SPAIN: Migrants under attack

Wednesday, April 12, 2000

MADRID — What Have I Done to Deserve This? is the title of a popular movie directed by Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodovar. This is a question that I have often asked myself since living in Spain.

I was born in Chile, left in 1975 following Augusto Pinochet's bloody coup in 1973 and landed in Melbourne. My experience was not exactly rosy as an immigrant in Australia, but it was never as bad as I have experienced living in Spain.

After three years of trying to get a resident's visa — I had a work contract, good academic qualifications, a small publishing business and, fortunately, "contacts" — I finally succeeded. I was lucky; there are people whose applications to live here have been refused for years.

Thanks to a new law supported by a large number of non-government organisations, (the governing People's Party, which lacked a parliamentary majority at the time, opposed the law), and which came into effect on February 1, all migrants who have been refused a visa can now re-apply (until the end of July), so long as they can prove they entered the country on a specific date.

However, one of the top agenda items of the right-wing People's Party, which was re-elected last month with an absolute majority, is to change the new law. It has made it clear: it does not want any more immigrants. At least, it does not want more "legal" migrants as who would do the jobs that Spanish citizens do not want? Who would the government accuse of stealing?

Although the United Nations has asked Spain not to discriminate against foreigners, the news in Spain since the beginning of this year has been distressing and appalling. Beginning on February 5, the migrant population in the southern town of El Eijido suffered violent attacks after a Spanish woman was murdered by a north African immigrant with psychiatric problems. Hundreds of people took to the streets armed with iron bars and baseball bats, and for three days attacked immigrants and burned their living quarters, cars and shops.

The media reported that the police intervened, yet after three days of violence no-one had been detained. I wonder how many people would have been arrested had it been immigrants attacking Spanish citizens?

The El Eijido mayor has refused to comment and we are still waiting for a comment from Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

According to El Eijido's police chief, 70% of the crimes there are committed by Spanish citizens (El País, January 31), yet the townspeople do not take the law into their own hands on each occasion. Does the background of the criminal make a difference? Obviously it does.

The new law has meant that hundreds of immigrants are camped in front of visa offices, ignoring official calls not to form long lines. On February 1, people did form queues and there were reports of police violence in towns such as Alicante.

The number of migrants who try to get into Spain and do not live to tell their tales is horrific. People have risked their lives to come from Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Morocco and many other countries only to die on the way or be sent back as soon as they arrive in Spain.

After paying a huge amount of money, some make the journey in makeshift boats; others swim part of the way in freezing waters. Still others hide in trucks to cross a border and then have to do anything to survive. Many have lost relatives or friends on the journey.

There are no migrant hostels and no counsellors. When people are caught, they are sent back.

A large part of the Spanish population is scared of a migrant "invasion". Sadly, a recent poll showed that 57% of university students in Spain do not want more immigrants in the country.

This fear is unfounded. Only 3% of Madrid's population are immigrants, compared to 16% in Paris and 20% in London (El País, January 29).

Some Spanish people seem to have forgotten that many Spaniards were forced to migrate to South America, other parts of Europe and even Australia. Everyone has a right to pursue a better life, a right to good health and education, equal pay for equal jobs and, above all, to other people's respect.