Connect to share and comment

Immigrants in Spain give up on European dreams

Failing economy drives reverse migration, encouraged by government incentives.

MADRID, Spain ― “Liberty for the people!” shout Moroccans gathered in Plaza Puerta del Sol. The group of about 200 men and women have long hoped for change in their native land, and recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have given them cause to believe. Some are so hopeful, they are contemplating leaving their adopted country.

“The tide has changed,” said Elias, 29, an architect. “We have people who are prepared to create a good government. We won’t allow corruption and repression any longer. We’ll go back and bring about reform.”

Elias is part of a trend of reverse migration percolating among economic migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Spain, with one of the European Union’s most progressive immigration policies, is reputed to be one of Europe’s more welcoming destinations for migrants. Five million foreigners have settled there since 2000, more than in any other EU country, according to the National Statistics Institute in Madrid. So what went wrong?

In short, the economy. But the longer answer has to do with the age-old challenge of making a life in a new, and sometimes unwelcoming, place ― one that today’s migrants can opt out of more easily than their ancestors by choosing to turn around and fly home.

The decision of many Moroccans to return to their country ― and not just in recent weeks ― comes at an advantageous time for Spain, whose struggling economy can hardly sustain its own people. In 2008, hoping to ease the strain, it began offering foreigners on unemployment free passage home, plus 40 percent of their benefits, with the promise of the other 60 percent later. As part of the agreement, they must give up their right to live and work in Spain for three years. So far only 15,000 people have applied for the new plan, according to figures from the Labor Ministry, which had predicted at least 100,000 applicants.

The applications might now accelerate. With newly sparked hope for change in their home country, most Moroccans interviewed in Madrid last month shared the views of Marwan and Abdessamad, 29 and 31, respectively, who moved to Spain 10 years ago. They wanted to train as internet technicians, an opportunity unavailable to them at home. They hold good jobs but plan to go back.

“I’ll probably have trouble adapting to my society after so many years away,” Abdessamad said over coffee in a cafe in Lavapies, a Madrid neighborhood that draws people from all over the world, “but I want to be part of the change.”

Before leaving Morocco, Marwan helped Berbers in the Atlas Mountains, where, he said, the people have a 15th-century mentality. But poor education isn’t only a problem in remote regions; the country has a 40 percent illiteracy rate, according to UNICEF.

“There are steps we can take to achieve a better government,” he said. “The corruption under our king is intolerable, only the elite get a good education and good jobs. We have to make sure the country doesn’t break out in civil war, and leave an opening for the radical Islamists.”

But he and Abdessamad said they are also moved by homesickness. “I have a love for Morocco that I can’t explain,” Abdessamad said. “When I visit, I am filled with optimism for the future.”

For younger Moroccans, the situation is very different. As Maroem, 16, waited for a table at the busy Alhambra Restaurant, he explained that his experience hasn’t been good since he arrived in Spain two years ago.

“I left because I was sick of the king stealing from the people,” he said, “and I wanted to find work to assist my family. That hasn’t happened. There’s going to be change at home and I’ll be happy to go back.”

For foreign-born youth, unemployment is now 41 percent in Spain. Overall unemployment stands at 20 percent, the highest level in the industrialized world, with the figure 10 percent higher among immigrants, according to government data. Competition for jobs is fierce, leading to anger, frustration and racism. Social agencies can barely keep up with the demand for services.

On the outskirts of the city, far from Lavapies, former economist Mari Luz Valdivia set up a small office in a garage in 2004, chiefly to help Bolivians adjust to life in Spain. Starting out as a community center, it soon expanded into a full-fledged service organization, ACOBE (Asociation de Cooperation Bolivia Espana), that serves not only Bolivians but all immigrants. At ACOBE, immigrants can check job listings, receive psychological and legal counseling, find computer training, talk with social workers and learn about the hundreds of free courses offered in the city. It receives support from several Spanish government agencies.

Over the past two years, a large part of ACOBE’s efforts have gone to helping Latin Americans return home. Recently, the number of immigrants choosing home over Spain has more than doubled, with a monthly waiting list longer than 100 people. ACOBE has received almost 800 requests since 2009, and has been able to help 300 immigrants return.

In a new program, funded by the Bolivian government, ACOBE can now assist eligible Bolivians to set up businesses in their own country. They are taught how to write business plans, design web pages, do marketing and manage financially. In 2010, it helped 76 people who now run restaurants and tailoring and jewelry shops. Three people from the organization, based in La Paz, serve as a bridge for returnees, offering support after they arrive.

Sometimes no amount of counseling relieves the disappointments. Adolfo, 31, came to Spain from Bolivia in 2006 to join his wife, hoping to work in construction. They left two children at home with his family, planning to move them once they were settled. At first, Adolfo found jobs fairly regularly. But for the past three years, he hasn’t even been able to find part-time employment. His wife’s earnings as a housekeeper barely cover their household costs.

When his daughter Noeli was born two and half years ago, Adolfo took over her care. Looking older than his age, he walks through a deserted playground with his pretty, jolly child, describing his troubles. But when she pulls on his hand, he smiles and responds to her demands. “She’s smart for her age,” he said. “Maybe because she’s had all my attention.”

He learned a lot, he said, in this country, about respect and discipline in the work place, and he speaks well of the people. But he can’t justify staying. “Most men in my shoes would go home with their heads down because their pockets are empty,” he said. “But I will return with my head held high, my girl’s hand in mine because I am proud of her, and eager to see my older children. I only wish I could have made a good life for them here.”

Unfortunately, Ibrahim, 29, who was born in the Ivory Coast, doesn’t have the same options. He barely escaped from Abidjan 10 years ago when government forces attacked his village and family. He lost several teeth to their weapons. They beat his pregnant girlfriend so brutally that she died. With no choice but to leave, he lived on the road for two years, traveling by truck and foot through Mauretania and Morocco, before crossing to Spain’s Canary Islands.