Entrance to the EU
Every country has its immigrant population. The country of origin of foreigners differs by country, but they are likely to face the very same problems. They hardly ever manage to become part of the middle class. A small proportion of exceptions occupies management-level jobs, while the majority struggle to find their place in society. Situated close to Africa and having colonial links with South America, Spain is a very logical first place for many immigrants to find a better life.
Travel to the northernmost point of Morocco on a clear day and you will be able to see Spain. A small stretch of sea divides Africa and Europe. The Street of Gibraltar connects the Mediterranean to the world. At the same time, it marks the boundary between the world`s poorest continent and one of the most richest. Not only does Spain lie within reach, but because of that, all of the other Schengen countries as well. It makes Spain one of the most accessible illegal entry points to Europe.
..exchanged his home country Chile for the Spanish capital Madrid
It is therefore not surprising that many refugees from Africa decide to leave their families behind to possibly set foot on the promised land. The risky route requires a lot of `knowing the right people`, and often a lot of money as well. Some immigrants, especially women, are forced to pay back huge sums of money even after their arrival in Spain. They sometimes see no other remedy than to work as prostitutes, hoping to pay off the debts in time and thereby making sure their family back home does not get hurt.
Keita (35) is one of the boat refugees in Spain. He fled Mali three years ago and now works in Spain as a cleaner. Keita is reluctant to tell about his adventure, and just wants to tell that he does not feel very much welcome in Spain.
Acapo (35) from Benin also managed to get away from his home country. He flew in on a tourist visa and then managed to prolong his stay by finding a job. He now works in a hotel and tells me that emigrating to Spain is all about knowing the right people. Acapo feels happy in Spain and wishes to stay around for some more years. During his stay, he will also take the opportunity to travel around Europe for a bit, and visit his friends in Paris.
Santi (21) came to Spain to study. Ten years ago, his parents sent him over from Equatorial Guinea to make sure he could follow good education. Santi is a student of business at the polytechnic university. Once he gets his diplome, he wants to use it to mount his own business in Equatorial Guinea. He says he is not suffering from racism because he navigates another social environment than many of his compatriots do.
Kasia (28) from Poland works in Spain as a doctor. She first came to Spain for a university exchange, then ended up falling in love and returning to Spain as soon as she completed her studies in Poland. She does not have many Spanish friends, but doesn`t stick with the Polish community either. She works in a different field than most of them do: it`s typically the construction industry that recruits people of Central European origin. Kasia prefers to enjoy herself hanging out with other internationals, from many different countries.
Kasia herself has not felt discriminated against, but she does think that Spanish are on average quite racist and xenophobic. `I don`t like how Spanish newspapers tend to emphasise the foreign origin or nationality of non-native suspects in their news coverage`, she says. She also mentions, as just one example, how a Colombian girl recently got beaten up by a skinhead. Even though the incident had been recorded on tape, the aggressor got away with minor punishment. `Racism does not have proper consequences in Spain, which leads many people to think that it is completely normal and acceptable`.
From South America
According to Kasia, it`s mostly South Americans who suffer from racism. They speak the local language, have access to a wider range of jobs than most Africans do, and are therefore more of a threat to the typical jobs the Spanish themselves like to occupy. South Americans are easily recognised by their face and accent, a combination which can potentially put them in trouble.
Spain does not have particularly favourable relations with all its former colonies. The recent argument between president Ch?vez from Venezuela and the Spanish king Juan Carlos only illustrates that the friendship is very thin. Chile and Argentina can count on some more sympathy than the Ecuadorians, Bolivians and Peruvians.
Arturo (32, photo) came from Chile with his wife and two children. He arrived four years ago and did not have much difficulty getting a residency permit. Chile, Argentina and Mexico are generally thought of as more similar to Spain, and the overall level of education is higher than in countries closer to the equator. Arturo chose to come to Spain because he wanted a better life for his children who now go to school in Madrid. Arturo is not facing any explicit racist behaviour, but does often feel observed because of his obvious South-American appearance. He says that if immigrants come to Spain with the right ambitions, try not to be too different from the Spaniards and do not behave too strangely, they should not run into trouble. The best way to stay out of trouble is to select a proper social environment, but some unfortunately only have little choice.
Many nationalities have separate concentrations in Madrid and its suburbs. Some places are virtually owned by foreign nationals. Gangs operating as Nietas and Latin Kings, originating from Ecuador and Peru, frequently engage in fights, and some African populations have also brought their local kings over. Rather than obeying the national authorities, inhabitants of such areas respect their local kings.
Like having their own kings, they also set up their own churches. During this very same week, a very big orthodox church opened its doors to serve the Romanian, Ukranian and Russian population. Mosques, other than the ones left behind by the Islamic Moors after Spain reconquered its terrain, are also common in the Madrid area. They are not always visible, as many of them are slightly hidden between apartment blocks. Islamophobia was commonplace after the attacks on the Madrid metro in March 2004. It has tempered somewhat afterwards. Anyway, unlike other countries seem to do, Spain does not relate terrorism uniquely with religious fundamentalism. Local separatist movements like the Basque liberation army ETA have been around for a long time. ETA`s actions seem to have more presence in people`s mind than religious fundamentalism. If Spanish people have racist opinions, it`s more by indifference than because of fear.
Immigration in general
What is slowly becoming clear to me is that immigration issues in each of the EU countries have two sides. The native population urges new arrivals to adopt the local language and standards, but is otherwise indifferent to their presence or even existence. My experience doing these interviews is that many immigrants themselves are not as open-minded as they expect their host country to be. They are not very much willing to talk and, in the same way as the local population, they blame the other party of being arrogant and difficult to approach. Prejudices go both ways, and it`s all one big chicken-and-egg story. If it escalates, it escalates, and many people are prepared to allow it escalate ? politicians included.
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