Business, Economics and Jobs

Immigrants in Spain give up on European dreams


Immigrants from many countries converge on a fish market in the Lavapies neighborhood of Madrid.


Alvaro Felgueroso Lobo

MADRID, Spain ― “Liberty for the people!” shout Moroccans gathered in Plaza Puerta del Sol. The group of about 200 men and women have long hoped for change in their native land, and recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have given them cause to believe. Some are so hopeful, they are contemplating leaving their adopted country.

“The tide has changed,” said Elias, 29, an architect. “We have people who are prepared to create a good government. We won’t allow corruption and repression any longer. We’ll go back and bring about reform.”

Elias is part of a trend of reverse migration percolating among economic migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Spain, with one of the European Union’s most progressive immigration policies, is reputed to be one of Europe’s more welcoming destinations for migrants. Five million foreigners have settled there since 2000, more than in any other EU country, according to the National Statistics Institute in Madrid. So what went wrong?

In short, the economy. But the longer answer has to do with the age-old challenge of making a life in a new, and sometimes unwelcoming, place ― one that today’s migrants can opt out of more easily than their ancestors by choosing to turn around and fly home.

The decision of many Moroccans to return to their country ― and not just in recent weeks ― comes at an advantageous time for Spain, whose struggling economy can hardly sustain its own people. In 2008, hoping to ease the strain, it began offering foreigners on unemployment free passage home, plus 40 percent of their benefits, with the promise of the other 60 percent later. As part of the agreement, they must give up their right to live and work in Spain for three years. So far only 15,000 people have applied for the new plan, according to figures from the Labor Ministry, which had predicted at least 100,000 applicants.

The applications might now accelerate. With newly sparked hope for change in their home country, most Moroccans interviewed in Madrid last month shared the views of Marwan and Abdessamad, 29 and 31, respectively, who moved to Spain 10 years ago. They wanted to train as internet technicians, an opportunity unavailable to them at home. They hold good jobs but plan to go back.

“I’ll probably have trouble adapting to my society after so many years away,” Abdessamad said over coffee in a cafe in Lavapies, a Madrid neighborhood that draws people from all over the world, “but I want to be part of the change.”

Before leaving Morocco, Marwan helped Berbers in the Atlas Mountains, where, he said, the people have a 15th-century mentality. But poor education isn’t only a problem in remote regions; the country has a 40 percent illiteracy rate, according to UNICEF.

“There are steps we can take to achieve a better government,” he said. “The corruption under our king is intolerable, only the elite get a good education and good jobs. We have to make sure the country doesn’t break out in civil war, and leave an opening for the radical Islamists.”

But he and Abdessamad said they are also moved by homesickness. “I have a love for Morocco that I can’t explain,” Abdessamad said. “When I visit, I am filled with optimism for the future.”

For younger Moroccans, the situation is very different. As Maroem, 16, waited for a table at the busy Alhambra Restaurant, he explained that his experience hasn’t been good since he arrived in Spain two years ago.

“I left because I was sick of the king stealing from the people,” he said, “and I wanted to find work to assist my family. That hasn’t happened. There’s going to be change at home and I’ll be happy to go back.”

For foreign-born youth, unemployment is now 41 percent in Spain. Overall unemployment stands at 20 percent, the highest level in the industrialized world, with the figure 10 percent higher among immigrants, according to government data. Competition for jobs is fierce, leading to anger, frustration and racism. Social agencies can barely keep up with the demand for services.

On the outskirts of the city, far from Lavapies, former economist Mari Luz Valdivia set up a small office in a garage in 2004, chiefly to help Bolivians adjust to life in Spain. Starting out as a community center, it soon expanded into a full-fledged service organization, ACOBE (Asociation de Cooperation Bolivia Espana), that serves not only Bolivians but all immigrants. At ACOBE, immigrants can check job listings, receive psychological and legal counseling, find computer training, talk with social workers and learn about the hundreds of free courses offered in the city. It receives support from several Spanish government agencies.

Over the past two years, a large part of ACOBE’s efforts have gone to helping Latin Americans return home. Recently, the number of immigrants choosing home over Spain has more than doubled, with a monthly waiting list longer than 100 people. ACOBE has received almost 800 requests since 2009, and has been able to help 300 immigrants return.

In a new program, funded by the Bolivian government, ACOBE can now assist eligible Bolivians to set up businesses in their own country. They are taught how to write business plans, design web pages, do marketing and manage financially. In 2010, it helped 76 people who now run restaurants and tailoring and jewelry shops. Three people from the organization, based in La Paz, serve as a bridge for returnees, offering support after they arrive.

Sometimes no amount of counseling relieves the disappointments. Adolfo, 31, came to Spain from Bolivia in 2006 to join his wife, hoping to work in construction. They left two children at home with his family, planning to move them once they were settled. At first, Adolfo found jobs fairly regularly. But for the past three years, he hasn’t even been able to find part-time employment. His wife’s earnings as a housekeeper barely cover their household costs.

When his daughter Noeli was born two and half years ago, Adolfo took over her care. Looking older than his age, he walks through a deserted playground with his pretty, jolly child, describing his troubles. But when she pulls on his hand, he smiles and responds to her demands. “She’s smart for her age,” he said. “Maybe because she’s had all my attention.”

He learned a lot, he said, in this country, about respect and discipline in the work place, and he speaks well of the people. But he can’t justify staying. “Most men in my shoes would go home with their heads down because their pockets are empty,” he said. “But I will return with my head held high, my girl’s hand in mine because I am proud of her, and eager to see my older children. I only wish I could have made a good life for them here.”

Unfortunately, Ibrahim, 29, who was born in the Ivory Coast, doesn’t have the same options. He barely escaped from Abidjan 10 years ago when government forces attacked his village and family. He lost several teeth to their weapons. They beat his pregnant girlfriend so brutally that she died. With no choice but to leave, he lived on the road for two years, traveling by truck and foot through Mauretania and Morocco, before crossing to Spain’s Canary Islands.

The ruthless, illegal ferry traders operating in north Africa and Spain charged Ibrahim 800 euros ($1,111) for the trip, a voyage undertaken in a flimsy boat with 85 other passengers. They left shore three times before making it to the Canary Islands. After he arrived, he studied Spanish from a dictionary, hoping to make a good transition into Spanish life. At the beginning, through odd jobs, he made enough money to take courses in economics. Then came the 2008 recession and a crackdown on illegal immigrants. In a Kafkaesque saga, he relates the difficulty of keeping his residency, with one set of papers after another demanded by various government agencies.

He has also begun encountering racism in the metro, Ibrahim said, with people sometimes yelling out insults. But generally, he has no complaints about his adopted country. “I can’t stay without a job though,” he said. “Ideally, I would go home. But it’s too dangerous. I only want to live in tranquility and work and send money back to my family.”

In many cities, immigrants of different ethnicities settle in their own neighborhoods and socialize with each other. Here in Madrid, they are apt to mingle. “I feel it’s important to stand with everyone in need,” said Ibrahim, as he set off for a rally in support of Bangladeshis detained in the Spanish city of Ceuta.

Jahid, 27, a Bangladeshi who arrived in Spain three years ago, goes out of his way to help other immigrants. In his free time, he volunteers at a community center in Lavapies, where people can obtain information on work permits, residence papers, jobs, free courses, legal aid, and medical services. Like Ibrahim, his journey to Spain was tortuous, after a flight to Niger from Bangladesh, through west and north Africa to Morocco, much of it on foot. Altogether, it cost him 10,000 euros (about $14,000), paid to various criminal organizations along the way. Jahid’s family put up the money, expecting him to eventually send funds home. He sold international phone cards until recently finding a job translating at an immigration center.

He tries to cheer up his countrymen. Climbing the broken, wooden stairs in a decrepit building in Lavapies, he said that eight of his friends live in two rooms on the top floor, all now without any source of income. They keep their space neat and clean; hang their clothes on a rack in a small hallway with their shoes stacked underneath. An ancient computer sits on a desk nearby. Four bunk beds fill the tiny, windowless bedroom, where a man lingered in the darkness, so depressed that he no longer leaves the apartment.

As visitors entered, the men gathered around a table, covered with a plastic cloth, eager to talk to outsiders. They offered pineapple juice and cookies.

“Everyone suffers in the crisis,” said Jahid, “but as immigrants we are alone without family to give us emotional support. The police strike out at us more because of the high unemployment. They think expelling us would ease tensions. My friends are afraid to even sell on the street. Police arrest them and take their goods. Many don’t go out because of fear of detention. It can be very lonely.”

Even though they would prefer to stay, many immigrants in Lavapies now feel obligated to return home. The men used to find jobs in construction and the women in care for the elderly, cleaning houses and working in the food industry. But “it’s tough now,” said Susana Ruiz, 25, who is from Peru and recently lost her position as a cashier in a supermarket. “People are looking for reasons to fire you,” she said. “I was out sick and my boss told me he had replaced me with someone more qualified.” She and her husband have had two children here and miss being surrounded by family.

At least her children live with her. Most of the older women have left children behind. “You never forget that you aren’t able to care for them,” said Lourdes de Maria, 35, who is from the Dominican Republic. “You worry about them growing up without you. But at least here if you don’t have clothes or shoes, there are places that will provide them, and food as well. That doesn’t happen in our countries.”

More immigrants may be choosing to return home now than ever before but, for reasons like those given by de Maria, it seems likely that others will soon take their places in Spain, no matter its troubled economy.

Many immigrants interviewed for this story asked that their last names not be used because they were concerned about their legal status or embarrassed by their circumstances.