While xenophobia and anti-immigrant politics threaten to flood Europe,
Ali Qassim finds hope for a brighter future in Spain.
S ANDY beaches, paella and fireworks displays. For decades, these have brought nationwide fame to Valencia, the capital of Spain's Mediterranean Costa Blanca ('White Coast'). But last year the country's third-largest city gained a new, more sinister notoriety - an extreme right-wing group attempted to stage the first public anti-immigrant demonstration since the death of Fascist leader General Franco in 1975.
For an entire month, the attention of the local media and of human-rights organizations throughout the country was focused on Russafa, a working-class neighbourhood in Valencia. Russafa means 'garden' in Arabic. The name was given by the Moors (North African Arabs) who controlled much of the southern and central Iberian peninsula for over 800 years. Today, ambling through Russafa's dusty, noisy streets there is scant evidence of the original settlement's greener days.
The only hint of Russafa's Moorish past is a Muslim cultural centre, a mosque and the dark complexions of many of the local residents. They are not the descendants of the original Moors who were expelled from Spain in 1492, but first- and second-generation migrants from North Africa who in the last decade have started trickling into Spain to escape repressive regimes or poverty.
It came as a surprise when, on 8 June 1997, the local press reported that a fascist group, Falange-Española-Frente Nacional Sindicalista (FE-FNS) had requested permission from the municipal authorities in Valencia to stage a protest against this group of migrants. It was an even greater shock when two days later the authorities actually gave the FE-FNS the green light to demonstrate in Russafa on June 30. The conditions were that they would not spread racist propaganda, which is a criminal offence in Spain.
Almost immediately, a local agency of SOS Racismo, an anti-racism organization which operates in various European countries, urged the authorities in Valencia to declare the meeting illegal. The municipal government took no notice. But they badly miscalculated the public mood. Within a week, Russafa's neighbourhood action group had managed to stage a large public meeting in the area's medieval market to protest against the demonstration. A few days later, from its headquarters in Madrid, Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España, a leading human-rights group, voiced its opposition to the planned meeting. Like an ever-growing snowball, the chorus of objections from far-flung corners of Spain - including regional political parties, youth groups and local human-rights groups - became louder and louder.
When the day of the demonstration finally arrived, FE-FNS had managed to round up 120 supporters in Russafa. But they were completely outnumbered - anti-fascist demonstrators had ten times as many supporters. Spain's first anti-immigration demonstration had failed. SOS Racismo called for the resignation of the authorities in Valencia for having approved the anti-immigration protest in the first place.
Russafa is only a first test-case in Spain. There is nothing to prevent minority fascist groups from staging bigger, more organized and unauthorized protests in the future to spread their anti-immigration messages. It is debatable whether in such future scenarios, human-rights organizations and neighbourhood groups will be capable of drumming up the scale of fervour and support that was possible in Russafa.
But it is tempting, given the burgeoning support for anti-immigration movements in many other European countries, to suggest from the Russafa experience that racial problems could be less acute in Spain than elsewhere.
'There are several examples of racist actions in Spain during the last year which have been met with appropriate community responses,' says John Casey, a consultant at SOS Racismo in Barcelona, located four hours' drive north of Valencia. 'Spain does enjoy a relatively high tolerance level towards migrants.'
Casey's judgement is supported by the latest available findings on attitudes towards migrants. Research found that while racism does exist, particularly against gypsies, the number of people who believe that migrants should have greater political rights has risen steadily between 1991 and 1995.
Why do Spaniards seem relatively accommodating towards migrants? The reductionist and more cynical school of thought argues that the majority of Spaniards are not preoccupied with immigration issues simply because they are not faced with migrants in their daily lives unless they live in the poorer districts of major cities, or in rural areas on the southern coast closest to North Africa.
PHILIP WOLMUTH / PANOS PICTURES
S RUBIN / JB PICTURES / NETWORK
Spain's migrant population represents, at least officially, about 1.5 per cent of the population - less than half the average in the European Union. Of this group, the percentage who are of non-European stock (from the Caribbean, Africa or Asia) is only 0.7 per cent. Research on the experience of other European countries suggests that the indigenous population remains relatively tolerant of a racially different, migrant population when this group represents less than seven per cent of the total population. Many countries in Europe have passed this threshold but Spain has a long way to go yet.
At the same time, there are a large number of Spaniards, says Casey: 'who themselves have moved to other countries as emigrants and know what it is like to be at the receiving end of discrimination.' Between 1961 and 1973, when Spain's closed economy lagged behind many of its West European counterparts, the authorities actively encouraged around one million Spaniards to work abroad. By the mid-1970s, there were over 620,000 Spaniards in France, 270,000 in West Germany, 136,000 in Switzerland, 78,000 in Belgium, 40,000 in Britain and 33,000 in Holland. This was far larger than the number of non-European migrants in Spain today.
This still only goes some way to explaining the phenomenon in Spain. Italy, for instance, is also a nation of emigrants. Even today, more people leave than enter the country. And yet the anti-immigration movement is far more advanced there, in the shape of Gianfranco's National Alliance Party and the Milan-based Northern League.
The legacy of General Franco, who ruled Spain for over 40 years, cannot be underestimated, explains Isidoro Barba, a spokesperson for SOS Racismo. Ever since Franco's death, subsequent democratic governments have tried to shake off the country's long fascist past. The upshot is that extreme right-wing movements, which are most prone to hostile attitudes towards a multiracial society, have kept a far lower profile than their European counterparts (see graphic). 'Spain's old fascist guard knew they could achieve nothing through the ballot box,' says Barba, 'so they went underground to wait for a more appropriate moment.'
That time may come sooner than expected, warn human-rights organizations. 'Our investigations suggest that a new generation of extremists could resurface in Spain, boosted by the strengthening of the organized right in Europe. There are at least 40 different neo-Nazi extremist groups in Spain today,' says Esteban Ibarra, President of Youth Against Intolerance, an anti-racist organization that provides legal counselling to victims of racist attacks.
While unable to match the organization and size of similar movements in France and Italy, neo-Nazis are believed to be taking greater control of local skinhead groups. According to Ibarra, they receive guidance from groups abroad, mainly via the Internet. Detected fascist propaganda in Spain has come from sources as diverse as neo-Nazi groups in the US and South Africa's National Afrikaner Party.
In the same way that the Spanish authorities are grappling with how to confront the isolated outbreaks of neo-Nazi violence, they are confused on how to fulfil their roles as European Union (EU) immigration watchdogs, particularly as they have no past experience to fall back on. The EU is not offering much help either. The first EU-Southern Mediterranean Pact, which included North Africa and was signed in Barcelona in December 1996, set an agenda for a free-trade zone but relegated the immigration question to an appendix.
Meanwhile, all the signs point to a growing tide of immigration, albeit illegal, say European sociologists. With North Africa facing an increasing young population and grim economic prospects, African immigration to Southern Europe is forecast to surpass recent immigration waves from Turkey and Eastern Europe.
Every year, especially in the warmest summer months, up to 5,000 illegal migrants, mostly men between the age of 18 and 40, are attempting clandestine and dangerous crossings across the Gibraltar Straits into Spain, according to the Employment Ministry. The cities most affected by this growing number of hopeful migrants have been Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco. People come from as far away as Rwanda, Senegal and Somalia. 'We have become the waiting lounge for Spain and the rest of Europe,' says Rosa Rodriguez, co-ordinator of Spain's United Left party in Ceuta.
What the town fears is that the incoming traffic of migrants will lead to a repetition of the violent clash which took place between 300 migrants and the Spanish police towards the end of 1996. Describing the incident, one of the migrants, Daniel Yakam, a student from Cameroon, says: 'I was kicked in the shins and put in a prison. Some of my mates have still not appeared. There is talk of a few deaths.'
It is not difficult to see how such scenes could be reproduced on the mainland, in the event of a similar pile-up of illegal migrants in a confined area or town. Such a scenario would prove to be a real test of how Spanish society as a whole can deal with an increasingly multiracial society. This is particularly true while Spain continues to have the highest unemployment rate in the EU.
Despite the challenges, Mohammed Derdabi, President of the Barcelona division of Atime, Morocco's immigration association, is optimistic about the future. 'The Spanish authorities seem to be promoting a policy of integration.' The trade unions have also been relatively accepting of the growing number of migrants seeking formal jobs, albeit mostly of a low-paid, low-skilled nature.
Spain's regional diversity may also contribute to a continuing acceptance of migrants in the long-term, argues Casey of SOS Racismo. Although Franco imposed a centralist rule, the regions in Spain - especially the Basque country and Catalonia - are gaining increasing autonomy. Almost a quarter of Spain's inhabitants speak a vernacular language in addition to Castilian, the official language of the state. This percentage is likely to grow as local governments continue to push the learning of their regional languages in the school curriculum.
The single most decisive factor however, rests on a new immigration law which is being discussed in parliament. Atime's Beyuke Abdel Hamid explains that the existing immigration legislation was passed in 1985 when Spain was only beginning to witness the entry of migrants from Africa and the Caribbean.
The biggest change has been the growing need for cheap labour as, despite high unemployment, Spaniards are less and less willing to take on low-paid, unskilled jobs. Several political parties have called for substantial reforms, including issuing more work permits to stabilize the situation of migrants who may have been working in Spain for over a decade. SOS Racismo claims that the government needs to issue 35,000 new working visas, in addition to the 25,000 issued last year. The rules need to be more clearly defined, says Hamid.
The ongoing debate in Parliament about the exact content of the immigration reforms makes Casey more cautious about the final outcome. But he adds: 'If the worst thing that can be said right now about Spain's immigration problem is that the country doesn't have a good immigration policy, instead of other kinds of immigration-related problems, then in many ways the situation could be much worse.'
Spain can create a fair policy, says Mohammed Derdabi: 'I am very optimistic that Spain will come up with a positive model.'
Ali Qassim is a freelance journalist specializing in Spain and Latin America.
1 The Guardian Saturday 20 December 1997.
2 The Economist 2 May 1998.
- SPAIN SOS RACISMO
Calle Magnolio 35 d
28012 Madrid, Spain.
Tel/Fax: +34 91 314 4679.
- SOS RACISMO
c/o Escudellers Blancs 12
08002 Barcelona, Spain.
Tel: +34 93 412 0034.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7