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Migration & Refugees

Immigrant Groups Say Spanish Hospitality in Danger

MALAGA, Spain, Mar 4 2013 (IPS) - “We used to be seen as really useful, and now we’re a pain in the neck,” said Roberto Suárez, an Ecuadorian who was complaining about proposed fines or prison sentences that could target Spanish citizens who help undocumented immigrants.

A proposed reform of article 318 of Spain’s penal code states that anyone who intentionally and with a profit motive helps non-European Union nationals without the proper documents to remain in Spain, thus violating the laws governing the entry or stay of foreigners, would be subject to a fine or six months to two years in prison.

Anyone caught helping undocumented immigrants to enter or make their way across Spain would be subject to the same punishment. It would be up to prosecutors to decide whether to drop charges in cases in which the aim was merely to provide humanitarian assistance, by giving someone a ride, clothing, cash or shelter, for instance.

The proposed reform of the criminal code was approved by the Council of Ministers in October 2012, but has not yet been introduced to parliament.

Some 30 national and international organisations have launched the campaign “La hospitalidad no es delito” (Hospitality Is Not a Crime), to protest the possible prosecution of people providing aid to undocumented immigrants.

The groups complain that the reform would “criminalise” solidarity towards immigrants.

“For years we have been one of the cogs in the development of Spain, and today we are harassed and persecuted,” Suárez, the president of ASIMEC, the Association of Ecuadorian Immigrants in the southern city of Malaga, told IPS.

Mamen Castellano, the head of Andalucía Acoge, (Andalusia Welcomes), an NGO in southern Spain that works on behalf of immigrants, told IPS that under the proposed penal code reform, a taxi driver who gives a ride to an undocumented immigrant could be subject to prosecution for “facilitating transit”.

She also said people who rent a room to immigrants, thus “helping them remain in the country,” could face charges as well.

In addition, the groups taking part in the campaign complain that the decision to press charges would be left in the hands of prosecutors. They argue that the proposed bill should instead simply specify that people who were merely providing humanitarian assistance would be legally exempt.

The proposed article is “outrageous” because “it presumes that we are all guilty” unless a prosecutor decides otherwise, lawyer Jaume Durá, the head of the Valencia chapter of the Spanish Commission for Aid to Refugees (CEAR), told IPS.

He said “solidarity should not be demonised.”

“This is disrespectful towards immigrants who one way or another find ourselves in distant lands,” said Suárez, who has lived in Spain for 13 years. “Our only crime has always been, and always will be, to work and try to improve the lot of our families.”

Andalucía Acoge has been trying to get officials in different city governments to reject the “arbitrary” way the proposed penal code reform is written, Castellano said.

Some lawyers say the proposed reform would only be used to crack down on abuses against immigrants by people seeking to make a profit, by charging unfairly high rents, for example. But NGOs are demanding that the article be rewritten because it is overly vague.

The groups point to local governments and civil society organisations that are designing projects like housing assistance aimed at improving the social integration of immigrants, and argue that these efforts could open them up to prosecution if article 318 is reformed.

The article was originally designed to protect victims of human trafficking and other abuses. But its proposed modification could lead to legal action against people merely helping immigrants out of solidarity, the campaign web page warns.

In December 2012, lawyers, judges, university professors, priests and others who came together in the campaign Salvemos la Hospitalidad (Save Hospitality) began to collect signatures to oppose the reform of article 318. So far 54,000 people have signed the petition.

“This is the limit! They’re trying to turn immigrants into scapegoats,” said
Betty Roca, head of the area of migration and co-development in Psychologists without Frontiers, which forms part of the campaign to close down Spain’s Immigrant Detention Centres (CIEs) – “CIEsNo” – which has joined Salvemos la Hospitalidad.

“We can’t criminalise something that has to do with human rights,” Roca told IPS.

Human rights organisations have long criticised the conditions in which undocumented immigrants are held, basically as prisoners, in the CIEs.

Both the government of the right-wing People’s Party and the last administration, of Spain’s PSOE socialist party, “have taken a wrongheaded approach to the issue of immigration, stirring up fear, racism and xenophobia,” Castellano maintained.

Since healthcare reform was implemented in September 2012 by the administration of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, undocumented immigrants only have the right to free public healthcare in cases of emergencies, pregnancies, births, or for pediatric treatment.

In 2009, Salvemos la Hospitalidad criticised article 53 of the reform of Spain’s immigration law pushed through by then socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (2004-2011), which established fines for “promoting the illegal stay in Spain” of undocumented immigrants.

Castellano said it was “unfair” that “during a boom period we thought it was fine for immigrants to come, but now that there aren’t even jobs in construction or agriculture, they are being stripped of more and more rights.”

There are foreign nationals who had their papers in order as long as they had a job, but who lost their visas or permits when they became unemployed.

“We mustn’t forget that if there are undocumented immigrants, it is also because employers themselves took advantage of our ignorance of our rights and deceived us with false hopes that our situation would be regularised, because it was convenient for them to have employees off the payroll and to pay wages under the table,” Suárez said.

Spain is one of the European countries hit hardest by the global financial crisis. The country’s 26 percent unemployment rate is the highest in Europe. Spending has been slashed in areas like health and education, and social discontent has given rise to frequent street protests.

Spanish citizens are even moving abroad in search of opportunities. “Spaniards were also immigrants and were welcomed in many countries, where they strengthened the development of those places,” said Suárez.

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