The word immigration conjures up all sorts of images, not all of them complimentary, especially in the minds of the British. Indeed, although Enoch Powell was admonished and silenced by the Conservatives for his ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, 74% of those polled immediately afterwards agreed with him, and only 15 % disagreed.
Although there are unquestioned economic benefits for both parties – the immigrants and the countries to which they emigrate – questions of assimilation or integration of the newcomers to an alien culture often give rise to multiple social and political problems. In the case of Spain though, three-fourths of today’s immigrants to Spain come from Latin American and European countries with language and culture similar to that of Spain.
For Spain, immigration is a relatively new phenomenon. For centuries Spaniards were used to emigrating to other European countries, and the Americas in search of a better life. For the first time in modern history, when Spain joined the EEC in 1986, it had to have a policy on migration in keeping with European Union regulations. The law passed in 1985 called the ‘Aliens’ Law’ determines the procedure by which non-EU persons seeking work and residence in Spain is to be dealt with. The immigrants are required to have an employment contract or a work permit for a stipulated period before they can enter and work legally in Spain. However, if the employer cancels or terminates the contract at any time, then the immigrant falls into the category of an illegal resident.
To alleviate the problem of the illegal status of a large number of persons settled in Spain, who may have been in and out of work over a relatively long period, the government resorted to providing an amnesty for illegal workers at several points in time in the past. A new regulation passed in 1996 enabled immigrants who have lived in Spain for at least six years to receive permanent work permits. All this was necessary because Spain’s economy has grown to become one of the most prosperous in Europe. To begin with, it was the poor immigrants without any skills from Africa and the former Eastern European countries who came over to fill the hardest and lowest paying jobs in agriculture, construction and industry. But with the growth of a modern sophisticated economy, Spain increasingly requires highly skilled manpower to keep pace with the global competitive economies of the 21st century. According to the Financial Times (UK) Spain is the most favoured destination for West Europeans considering a move from their own country seeking jobs elsewhere. Since 2002, Spain has created half the new jobs in the entire euro zone.
The Spanish government figures show 4.5 million foreign residents living in Spain in 2007. The Red Cross estimates the figure to be even more at 4.8 million, 15.1% of the population. Among the non-EU immigrants, Moroccans are the largest group at about 500,000 with Ecuadorians and Romanians the next highest groups. About 260,000 are Colombian. While 6.10 % of the foreign residents were from Argentina, 2.63 % came from Bolivia. From the EU, the most numerous are from Britain (8.09 %) closely followed by the French (8.03 %), and Germans (5.58 %). However, many north Europeans come over to Spain to spend their retirement years and are not competing for jobs. Booming Spain has seen Europe’s largest number of migrants for the past six years, with its immigrant population increasing fourfold with 2.8 million new arrivals.
More than 11% of Spain’s population are foreign-born, one of the highest in Europe, only second to Cyprus. It boasts the second highest net migration rate in the world next to USA with 12.9 %. Spain continues to invite the foreigner who wants to work. Apart from providing muscle for construction work, immigrants, especially women, care for children and the elderly freeing more Spanish women to take up jobs outside the home. The immigrants fill minimum wage positions in restaurants and hotels. The government statistics show that their tax and social security payments exceed more than 20 % of the cost of public services the immigrants use.
It is clear that unlike other Western European countries Spain does not regard immigration as a threat. A recent Harris poll showed that only 19 % of the British and French think immigration is helping their countries as against 42 % of Spaniards. As recently as the mid-1990s Spain was an economically undeveloped country with an aging population. Spain’s replacement fertility rate is the lowest, only second to Japan’s. With the help of an immigrant work force Spain has increased its per capita income from being only 80 % of the EU average to 96 % now. Construction still accounts for 18 % of the economy with growth averaging 3.1 % over the past five years. The unemployment rate is the second lowest within the European Union.
If there is a threat, it is a common one facing the West, from Islamist extremists and fundamentalists. A common European approach to the problem is being pursued with extreme vigilance. Spain continues to develop policies to strengthen the ties of the new arrivals to the country they have made their future home.