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Latin American Migrants Flee Crisis in Spain

MÁLAGA, Spain, Feb 14 2012 (IPS) - “What on earth is happening to Spain?” asks Hernán Bocchio, a 43-year-old Argentine architect with three children who has been unemployed for four years and is considering a job offer from Brazil.

Bocchio has lived in Spain since he was 17. He talks about fellow Argentines who have already left, and others who are packing their bags to go back to their native country because they can barely meet their monthly rent payments.

For the first time in a decade, more migrants are leaving Spain than entering it, because of the serious economic crisis that has this country and the rest of the European Union in its grip.

According to the National Institute of Statistics (INE), a total of 507,740 people – mostly foreigners – left Spain last year, compared to 457,650 arrivals. The INE report says that of those who left, 445,160 were foreigners with legal residence in Spain, mostly from Latin America.

Between 2004 and 2007, some 600,000 people a year came to Spain, but now there is a net outflow of the country’s population as it struggles to survive one of the worst crises in its history.

In recent years, the number of Ecuadorean and Bolivian people living in the southern city of Málaga, for example, has dropped by 30 percent, the Federation of Latin American Associations (FEDESUR) spokesman, Gerardo Valentín, told IPS.

The unemployment rate in Spain currently stands at 21 percent, and immigrants from Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia, many of whom were working in construction or the hotel trade, have been hit particularly hard by joblessness.

Valentín, a Bolivian who has lived in Spain for 24 years, said that migrants are going home because of a combination of “social, political and psychological circumstances,” including “the fear of immigration measures” that might be taken by the new centre-right People’s Party (PP) government.

Many Latin American workers do not want to stay on in Spain, “earning less money and putting up with more hardship,” and they choose to return to their place of origin, taking advantage of the aid programme that the Spanish government has implemented since late 2008.

The Voluntary Return Plan covers nationals of a score of non-EU countries with which Spain has bilateral pension agreements, including 11 Latin American nations.

According to the plan, legally resident unemployed immigrants who want to go back home have the option of receiving in advance all the unemployment benefits to which they would be entitled in Spain, and their social security contributions made in Spain can be transferred to the system in their country of origin for the purposes of calculating their future pensions.

One-third of migrants living in Spain are from Latin America, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reports. Most Latin Americans registered as resident in Spain are from Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Brazil, according to INE figures for 2011.

Víctor Saez, a representative of the Chilean migrants’ association in Spain (ACHES), described for IPS the difficulties facing those who go back to their country of origin.

“Chile has no policies for the reintegration of returnees; it’s a case of every one for themselves, there is nothing to make things easier at all,” and in addition there is the frustration felt by every migrant who has to go back, he said.

“People who return home do so with a huge emotional burden because their plans for a better life have failed,” said Sáez, who added that Chileans are also travelling from Spain to Norway, the UK, Switzerland or Sweden, hoping for a second chance.

Tahí Abrego, the head of Realidades, a Bolivian NGO working for social rights, told IPS “it’s hard to go back, and even more so when you feel you haven’t achieved your goals.”

But quite a few migrants are staying put in Spain and hanging on, hoping for a change in a situation that looks unlikely to improve, according to forecasts of recession by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Spain’s central bank.

“I prefer to be badly off in Spain than badly off in Argentina,” said Bocchio, who thinks he will turn down the Brazilian job offer and “wait out the storm,” in the hope of a more promising future.

For her part, Patricia Rusmigo, head of the Uruguay-Málaga Social and Cultural Association (ACUMA), told IPS that “large numbers of our fellow Uruguayans have returned to our country because the situation there is not as dire as it was, and there are more employment opportunities now.”

Rusmigo, who has lived in Spain with her three children for 11 years, acknowledged how hard it is to pack one’s bags and start all over again, and said many Uruguayans are still holding out and looking for new jobs in Spain, so as not to have to go back to Uruguay.

There is no easy solution. Levels of inequality and violence in Latin America tend to be high, so many people are trying to stay on in Spain, other migrants told IPS.

“I would have to find myself in a very critical situation indeed to contemplate going back to Uruguay,” said Rusmigo, who works in an administrative job.

Joaquín Arango, head of the Centre for the Study of Migration and Citizenship (CEMC) at the Ortega y Gasset University Institute, said that “there is a certain amount of exaggeration (in discussions of migrants leaving the country) because the novelty is rather fascinating.”

He told IPS that “while it seems to be true that more migrants are leaving Spain than before, so far the numbers involved are modest, and given the enormity of the crisis, the change in direction (of the net flow of migrants) has been fairly moderate.”

In Arango’s view, although there is now a net outflow of people from Spain, the difference between the numbers of those who leave and those who arrive is small, both in good economic times and at present.

The high rate of unemployment and the lack of prospects is also forcing a good number of Spanish nationals, mostly young and well-qualified, to seek their fortunes abroad.

María Ángeles Sánchez, a 39-year-old Spanish engineer who lost her job after a decade of continuous employment, told IPS that she will have to leave the country. She is polishing her English language skills in order to apply for jobs in Australia, Eastern Europe or the United Arab Emirates.

The Spanish professionals most likely to emigrate are engineers, architects, doctors and other health personnel, and one of their preferred destinations is Latin America, which has so far been fairly untouched by the crisis in the world’s rich countries.

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