Spain is the most welcoming country in Europe for migrants. Will it last?
Migrant women, rescued in the Mediterranean Sea, wait in line at the port of Malaga, Spain, on Oct. 12. (Jon Nazca/Reuters) October 28 at 6:00 AM
MADRID â" When the migrant surge began in 2015, Western Europe was welcoming.
Cheering crowds greeted refugees arriving by train in European cities. âWe can do it!â German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged on her countrymen in their generosity. Swedes scrambled to help new arrivals obtain housing and medical care. Italians began a massive search-and-rescue patrol effort in the Mediterranean.
But since then, much of Western Europe has closed its borders, turned away rescue ships and thrown support behind anti-migrant politicians. Even a s the numbers of new arrivals have decreased to pre-2015 levels, migration has propelled the election of populist factions in Austria and Italy and threatened the stability of establishment parties in France and Germany.
The most visible exception is Spain.
Just over seven nautical miles from Africa, Spain is Europeâs new front line for migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Since the beginning of the year, nearly 49,000 migrants have landed here, according to statistics from the U.N. refugee agency. The figure represents about twice the number of 2018 arrivals to Greece or Italy â" previously the primary gateways to Europe.
But for Spainâs center-left government, this is hardly cause for concern.
âWe shouldnât be frightened by the arrival of 50,000 or so in one year,â said JosÃ© AlarcÃ³n HernÃ¡ndez, a top migration official in the Labor Ministry. Spainâs population is 40 million.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro SÃ¡nchez has welcomed migrants. (Julien Warnand/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Prime Minister Pedro SÃ¡nchez and his Socialist Workersâ Party have sought to distinguish their country in its compassion. âIt is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, to comply with our human rights obligations,â SÃ¡nchez said when welcoming 630 migrants aboard the Aquarius rescue ship, which Italy had rejected, in June.
A Pew Research Center survey published last month found Spain to be the European country most supportive of refugees, with 86 percent of Spanish adults in favor of taking in people fleeing violence and war.
Despite Spainâs recent spike in migrant arrivals and a staggering level of unemployment â" 15.2 percent, the second-highest rate in Europe â" anti-migrant rhetoric is rare and the far right is relatively we ak.
The far-right party Vox attracted 9,000 people to a rally in Madrid this month, and polls suggest that it could win a seat in the lower house of parliament in the 2020 election. But the party is still very much on the fringe.
Pablo Casado, the leader of the opposition Peopleâs Party, has voiced anti-migrant positions, although not with the same vitriol as in Italy and elsewhere. âThere canât be papers for everyone, nor is it sustainable for a welfare state to absorb the millions of Africans who want to come to Europe,â he said in July. âAnd we have to say it, even if it is politically incorrect.â
Casadoâs remarks were roundly criticized. Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau warned that such statements were a step toward âthe destruction of Europe and democracy itself.â Days later, Casado was photographed shaking hands with migrants.
So why is the sentiment in Spain so different? And will it last?
According to a September poll from the So ciological Research Center in Madrid, unemployment is the most acute concern for Spaniards. Immigration ranks fifth â" behind corruption, a sluggish economy and a perceived failure of the political class.
But unlike other Europeans, Spaniards have not generally blamed unemployment on immigration.
French and Italian police check papers at the border between their countries on Oct. 22. (Alessandro Di Marco/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
âUnemployment is seen as having many other roots,â said Carmen GonzÃ¡lez EnrÃquez of the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid think tank. âOnly some people, especially among those less educated, are in fact competing with migrants for jobs.â
Nationalist tendencies in Spain, she added, are constrained by memories of Francisco Francoâs dictatorship. Elsewhere in Europe, where mainstream right-w ing parties have been willing to flirt with or embrace nationalist rhetoric, the memories of a right-wing past in the 1930s or 1940s are more distant. But Franco died in 1975, well within the lifetimes of many voters and policymakers today.
âDuring those years of dictatorship, the use of national symbols somehow inoculated the Spaniards against the use of nationalist rhetoric in any political form,â GonzÃ¡lez EnrÃquez said. âItâs now unimaginable that a political party could use the expressions needed to create [a] xenophobic, anti-migration party.â
This is not to say that Spain is an unqualified haven for migrants. Migrant advocates note a contrast between Spainâs welcoming rhetoric toward those rescued in the Mediterranean and its attitude toward migrants seeking refuge in Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco.
Two men speak to fellow migrants after forcing their way into the Spanish territory of Ceuta on Aug. 22. (Joaquin Sanchez/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish border guards regularly force back migrants who try to scale the 20-foot razor-wire fences that surround the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. In one particularly dramatic episode this summer, hundreds of African migrants stormed the Ceuta fence. More than 600 made it past, but migrants and police officers were injured in the clash.
According to the Spanish Interior Ministry, about 3,300 migrants have entered Spain through Ceuta and Melilla this year. Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said on Spanish radio that the aim should be to deter migrants before they reach the dangerous fences.
"Our vision is: The more we help Morocco control its borders, the better it is for everyone," said AlarcÃ³n, the migration official.
Some advocates contend that Spain has pressured Moroccan officials to arrest and e xpel migrants from sub-Saharan Africa before they try to get to Europe.
Moroccoâs willingness to cooperate may be what allows Spain to welcome migrants to the degree that it has. And a disruption of that cooperation could result in a shift in Spanish public opinion and policy.
Moroccan officials have rejected a proposal â" first floated by French President Emmanuel Macron â" to build âhot spotsâ on their soil to prescreen refugees hoping to get to Europe. âAre we real partners, or just a neighbor youâre afraid of?â Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said to German newspaper Die Welt this month.
Migrants rescued from the Mediterranean Sea are wrapped in blankets at the port of Malaga, Spain, on Oct. 6. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)
In the meantime, reports document how social services for newcomers to Spain are s tretching thin, especially in the less affluent southern regions where many arrive. And migrants say the initial welcome they receive is often followed by uncertainty.
âWhat kind of social assistance is there for a mother who has her papers but has never worked?â Fatima Coulibrely, a 34-year-old from Ivory Coast, asked at the Karibu Association aid organization in Madrid. âCan my husband apply for Spanish citizenship if he doesnât have a permanent contract?â
Sandra do Hoz, 37, said life remains difficult nine years since she arrived from Cape Verde and started making money by cleaning houses.
âItâs hard to find work when you have a baby,â she said, as she pushed her 9-month-old in a carriage. âAnd my husbandâs unemployment already ran out. For now, we make do.â
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