Nearly every day, off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, wealthy windsurfers unfold their multicolored sails and plunge into the waters. As often as the wind invites acrobatic risk taking on the crest of the waves, it turns the Straits into a graveyard for hundreds of Moroccan migrants. More than 200 drowned from January to October 1992 alone. Their journeys occur under conditions of extraordinary risk and with minimal chances of success. Many are captured the moment they set foot on Spanish soil, or even while still at sea. During the first ten months of 1992, 2,000 undocumented immigrants were detained on the coasts of Cadiz. In 1991, 2,500 were captured in Andalusia alone. [1] This risk they evidently prefer to the desperate poverty that motivated their flight.

The worst incident occurred in January 1992, when 20 “wetbacks” traveling in the hold of an old fishing boat, along with some 250 others, died from asphyxiation. In August 1992, 195 persons were detained after sailing for three days without water or food in a small boat from Morocco. They had each paid between $2,000 and $5,000 to cross, some for the second time, and were arrested before reaching Spanish soil. “Everybody over there is talking about Spain,” one explained the next day. “Everybody says that the situation is very good.” Others put it more crudely: “Death is better than misery.” [2]

Most of these migrants are Moroccans, but by no means all. Of the 2,000 “illegals” captured in Cadiz in 1992, 15 percent were from sub-Saharan Africa. An agreement signed by Madrid and Rabat in February 1992 holds that any “illegal” reaching Spain will be presumed to have arrived from Morocco and will be repatriated by Moroccan authorities. The Plaza de Toros in Tangiers now serves as an improvised prison camp, with an African population of between 1,000 and 1,500 in December 1992. There is a Tangiers street named after them — La Calle de los Negros — and many cheap and once crowded motels, like the Pension Mauritania. The street, its cafes and the motels have now been emptied by the Moroccan police, while Moroccan helicopters survey the beaches. [3]

Migration and “Fortress Europe”

Over the last four years, thousands of North Africans have tried to enter Spain illegally by crossing the Gibraltar Straits in small skiffs called “pateras.” A veritable mafia of intermediaries has grown up around this trade, finding larger profits in this human contraband than in drug trafficking. [4] Spanish fishermen collaborate by stuffing immigrants in the holds of their boats. In Ceuta alone, an estimated 90 percent of the fishing fleet is involved in these illegal activities. [5] This traffic in human merchandise was possible only with the tolerance of the Moroccan authorities. Eight percent of the Moroccan population live outside the country, most of them — nearly a million in the mid-1980s — in the European Community, and sent back some $2 billion in remittances to their families in 1990. This fact — and political corruption — explains Morocco’s permissive attitude, which Rabat suspended in October under the terms of the agreement signed with Madrid the previous February. [6]

Rightist political propaganda in Europe usually speaks of this immigration as if it is a new phenomenon. Spain itself provides a powerful example of waves of persons leaving and entering the country. Spanish modern cities have been populated primarily through a migratory process, but some in Spain now want to cover up their own immigrant past. Forced out by famines, “subsistence crises,” or wars, Spaniards emigrated to the Americas, Spain’s African colonies and other European countries. Few can claim that none of their forebears had left their ancestral homes over the last 200 years. Many Spaniards have a fresh memory of having been “the other,” of having been a “guest worker.” One way to liberate oneself of this burden is to recast migration as a fresh problem which is “starting now and therefore has nothing to do with me.”

In the last third of this century, there has been a crucial change with respect to Europe’s migratory corridors, affecting Spain in particular. European border controls were loosened following the creation of the EC in 1957, when the Treaty of Rome established the principle of free movement of “citizens” between member countries. France, Germany and other European nations needed manual laborers to rebuild their battered economies. This generated a stream of foreign immigration, mostly from ex-colonies in the Third World but also from the underdeveloped regions of Europe. At the end of the 1950s, three fourths of Europe’s immigrant workers were themselves Europeans — Italians and Spaniards — not counting Algerians who were then considered “French.” Twenty years later, three fourths were coming from outside the EC.

During the economic expansion of the 1960s, thousands of Spaniards and Italians satisfied northern industrial demand for manual labor, especially in Germany and France. From 1963 to 1973, the Spanish Institute of Emigration provided assistance to a million Spanish emigrants leaving for countries on the continent. The number of Spanish migrants to the rest of Europe from 1955 to 1975 (2,659,000) surpassed that of the 1906-1955 period (2,161,500). In the following decade, as the consolidation of European unity made it the only market with freedom of movement, migration from the South increased, but this coincided with the onset of economic crisis after 1973, which reduced employment levels in Europe. About 800,000 Spaniards returned to their homeland between 1969 and 1978. [7] But even today four out of every 100 Spaniards continue to reside abroad. [8]

Between 1973 and 1985 massive “legal” recruitment of manual labor from outside Europe ended, leaving family reunification as the key mechanism for entry to Europe. From the start of the 1973 oil crisis, the rhythm of growth slowed. Low-skilled workers were needed less as technology changed and services assumed predominance over manufacturing. Restrictions became more explicit against new immigrants from the underdeveloped world, including those who came on the grounds of family reunification, or who sought political asylum.

Since 1985, there has been an increase in the “illegality” of foreign labor. This condition is not transitory, but a structural facet of the 1980s and 1990s, directly associated with the development of an “underground economy.” [9] These massive movements have taken place in the framework of the globalization of the world economy. This period is characterized by legislation facilitating the free movement of Europeans, while strictly controlling entry into EC countries. In June 1985, five EC countries signed the Accord of Schengen with the objective of abolishing all border controls between themselves after 1990. [10] The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 suspended this decision temporarily. Nine EC signatories to Schengen (all except Great Britain, Denmark and Ireland) instituted the free movement of persons and goods between their countries beginning in January 1993, further clarifying the situation as one of “Europeans” versus everyone else. Governments continue to issue residence permits and refugee status according to their own criteria, but such persons cannot count on moving throughout Europe with the same facility as citizens can.

Immigration from poor countries began to be seen as a “security” problem by the Schengen nine. The so-called TREVI (Terrorism, Radicalism, Extremism and Violence) group insisted repeatedly on the need for Spain and Italy to reinforce controls along their Mediterranean borders. [11] This new “conflict hypothesis” has engendered specific strategies, incorporated in the Treaty of Maastricht: the movement of citizens from Third World countries is placed on equal footing with controls on drug trafficking, terrorism and prostitution. [12]

Gatekeeper Spain

Spain’s Socialist government has accepted the proposition that Spain should serve as Europe’s frontier post and impose restrictive EC rules on immigration. Spanish policy has evolved along three lines: improved police controls at the country’s entry points; development aid to the countries of the South in an attempt to stem the exodus; and better integration of Spain’s resident immigrants. In practice, it is the first facet that has been most thoroughly and effectively implemented.

Until 1985, Spain did not require work or residence permits for Latin Americans or for people from Spain’s other former colonies. Since Spain’s admission to the EC, however, EC authorities have pressed Madrid to discontinue its preferential treatment of such non-European countries. Spain’s 1985 law on the Rights and Freedoms of Aliens, which distinguishes these rights and liberties from those of nationals, is a concrete manifestation of this spirit. [13] The law differentiates the legal situation of foreigners who have adjusted and adapted themselves from that of “illegals,” making it easier for the police to detain and expel the latter. A July 1992 regulation stipulates that anyone from Latin America or former Spanish colonies who can prove at least two years of continual residence in the country — whether regular or irregular — can get a “Class C” residence and work permit, good for five years; other foreigners would need to demonstrate four years of permanent residency to obtain it. This discrimination prompted demonstrations and protests by Moroccan immigrants.

Over the last decade, Spain has ceased serving as a way station for Moroccans and Latin Americans passing through to other European countries and became instead their destination. The largest increase of persons staying illegally between 1985 and 1991 took place among Africans, mainly Moroccans. For this reason, entry restrictions were stepped up severely at the Mediterranean borders. In 1990, Spain decreed that Moroccans for the first time had to obtain visas to enter the country. In May 1991, a “come into the light” (sal a la luz) campaign of legalizing foreigners began, aimed at resolving the issue of residence and work permits. [14] The January 1991 Law of Spanish Citizenship made citizenship more difficult to acquire, requiring ten years of continuous residency (two years for those born in Latin America or former Spanish colonies).

The senior official in charge of migration at the Spanish Ministry of Labor, Raimundo Aragon, admitted recently that “the migratory tide is going to be one of the greatest challenges that we will have to confront.” [15] Several non-governmental organizations estimate that there are still some 300,000 illegal residents in Spain. Since early 1992, authorities have said they hope to introduce a policy of entry “quotas” for foreigners, peaking at 20,000 persons annually in 1993, primarily for domestic service and temporary agricultural labor. [16]

Asylum and Refuge

In addition to the flow of migrants, Europe is dealing with increasing numbers of refugees. In 1972, some 13,000 persons sought political asylum in Europe; in 1985, the figure was over 168,000. At present, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 17 million persons worldwide are seeking asylum, a fair portion of them into the EC. (The war in the Balkans alone has produced approximately 2 million.) The sudden increase in demand for asylum has placed Europe’s judicial and regulatory systems in crisis. Restrictions in some countries increased pressures on less restrictive countries (such as Germany).

The European governments today see the majority of self-professed political refugees as economic immigrants resorting to the asylum option for lack of any alternative. In many cases, of course, political persecution and economic dispossession are closely linked. Then, too, the concept of “asylum” has altered somewhat since World War II, and this has been used by the EC to reject the applicability, in many cases, of the 1951 Geneva Convention. The Schengen Accord and the restrictive interpretation of the Geneva Convention express the idea of a “Fortress Europe” and assign to the countries with Mediterranean borders the mission of regulating the sluicegates for foreign labor.

Spain ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention in 1979, and since then has received 60,000 asylum requests; 18 percent have been accepted. On average, 40 people apply daily; authorities allege that generally eight of these are legitimate cases. Spain’s asylum and refuge law of March 1984 grants temporary asylum, subject to review, for six months, without granting residence and work permits. The policy has generally been to establish fixed quotas and to “select” from among the candidates, favoring refugees from eastern Europe and rejecting applications by Africans (some African nationalities have a perfect 100 percent rejection rate). [17] In November 1992 the Socialist government introduced an amendment to the 1984 law which grants Ministry of Interior officials discretionary power to authorize an asylum application entry within four days. [18]

Labor Supply and Demand

These dissuasive, restrictive and expulsionary national and EC policies reflect economic conditions in both sending and receiving countries. Most EC countries give priority to controlling inflation and improving the competitiveness of their productive sectors on foreign markets. A key to accomplishing this is a labor market with low and contained wages. The high and stable unemployment rate is a useful mechanism in keeping wages low. To this end, it is convenient to be able to count on controlled immigration from poor countries whose workers are dazzled even by the below-minimum wages. Since living standards in southern Europe have almost risen to the level of other EC countries, this means mainly African and Middle Easterners. These immigrants do not generate social costs: They are not protected by unemployment benefits, nor do they enjoy the rights of citizens such as the right to join trade unions. They are a segment of the labor market that is easy to discipline: they know that the threat of expulsion is always hanging over their heads. In the case of Spanish agriculture, for example, the “tolerance” of temporary illegal immigration at times of high demand for laborers — during harvest seasons, for example — constitutes a subsidy which is probably indispensable for the survival of many enterprises. The provisional character of migrant laborers maintains their situation of relative inferiority and constitutes the “comparative advantage&rduqo; of the foreign worker.

On the supply side, the EC labor market is strongly influenced by Europe’s demographic evolution: a growing number of elderly inhabitants who do not perform any productive activities, and a shrinking “active population” base. With the exception of Ireland, the EC countries are reproducing at lower than the replacement rate. In the year 2000, for every 100 persons of working age there will be 40 older than 60. To the South, the situation is the inverse. In the year 2000, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt will have more than 180 million people, 75 percent of whom will be under the age of 25. [19] Spain is located exactly in the socket of the eye of the Mediterranean, the geographic region with perhaps the widest demographic gap on the planet — a 4-to-1 difference between levels of birth and natural growth of the populations in the north and south, and an inverse ratio of 7 to 1 in terms of per capita income. [20]

On the demand side, despite formal barriers, immigrant laborers have been and continue to be necessary for the economies (especially the “underground economies”) of many of the EC countries, including Spain and Italy. [21] Governments are increasingly respectful of the dictums of the labor market. Concrete demands exist which the economically active native population neither can nor wants to satisfy. There is always a supply of precarious, poorly paid, exhausting and dangerous jobs which find few candidates among citizens with access to unemployment benefits and other assistance.

According to Aragon, of the Ministry of Labor, the existence of unemployment among Spaniards and the need for workers from outside the EC are not contradictory trends: The labor market “has rigid determinants of a professional and a geographic character.” Twenty-five percent of the immigrants receive less than the minimum wage, and another 38 percent find themselves only slightly better off, earning between $750 and $1,000 per month. [22]

This influx of young foreign workers into Europe’s labor market reflects the fact that their new situation, while traumatic in many respects, represents a relative improvement compared to their starting position. It allows many EC countries to avoid a structural hike in the average wage or in social expenditures. Both factors would have a negative impact on EC countries’ competitiveness in the world market and bring about economic and social crises. [23]

Looking Ahead

The EC’s immigration and asylum policy has focused increasingly on rigid border controls, bringing pressure particularly on Spain, Italy and Greece because of their frontier positions. In recent months Europe’s rulers and shapers of public opinion have cultivated feelings of insecurity. They speak ominously about an “avalanche” of refuges, subsequently denounce manifestations of racism and fascism, and then attempt to “comprehend” publicly what caused them, linking them back to the (real or imaginary) stream of refugees and immigrants. Racists and fascists, meanwhile, interpret each concession, each reinforcement of entry controls, as a victory which legitimates their escalation of violent activities.

At a time when demographers are warning about the drop in birth rates in Europe, the graying of the population pyramid, and the resulting need to let in young workers despite current unemployment rates, entry restrictions are being tightened and racist attacks are multiplying across Europe. Today Europe confronts a grave dilemma: how to preserve its traditions of human rights and democracy, especially the concept of humanitarian shelter, for people who seek to improve their lives.

Many Spaniards feel some guilt about Spain’s new restrictive policies toward citizens from countries like Morocco which formerly sheltered Spanish refugees from the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship, and Spanish migrants when Spain was an impoverished country. This collective memory has faded as Spain’s Socialist government chases its European dream.

The recent February 1992 agreement with Morocco may presage a new phase, as Spain deputizes the Moroccan monarch, Hassan II, to guard the Gibraltar sluicegate of “illegal” workers. For its part, Spain granted Rabat a credit worth 463 million ECUs, financial and other aid to Moroccan border forces, and new quotas to regulate “temporary” flows of Moroccan workers in accordance with the needs of Spanish agriculture. A few months later, in December, Spain concluded a similar agreement with Portugal to cover the migrants who first arrive there. For all three countries — Spain, Portugal and Morocco — controlling the flow of people into “Fortress Europe” has become their chief responsibility in return for favorable economic and political relations with the rest of the European Community.

–Translated by Joost Hiltermann


[1] El Pais, September 15, 1992.
[2] El Pais, August 26 and August 27, 1992.
[3] Maurice Lemoin, “Les naufrages de la migration vers la Nord,” Le Monde Diplomatique (December 1992); El Pais, January 4, 1993.
[4] El Pais, August 28, 1992. There have been three stages of immigration from North Africa: the first, between 1960 and 1975, when Spain served more as a place of transit to other European countries; the second, between 1975 and 1986, when the number of consular registrants increased, despite the perception that borders were being progressively tightened; the third, after 1986 and the establishment of the Law of Foreigners, which saw 1,300 registrants in 1988 and 1989, more than 3,000 in 1990, and 7,000 in 1991 (for a total of 13,654 consular registrants since 1986). These figures give us a sense of the scale of legal immigration; illegal immigration is impossible to calculate. Bernabe Lopez Garcia, “Las migraciones magrebies en Espana,” Territorio, Economia y Sociedad 91 (1992), pp. 52-53.
[5] Juana Escabias, “Los Africanos, mas negocio que la pesca,” Interviu, October 22, 1992.
[6] According to the OECD, 960,739 Moroccans resided legally in Europe in the mid-1980s (SOPEMI, Migration: The Demographic Aspects, Paris, 1990). On remittances, see the article by Georges Sabagh in this issue of Middle East Report. On the new Madrid-Rabat agreement, see the Washington Post, January 24, 1992.
[7] Raimundo Aragon Bombin, “Espaiioles en Europa: Herencia del pasado y nuevas tendencias,” Revista de Economia y Sociologia del Trabajo 4-5 (June 1989), p. 106; Teresa Gomez Castano, “Europeos en Espana: Principales caracteristicas de los nuevos flujos de inmigrantes procedentes de la CEE,” ibid., p. 113.
[8] Charo Nogueira, “De la boiria al turbante,” El Pais, March 2, 1992.
[9] The “submerged economy” is a combination of activities, some of them illegal, which are not acknowledged in order to evade taxes, or which do not fulfill certain conditions, such as companies using raw materials of illegal origin, or employing workers with irregular status (like foreigners without papers or underage youths). Some analysts differentiate between the “submerged economy” and the “illegal economy,” the latter being associated with criminal activities — drug trafficking, prostitution, contraband. While the first is “tolerated” even by the authorities, the second is pursued.
[10] Fernando Ballestero Diaz, “La Comunidad Europea y la politica de inmigracion,” Boletin Economico ICE, February 4-10, 1991, p. 293.
[11] TREVI was formed in February 1985 by the foreign ministers of the ten EEC countries at the time to structure anti-terrorism cooperation. Later, the ministers of interior met to organize the collaboration and were called the TREVI Group. The group operates at three levels: the EC ministers of interior, high officials from these ministries, and commissions to address specific agreements and exchange information.
[12] Title VI, “Dispositions Relative to the Cooperation Within the Confines of Justice and Domestic Affairs,” Articles K.1 and K.2.
[13] Miguel Calatayud, Estudios sobre extranjeria (Barcelona: Editorial Bosch, 1987); Vicente Estrada Carrillo, Comentarios a la Ley organica y reglamento de extranjeria (Madrid: Ed. Trivium, 1989), p. 21.
[14] Of the 45,000-50,000 foreigners who then became legal, Moroccans were the majority (about 30,000), followed by Latin Americans (about 3,000-4,000 each from the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Peru).
[15] Santiago Gomez, “Miedo a 10 desconocido,” Mercado, February 24, 1992, p. 24.
[16] El Pais, September 26 and December 21, 1992.
[17] Diego Lopez Garrido, El derecho de asilo (Madrid: Ed. Trotta, 1991), pp. 200-201.
[18] Pedro Garcia Bilbao, “El refugio en precario: Tension en Pradillo,” Mundo Obrero (December 1992), p. 17.
[19] Cited in Estudi: Actituds dels barcelonins envers els immigrants provinents d‘altres cultures (Barcelona: Ajuntament de Barcelona, 1992), p. 15. In 1987, the EC population comprised 6.4 percent of the world total; it is estimated that in the year 2000 it will be barely 4.7 percent of the total.
[20] The demographic situation in Spain is now comparable to that of its European neighbors: a birth rate among the lowest in the world (1.3), a high life expectancy and an aging population, to which is added immigration from poor countries. Joaquin Leguina Herran and Juan Antonio Fernandez Cordon, “Situacion y perspectivas de la poblacion espanola,” Revista de Economia y Sociologia del Trabajo 11, p. 59. Alberto Olano, “Nuevas corrientes y viejos derroteros,” El Pais, September 7, 1992.
[21] For example, M. Capparucci, “Il ruolo economico dei flussi migratori: aspetti micro en effeti macro,” Politiche del lavoro 8 (1989), pp. 152ff; A. Venturini, “An Interpretation of Mediterranean Migration,” Labor 2 (1988); L. L. Lim, “International Labor Movements: A Perspective on Economic Exchanges and Flows,” in M. Kritz, L. L. Lim and H. Zlotnik, eds., International Migration Systems: A Global Approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).
[22] Santiago Gomez, “Miedo a 10 desconocido,” Mercado, February 24, 1992.
[23] Another consideration is the family reunification process, as workers bring their children and parents to join them. These reconstituted families may well continue to have high rates of reproduction for at least another generation. The balance that exists in the labor market could give way to a significant excess in labor supply if, as has happened in France, the present growth rate continues, swelling the numbers of the unemployed.

How to cite this article:

Graciela Malgesini "Spain and the EC," Middle East Report 181 (March/April 1993).

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