Migrants help tolerant Spain boom
By Victoria Burnett in Madrid
Published: February 20 2007 02:00 | Last updated: February 20 2007 02:00
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
The spoils of Laurentiu Barldamu's two years in Spain are modest: €1,500 ($2,000, £1,000) in savings and a 10-year-old Ford Escort with dented doors. But the 24-year-old Romanian, who earns €800 a month delivering fish, is optimistic that one day he will upgrade his vehicle and buy a house back home.
For many of the 4m immigrants who have flooded into Spain in the past five years, the country holds the promise of a living that would take months or years to earn in their country of origin.
"I like it here," Mr Barldamu says. "It is a very free society. And I earn a lot more."
Spain's ability to absorb Europe's fastest-rising immigrant population without falling prey to the social tensions that have plagued France's poor suburbs or Britain's inner cities comes down to a combination of economics, demographics and national temperament, say immigration experts.
The Spanish economy has grown every year for the past decade and is expected to grow 3.7 per cent this year, according to European Union estimates. Unemployment is at its lowest level in 27 years, while an explosion in the construction industry has created hundreds of thousands of low-paid jobs.
A recent problem recruiting Romanian workers to pick Spain's strawberry harvest - the world's second largest - has underscored the country's dependency on foreign labour. Farmers are scrambling to fill about 7,000 jobs normally done by skilled Romanian pickers, who failed to arrive because of a technical problem.
About one third of immigrants to Spain come from Latin America, eliminating the language barrier that in many societies proves an impediment to integration. The country's 370,000 or so Romanian immigrants quickly pick up Spanish, which is similar to their mother tongue.
A generally tolerant attitude combined with a long history of emigration has made Spaniards more sympathetic to the needs of immigrants, according to experts. The government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has fostered this receptive environment by promoting the economic and social benefits of immigration in an ageing population.
"If there was ever a permissive, pragmatic citizen, it is the Spaniard," said Miguel Fonda Stefanescu, head of the Federation of Romanian Associations in Spain.
Despite the broadly hospitable climate there are signs of growing concern among Spaniards that their government's relaxed policy will allow the immigrant population to surge beyond manageable levels. The constant stream of desperate African immigrants to the Canary Islands has created alarm and immigration has crept up the political agenda.
Rickard Sandell, sociologist and expert on demographics at the Elcano Institute in Madrid, says it is too early to tell whether Spanish society will bear the strain of mass immigration or where the tipping point lies.
"When immigrants begin to represent a large number, the local society becomes more aware of them and can adopt a more hostile attitude," he says.
The immigrant flood has dramatically changed the complexion of a country struggling with low birth rates and raised questions - especially in regions such as Catalonia where nationalist politics is rife - about the threat immigration represents to cultural identity. According to a study published last week, 18 per cent of babies born in Spain have at least one foreign parent.
Immigrant representatives and sociologists warn that relations between Spain's new immigrants and the local population are in a honeymoon period and could become strained in the event of an economic slowdown.
Spain - population 44.4m - has 4.6m immigrants
The main countries of origin as at January 2006 are:
United Kingdom 283,700*
* The total number of Britons living in Spain including those not registered is estimated to be about 700,000
Source: Spanish National Statistics Institute