In the latest in our guest blogging series, Graeme, who has lived and worked in Madrid for almost 10 years, and writes regularly about Spanish current affairs and politics in his excellent blog South of Watford, presents further, detailed analysis of the situation regarding racism in Spain:
I was thinking of participating in the debate on racism in Spain anyway, but with Ben’s permission I’ll turn my comments into a longer post. I have been in Madrid for a similar period to Ben, and have witnessed the same transformation of what used to be a very culturally homogeneous city. I laughed when people said to me 10 years ago that I was moving into an area with a lot of foreigners, having lived for years in London it didn’t seem that way to me. The change has been extraordinarily fast in Spain and estimates now put the number of non-Spanish residents at over 4 million; around 10% of the population. The transformation of what used to be a country of emigration into one that that has a high level of immigration is in the end due to economics; both in Spain where people have become significantly wealthier; and in the countries of origin as people seek an escape from poverty or economic crisis.
It doesn’t make sense to call Spain a racist country, but although I am reasonably optimistic that attitudes to immigrants will improve over time I do think there are some serious problems here.
We live in a different age and it is not common to see the sort of "no dogs, no blacksâ€ signs that landlords in the UK are said to have used to advertise their properties for rental back in the 1950’s. Nor is it common in Spain to see the aggressive, violent, expression of racism that occurs still in other European countries. I do feel, however, that there is an extraordinary high level of casual, lower level racism around at the moment. It is like a surly resentment of the presence of immigrants more than anything else, and it manifests itself in attempts to suggest that foreigners are responsible for all crimes committed in the country, or that they receive privileges not available to native Spaniards. I’m not suggesting these opinions are in any way unique to Spain, but you don’t have to scratch very hard at the moment for them to come directly to the surface. When people have expressed these kinds of feelings to me, I have made a quite genuine offer to buy them a (one-way) bus ticket to Murcia so that they can happily spend their days picking fruit and vegetables and enjoy the alleged privileges of such an existence. No takers so far.
Worse than this perhaps is the institutional response in the country, and here is where I think there is a real difference between Spain and those countries that had high levels of immigration 40 or 50 years ago. The worst racist outburst that I have witnessed in Spain was undoubtedly the 21st Century pogrom that occurred in El Ejido, Almeria, a few years back. Immigrants were burnt out of their homes in an appalling couple of days as local residents set out to put them in their "placeâ€. What made it much worse was that the police stood back and watched it all with folded arms, and I don’t think I have seen a single case of any of those responsible being taken to court for any offence; even though they came very close to killing people. This in an area where huge wealth is being generated by putting immigrants to work in the sea of plastic covered cultivation that stretches along the Mediterranean. It’s as if people want to have all the services that immigrants provide, without having to see or deal with those who do the providing. The reality of the country now is not just that much of the fruit and vegetables are picked by immigrants, virtually the only Spanish thing left on most construction sites is the national flag they like to place on the top floor of a new building, and the people who sweep the streets or clean our homes and offices are increasingly non-Spanish. The simple fact is that, just as in other countries, the immigrants are doing jobs that the natives are no longer interested in doing.
The institutional passivity seen in the case of El Ejido also extends into other worrying cases. We had the infamous outbreak of "white monkey diseaseâ€ in the Bernabeu stadium a couple of years ago when England played Spain, and a large section of the crowd thought it amusing to imitate monkeys every time a black player touched the ball. Again the institutional response was depressing as the authorities either made excuses or even tried to blame the victims for provoking the incident. No wonder some Spanish soccer stadiums have now become notorious havens for racists.
Things will get better, but it will be harder for that to happen if the authorities in the country are not interested. Or especially where they act to make things worse. In Madrid the regional government is encouraging the use of state funded private schools as a refuge for middle class Spanish parents from having to let their kiddies learn alongside the offspring of immigrants. The first generation of children of immigrants born in Spain will not be as tolerant of such treatment as their parents might be, but in many cases the improvement in treatment of immigrants comes precisely from them being more assertive and showing that they also expect to share some of the benefits of the wealth they contribute to producing. I read a few months ago that Spain might need 2-3 million more immigrants in the next few years. Those here who are struggling to come to terms with that situation really need to do their thinking quite soon, because reality is fast overtaking them.
Read more by Graeme at his blog, South of Watford.