 20 per cent of the current population is Romanian.

With the economy powering forth with the help of a large shadow army of undocumented workers, the Spanish government in 2005 regularised the status of nearly 600,000 of them. Pedro Martn Galn was one of the beneficiaries.

And in a country long accustomed to legalisation schemes the 2005 version was the sixth since 1985 there was relatively little domestic opposition to the plan. But Spains economy continued to grow, demand for foreign labour held up and new arrivals kept coming. In summer 2006, there was one flight a week between the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz and Madrid. By January of the following year, there were seven. In 2006, an immigrant could arrive on a Sunday and have three or four interviews by Wednesday, says Sebastian Salinas, a lawyer specialising in immigration. We knew this situation was not real… Now we see the real situation.

That reality has much in common with Irelands. A dramatic slowdown in construction which accounts for 18 per cent of the economy has left a smattering of half-finished buildings to serve as memorials of the erstwhile boom. Unemployment is approaching 20 per cent, and among immigrants it is predicted to reach a staggering 30 per cent by the end of the year.

Edward Sanjines, a Bolivian who came to Spain in the halcyon days of 2003 (I arrived on a Tuesday and I started work on a Wednesday) says many of those who thrived during the boom have been suffering the most in the crisis. People are losing the houses and the flats they bought because they cant pay the mortgage, says Sanjines, whose wife an IT specialist recently joined the ranks of the newly unemployed. In my case, I was building a house in Bolivia, but because of the crisis we have stopped the work. Also among the unemployed is Galn himself, who lost his job last year and sees little prospect of finding another. Ive been searching, but its very, very difficult. Theres no work, he says.

Recently, he applied for a voluntary return programme run by the Spanish government for immigrants who are in receipt of unemployment benefit. Under the scheme, eligible applicants receive a one-way airline ticket and their dole in two lump sums 40 per cent before leaving and 60 per cent on arrival in their home country if they agree to relinquish their residence permit and not return to Spain for three years. Posters for the scheme can be seen across Madrid, but so far just 6,000 people have taken up the offer.

According to Josune Huidobro, a co-ordinator for the return programme at Acobe, a Bolivian immigrant association, the low take-up can be explained partly by its restrictive criteria. Although the government says those who return to Spain after three years will automatically regain their residence status, she says it has not set out exactly how returnees will be guaranteed re-entry to the country. So the law says you can come back, but they still havent brought in a complementary law to say how, she says.

A separate return programme, run in conjunction with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), provides foreigners in dire humanitarian need (usually the unemployed and the homeless) with a one-way airline ticket and a basic resettlement grant of 450. But so far this year, just 429 people have returned home under the scheme a strikingly low figure given that an estimated 500,000 undocumented migrant reside in Spain, and that up to 50 per cent of them are unemployed in some parts of the country.

Most of [the undocumented] are fully aware that the crisis is not only Spanish and they would not contemplate returning home, but rather wait here for the recovery, suggests Manuel Pombo, head of mission at the IOM in Madrid.

Under the Spanish system, unemployed residents are entitled to generous monthly support provided they have contributed social security payments for at least 360 days in the previous six years. Significantly, however, this support can only be claimed for up to two years, and this means the payments will end for many natives and newcomers next year. Some believe that moment will reveal a new depth of hardship, as well as a hardening of attitudes towards immigrants in general.

Immigration emerged as an election issue in Spain last year, when Mariano Rajoy, the conservative challenger to prime minister Jos Luiz Rodrguez Zapatero, claimed the 2005 regularisation had attracted more illegal immigrants and increased social tensions. The desire to guard itself from such criticism and avert future strains may partly explain a series of measures announced by the Spanish government last month to tighten immigration rules. The plan would limit family reunification and allow undocumented migrants to be detained for up to 60 days, while at the same time giving them greater legal protection. The socialist government carefully frames the measures as an attempt to crack down on illegal immigration while furthering the aim of social integration.

None of this concerns Pedro Martn Galn. As he prepares for his return to Ecuador next month, he has been busy making plans to open a Spanish-style bar with the lump sum hell pick up on arriving back home. He and his wife separated after his departure, but he is looking forward to seeing his 17-year-old daughter for the first time in six years. Unprompted, he returns to the question of regret. When someone takes the decision to leave his country, to leave behind his wife and his children, its a very difficult decision, he says. What I regret is leaving my family. But I dont feel any regret when I think of the money I sent back over the last few years.

Then there are the classes and the courses I took while I was over here. It helped my family, and it was good for me.

“Incentivising” migrants to return: what other countries do

Under a scheme targeted mainly at Vietnamese and Mongolian contract workers who have lost their jobs, the Czech Republic in February offered unemployed foreigners 500 and their airfare home. By the end of March, almost 1,100 people had taken up the offer, and a second phase in being planned. Japan has introduced a similar programme focused on Latin American workers.

In Ireland the Department of Justice, in conjunction with IOM, has been offering voluntary assisted return for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants since 2001. Some 453 people left under the scheme last year, almost double the total for 2007. Of the 241 migrants who have availed of it so far this year, the largest national groups were Brazilians, Moldovans, Georgians and Nigerians.

But while return programmes offer welcome relief for some who have fallen on hard times, past experience suggests they have fairly limited impact overall. During the economic crises which followed the oil shocks of the 1970s, France launched a return programme which involved resettlement and educational support. The scheme had little success and fell short of its ambitious targets, partly because returnees had to renounce claims on social insurance and give up residence and work permits.

Moreover, while Algerian workers were the main targets, more than 60 per cent of returnees were Spanish and Portuguese immigrants, and it is believed that a large number of those who took advantage of the scheme may have planned to leave anyway.


This is the second in a three-part series on the impact of the economic downturn on global migration

Tomorrow: With anti-immigrant parties gaining ground in Europe and governments, Irelands included, tightening the rules for admission, will the current crisis have a lasting impact on migration flows?

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times