Recession Tests Spanish Tolerance of Immigrants

Recession tests Spaniards' tolerance of immigrants – Feature

Posted : Wed, 14 Apr 2010 03:59:24 GMT
By : Sinikka Tarvainen
Category : Europe (World)

Madrid – Tensions are running high in the north-eastern Spanish town of Salt, where police intervened recently to prevent violence from breaking out between Spaniards and immigrants.

“Stop stealing and go home,” Spaniards shouted to Moroccans and other migrants they were facing on the streets.

Days earlier, hundreds of demonstrators had forced their way into the city hall to protest the presence of immigrants, who make up about 40 per cent of the population of 30,000.

Such scenes have been infrequent in Spain, but there are signs that opposition to immigration is on the rise as the country struggles with a deep economic crisis and an unemployment rate of nearly 20 per cent.

Observers are watching especially the region of Catalonia, of about 7 million residents, where Salt is located and where far-right parties or groups have appeared on the political scene.

The number of immigrants in Spain has increased fivefold over a decade to about 5.3 million people, or 12 per cent of the population, according to official figures.

The migrants come mainly from Latin America, Morocco and other African countries, and Eastern Europe.

Their presence has prompted occasional unrest, such as clashes in the agricultural town of El Ejido in 2000 between locals and North Africans in which about 80 people were injured.

On the whole, however, Spaniards have been relatively tolerant of people coming from cultures different from their own.

When Islamist extremists killed 191 people in the Madrid train bombings in 2004, there were remarkably few signs of an anti-Muslim backlash.

“There is no xenophobia in Spain,” Labour Minister Celestino Corbacho says, describing incidents such as those in Salt as “isolated” occurrences.

The ongoing recession, however, is putting that tolerance to the test, with a government poll showing that 77 per cent of Spaniards feel there are “many” or “too many” immigrants in the country.

In Catalonia, 24 per cent of voters would consider backing an anti-immigrant party in regional elections this autumn, according to a poll published by the daily Periodico.

Attacks by skinheads against migrants are still relatively rare, but “low-intensity racism” was on the rise, the daily El Pais reported already in 2007.

The future of a multicultural Spain is being played out in poorer localities such as Salt, which have large numbers of migrants.

Locals who have been impoverished by the economic crisis see the newcomers as competing with them for social services, housing and jobs. This exacerbates the tendency to blame immigration for problems such as crime and drugs, analysts said.

Authorities in such places find themselves having to cope with new kinds of challenges, such as allowing non-Christians to use the local graveyard or organizing literacy courses for migrants with little education.

The presence of large numbers of migrants sometimes prompts Spanish residents to move away, arousing concern over the emergence of ghettos in Catalonia or the Madrid region.

In the Catalan town of Vic, where nearly a quarter of the 38,000 residents are foreigners of some 90 nationalities, local authorities announced that they would deny undocumented immigrants access to health care and other social services.

The authorities were trying to stem the influence of Plataforma per Catalunya (PxC), a far-right party that had risen to become the second-largest political force in Vic.

The plan to bar migrants access to health care was abandoned, but the PxC is trying to widen its support, seeking votes in places such as Salt in regional elections this autumn and in municipal elections in 2011.

Spain's main opposition conservative People's Party (PP) has also toughened its stance on immigration in some regions.

Meanwhile, countless local associations, non-governmental organizations and cultural mediators are struggling to keep xenophobia at bay.

“We don't want any more incidents or clashes,” said Cesca Torron, a spokeswoman for residents and shopkeepers in Salt, “because we know that a small spark can set everything on fire.”