Story by Julia Guilardi and Ethan Parets
MADRID–The vibrant, multicolored storefronts of Moroccan cafes, Indian spice bazaars and Latin American hair salons line the sidewalks of Madrid’s Lavapiés neighborhood, the former Jewish quarter of the city that now provides a home to thousands of immigrants searching for a better life in Spain.
Lavapiés, which spans several city blocks in the heart of Madrid, is dominated by a diverse population of immigrants, primarily originating from northern Africa and the Indian subcontinent, which includes Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The community is an example of urban neighborhoods in Spain that have become a settling ground for citizens of non-Spanish origin to put down roots and start businesses.
“Over the last decade, Spain in general has virtually become a country of immigration as opposed to it being a country of emigration,” said a press official from the European Commision, the executive branch of the European Union, who spoke from her Brussels office on the condition that her name not be used.
However, as immigrants from struggling nations continue to travel across waters to Spain and other EU countries in search of work and international protection, the death toll continues to rise. And that has prompted the EU to take swift action.
On April 19, an estimated 650 immigrants drowned in Libyan waters about 110 miles south of the Italian coast. The boat capsized when the passengers rushed to one side trying to flag down a merchant ship. As the largest and southernmost member states of continental Europe, Italy and Greece are subject to heavy inflow of migrants traveling to the EU across the Mediterranean Sea, many from countries in northern Africa.
As a result, the European Commission has proposed a new immigration policy that, if implemented by the EU member states, will distribute immigrants populating those two countries across the other 26 member states, with Spain set to receive about 10 percent – or an estimated 2,570 from Italy and 1,715 from Greece.
The new policy, called for by Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, will also issue quota recommendations regarding the number of immigrants, asylum claimants and refugees that member states should accept each year.
For Spain, this could lead to a heavy influx of immigrants, creating more communities such as Lavapiés, with concentrated immigrant populations. It would also mean stricter regulations on the country’s historically low acceptance rates of asylum applications.
An asylum-seeker is a person who claims to be a refugee but is in the process of having that claim evaluated. Francisco Javier Moreno Fuentes, a research fellow at the Spanish National Research Council, has observed that Spain compares poorly to other EU member states in terms of accepting those who request asylum.
Currently, there are 6,397 asylum-seekers residing in Spain, according to UNHCR statistics. For comparison, Italy has 22,200 asylum-seekers, and Greece, whose population is four times smaller than Spain’s, has 43,883 asylum-seekers.
As part of the new immigration policy issued in May by the European Union, 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean nationals who arrived after April 15 in Greece and Italy will be distributed across other EU member states over the next two years, according to the European Commission.
Simultaneously, the EU is recommending that each member state resettle a separate percentage of 20,000 non-EU citizens already living in Europe who have been identified by UNHCR as in need of international protection. Data released by the European Commission estimates that Spain could receive approximately 8 percent of this population, which would be about 1,550 additional immigrants.
What does this mean for Spain? That largely depends on whether or not the EU follows through with these policies. Although the organization has released documentation detailing its new agenda for migration and spoken publicly about these resolutions, the majority of the proposals – including the country-by-country quotas – are only recommendations to the member states.
EU member states will meet three separate times to discuss the agenda, the first of which is a council of Ministers of the Interior on June 15 and 16.
As an incentive for adopting the recommendations, the EU is offering financial support to member states who choose to participate in the relocation and resettlement initiatives. If adopted, member states will receive $6,700 for each person relocated to their territories from Greece and Italy, and member states that reach the suggested resettlement quota will be entitled to a percentage of more than $55 million in financial support that the EU will make available in 2015 and 2016.
According to Moreno, several officials from member states of the EU have already voiced their concerns about the new policies.
“I don’t think [the EU Commission officials] are really going to do what it takes to solve the problem,” said Moreno.
However, if the new proposals are successfully implemented, immigrants relocated to Spain will likely build a life within communities like the Lavapiés neighborhood.
Uttam Salra, an immigrant from Bangladesh, originally settled in Barcelona in 2007 but chose to move to Madrid three years later.
“There were a lot of problems to find a job there [in Bangladesh], and there were a lot of expenses and little salary,” said Salra, 34.
After working on and off for six months at a time in Barcelona, Salra decided to move to Madrid where he would find more immigrants from Bangladesh in Lavapiés. He now works as a waiter at the Calcutta Restaurante Indio on Calle de Lavapiés.
“It wasn’t difficult to get the papers because I had a contract in Barcelona from my country,” Salra explained.
All together, he said that his life has changed for the better upon moving to Spain, but unfortunately, not every immigrant is met with as much ease and success as Salra.
The story is different with every immigrant in this neighborhood. The streets of Lavapiés, embedded into the steep hills of central Madrid, are constantly buzzing with life: vendors hawking lighters and toys, waiters inviting pedestrians to take a seat and try some curried chicken and families toting groceries from their favorite halal food market. The people here live and work within this self-contained neighborhood.
But in this bustling area, many of the workers are not willing to say even a word about their immigration status, and when they do, it’s only to say that the boss is not around. Questions about where they are from, what they are doing here, what life is like inside Lavapiés, prompt silence and staring at the ground.
On a recent sunny work day, though, a few were willing to share their story, regardless of what they have been through and what might be at stake.
Shiv Raj Sigdel, a 43-year-old former Nepalese school teacher, moved to Spain in 2007. He flew from Nepal to Austria, and due to EU guidelines, had to apply for his visa in the first country he stepped foot in, which was Austria.
“Getting the visa is the hardest part,” said Sigdel. “In Germany and Austria, it’s harder to get papers.” In order to obtain an employment visa for EU member states such as Germany, Austria and Spain, the applicant must present a working contract with his or her future employer.
Sigdel also has a wife and two children that he was not able to bring to Madrid from Nepal until last year, due to both monetary and legal reasons.
“My children would say to me, ‘Why are you out there and we are here?’” Sigdel said.
Since he’s been in Madrid, Sigdel has held several short-term jobs. He started working in the kitchen of a restaurant, then got a job as a gardener, before landing where he is now: a delivery driver for Doner Kebab Kobam. He’s still looking for more stable work.
Immigrants in Spain, such as Sigdel and Salra, contributed largely to the country’s economic prosperity before the 2007 crisis. But then a severe loss of jobs across Spain – which brought the nation’s unemployment rate to 26 percent in 2014 – made it significantly more difficult for immigrants to find stable employment.
Celia Fernandez, co-founder of Asociación de Acogida a Inmigrantes y Marginados, said that securing a job is the most important part of the immigration process, but far fewer jobs are available now.
“The crisis made it worse. Five years ago they arrived and found jobs but now, they can’t,” said Fernandez, whose non-profit organization focuses on providing necessities such as food, Spanish language classes and employment assistance to struggling immigrants.
The migrants who are helped by organizations such as AAIM go directly into Spain’s workforce and help offset the country’s aging population, an issue that has been slowly damaging the economy for several years now.
“More and more people retire, but at the same time, there’s not a big enough active workforce existing in Europe to replace them,” said the EU Commission press official. “It’s just mathematical evidence, if you will, that we will need skilled workers from abroad to fill these gaps.”
Despite the positive impact immigrants have on Spain’s slowly recovering economy, Moreno noted that there is evidence of Spanish citizens becoming increasingly suspicious of third-country nationals, as they continue to blame non-Spaniards for taking jobs.
“We are delusional in Europe,” said Moreno. “We need migrants.”
Still, with communities such as Lavapiés providing a welcoming community for those outside of Spanish origin, Madrid continues to be one of the most receptive cities to immigration, allowing workers to establish a life for themselves and their families.
“I want to believe that the situation will get better for the future,” said Fernandez, “but it’s so difficult to say.”