Eyewitness: Spain's tough line on economic migrants

March 9, 2001

Immigration has become a significant issue in Spain. Tighter laws brought in by the conservative central government have sparked protests, mainly from immigrants, whose chances of a resident's permit are diminishing.

Several hundred people have shut themselves in buildings on Almer!a University's campus. Churches in Barcelona and small towns in the south have been occupied by hunger-striking immigrants from Pakistan, Ecuador and Morocco.

Marta Ferrusola, wife of Catalan president Jordi Pujol, stoked the fires of conflict last month with a string of observations on the effects of "an avalanche of immigrants" on Catalonia.

Immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon in Spain, but numbers are growing fast and the total of clandestines -people without residents' or work permits -is estimated at at least 300,000, one of the highest in Europe.

Ricard Zapata, lecturer in politics at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabre University, believes the new law is anti-constitutional as it denies these people basic human rights such as health care. It also allows for fast-track deportations within three days of arrest. "Not only is it anti-constitutional but it will be hard to put into practice, so it is out of sync with the very situation it is trying to regulate," he said.

Dr Zapata doubts that the government will use the deportation option due to the high cost of airfares and the likely political fall-out. "To do this, they would have to set up a police state to hunt down immigrants. People would find that unacceptable," he said.

Under the new law, immigrants have to provide proof of five years' residence in Spain and a job offer to be awarded legal status.

Mar!a Luisa Trinidad, deputy dean of law at Almer!a University, said: "The more restrictive the law is, the more desperately people try to come in illegally."

Dr Zapata said the real problem was the lack of a strategy for smooth integration once people had arrived. "Regional governments and town councils should be in charge of this, but they don't have the resources or a clear idea of what to do," he said.

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