Immigration to Spain has increased rapidly over the last few years, one of the most obvious reasons being its proximity to North-Africa. One indicator of this increase is the number of petitions entered for a residence permit. The total of these petitions in 1999 reached about 95,000, doubling that of 1998 By the end of 2000 this number will have doubled again, or even tripled. However, the proportion of foreign people living in Spain is barely 2%, not much at all compared with 6% in France and 9% in Germany.
Immigration is not going away, and many people think it shouldn’t. Apart from the evident fruits that multiculturalism and cultural exchange bear, apart from the just as obvious call for solidarity with people leaving their countries in search of a better life, and apart from the fact that immigration to Europe has become inevitable, there are some pragmatic reasons to welcome non-EU citizens within our borders. Europe’s demographic situation is one of them.
Our population is growing slowly and ageing rapidly. Several studies indicate that if this pattern does not change, within five years time we will have difficulty providing the elderly with their well-deserved (and just as keenly-anticipated) pensions. The active population working to pay for those pensions will be unable to keep up with the ever growing group of retired people unless immigration counters this demographic trend, it is argued.
Spain, in fact, is an ideal example. This country’s population is growing more slowly than ever, with birth rates at an all-time low: 1.07 children per fertile woman. UN statistics indicate that by the year 2050, if nothing is done about this evolution, Spain’s population will have fallen from 40 to 30 million. As immigrants traditionally have a higher birth rate, their presence could counter Spain’s present pressing demographic problems, with the added benefit of bringing other cultures and lifestyles which create new jobs and bring foreign expertise to areas such as tropical medicine, specific kinds of education and cultural services.
Immigration is proving to be the answer to problems faced by the Spanish labour market. Certain sectors, mainly agriculture and the construction industry, are constantly in need of unskilled, cheap labour. Most immigrants to Spain fill jobs that few Spanish citizens are willing to take up, and do so on low wages. Farm owners in Andalusia faced a deficit of 35,000 workers this summer. The horticultural sector in Aragon has similar problems, as does the construction industry in the Canaries.
We are dealing with a serious short-fall in work forces, and an equally serious number of people at the borders, trying to make it into Spain and fill those empty jobs. The central Government seems as reluctant as ever to let them in. Only about 30,000 people a year are legally allowed to immigrate, clearly an insufficient number compared to the enormous need for extra work forces.
The logic of the market dictates that empty jobs will be filled, legally if possible, and definitely illegally if necessary, a situation which opens the door to further illegal labour, mafia racketeering and plain exploitation. Instead, we might start contemplating better integration programmes, we might make it easier for undocumented foreigners to get their situation regularised, we might try and provide them with any specific needs and protection required or desired.
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