IT IS THE season of calm seas off the Sahara, and each week several hundred African migrants turn up on the shores of the Canary Islands, packed tightly into open fishing boats. Some of them, especially those from Mali, are fleeing violence. Many more are economic migrants, lured by the prospect of much higher wages in Europe, if they can somehow get there.
It is a hazardous trip: at least 900 migrants have died on this route so far this year. But most who make it to the Canaries eventually find their way to the Spanish mainland. There they find a country whose traditional welcome for immigrants is showing signs of strain.
Modern Spain acquired an immigrant population later and more suddenly than other western European countries. In 1998 there were just 1.2m foreign-born residents; by 2010 there were 6.6m (out of a total population of 47m). Many went home during the economic slump of 2008-12. Now their number is rising again, to 7.2m last year. The first wave easily fitted in: the economy was growing, and the largest contingents were from Spanish-speaking Latin America and from Romania, which has cultural and religious similarities to Spain. There were many, too, from Morocco, where Spain was the colonial power in the north of the country.
In recent years most new arrivals have come not by sea but through the airports, as visa overstayers, many from Latin America. Growing numbers are from Africa. After a previous surge in arrivals in the Canaries in 2006 Spain signed agreements with Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal under which those countries would take their migrants back in return for aid and help with patrolling the seas. But the deportations have been halted during the pandemic. Anyway, the three African governments are reluctant, especially Morocco’s, which has a long-standing dispute with Spain over Western Sahara and which in May allowed some 8,000 migrants to cross into Ceuta, a Spanish enclave.
For the past two years, arrivals in the Canaries have at times overwhelmed reception facilities. Algerians are landing on Spain’s Mediterranean coast and the Balearics. This year, for the first time, three of the top five nationalities seeking asylum are African. Many Africans move on to the rest of Europe. But they are increasingly visible in Spanish cities. It normally takes three years to get a work permit. Meanwhile, some work as manteros, street vendors who display their wares on blankets on the pavement. They face racism and police harassment, complains Malick Gueye of an association of manteros in Madrid.
All this grabs headlines, especially in a changed political climate. Vox, a hard-right party which now has 52 of the 350 seats in parliament, burst onto the scene in 2017 in response to the separatist threat in Catalonia. But as that has waned it has increasingly campaigned against irregular immigration. For a regional election in Madrid in May, it put up posters contrasting the cost of looking after migrants who are unaccompanied minors with pensions for older Spaniards. It is a paradox that Vox does particularly well in areas along the Mediterranean coast where farmers depend on Moroccan and other African labourers for the harvest.
“Racism isn’t a monopoly of Vox,” but racists feel empowered by its stance, says Mr Gueye. There has been an increase in reports of racist attacks, though they remain rare. “There’s a breeding ground in favour of hatred in Europe from which Spain is not exempt,” says Jesús Perea, the deputy minister for migration.
One of the first acts of Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist prime minister, when he took office in 2018 was to welcome a shipload of 630 immigrants stranded off Italy. As migration routes have moved westwards again, the government is now more cautious. “We have to strike a balance between security and solidarity,” says Mr Perea. He remains optimistic. “The general day-to-day attitude in Spain is better than in other countries in Europe,” he claims. Spaniards recall that many of them emigrated in the 1950s and 1960s in search of a better life. It helps, too, that immigrants are spread out across the country, rather than concentrated in ghettos. In a recent poll 56% of Spaniards saw immigration positively.
Spain faces a test and a choice. The test is to ensure that the second generation, only now growing up in numbers, integrates successfully. A warning came in 2017 with terrorist attacks in Catalonia perpetrated by a group of young men who had arrived from Morocco as small children. They were apparently well integrated. They spoke Catalan, had jobs and played in a local football team, but were recruited by a jihadist preacher. However, such cases are rare. A survey in 2014 found “no indicators of cultural rejection…among immigrants or their children”. More recent studies have found a higher risk that children of immigrants drop out of school. Few senior jobs are held by African immigrants or their children, so role models are scarce.
The choice is whether to admit more immigrants. Some say Spain needs them. Even more than in most rich countries, Spain’s fertility rate has tumbled, from three children per woman in 1964 to 1.2 today. So in the future fewer workers will have to support a lot more pensioners, unless Spain raises the retirement age or lets in more young immigrants, or both. The government estimates that, even if it succeeds in bringing the effective retirement age into line with the legal one, which is gradually being raised to 67, Spain will need an extra 6m-7m workers by 2040 to meet its pension bill. Some 250,000 a year will need to come from abroad.
Many Spaniards remain welcoming. After a campaign by NGOs the government in October made it easier for young migrants to get work permits when they turn 18 and leave reception centres. “These youths shouldn’t have to be wandering the streets for three years until they get papers,” says Emilia Lozano, a retired shop-worker who has organised beds and training for some. Small towns across the depopulating interior want immigrants to keep their schools, shops and bars open. Even as Spanish society has changed radically in a generation, the country has remained generally easygoing. That can continue, but it will take more work. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “The tests of tolerance”