22.3.2013 | Von:
Beatriz Gónzalez-Martín


Arbeitslose stehen Schlange vor einem Arbeitsamt in Alcala de Henares, bei Madrid, Spanien, am 04.06.2012.June 2012: Unemployed people queueing in front of a job centre in Madrid. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Immigration in Times of Economic Boom

Between 1996 and 2007 Spain experienced one of the longest phases of economic growth in its most recent history. The characteristic that dominated this phase of prosperity was the strong surge in the number of new jobs. In the third quarter of the year 2007, Spain reached a historical high point with 20.5 million employees (EPA [1] 2012).

The growing job market, full of opportunity, was one of the main pull factors for immigrants. The share of the foreign population in relation to Spain’s total population that had been only 1.6% in 1998, grew by 2007 to more than 10%. The year 2007 had the highest influx of immigrants, totaling 920,534. 40.6% of these immigrants came from a European country, the majority (37,5%) from EU member states.

Immigration from Europe

Differentiation must be made between the various immigrant groups when referring to the immigration from Europe. For one, there is the traditional immigration from the EU-15, in particular from Germany, the United Kingdom and France that had been continuously growing until 2007.

Secondly, there is the immigration from states that had acceded into the EU in 2004. However, only a few immigrants from these countries went to Spain. Only Poland stands out from the list, sending more than 15,000 immigrants in 2007. However, the out-migration from Poland to Spain was distinctly lower than into other European countries (cf. Breford’s contributions).

In addition, since the beginning of this period of economic growth (1996-2007), Bulgaria and Romania have played an increasingly important role in immigration to Spain. Both countries have profited from bilateral immigration agreements made in 2004 (with Bulgaria) and 2002 (with Romania), as well as from their EU accession in 2007. Since 2004, Romanians have been the largest immigrant group in Spain. Romanian immigration reached its peak in 2007, numbering 174,000 new immigrants.

Last but not least to be mentioned are the immigrants from European countries that do not belong to the EU. The immigration from these countries has remained, however, at a low level.

Non-European Immigration

Fig. 1: Development of immigration by most important areas of originFig. 1: Development of immigration by most important areas of origin Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)
Outside of Europe, important countries of origin of immigrants include the Latin American countries of Ecuador, Columbia, Argentina and Bolivia. However, their share of immigration to Spain has decreased since 2004, while the share of European immigrants has grown. The chief sending state of migrants from Africa has been Morocco, which sent more than 70,000 people to Spain in 2007 alone. With regard to Asia and Oceania, only the immigration from China and Pakistan has shown to be significant; it has remained uninfluenced by the current crisis.

The large influx of the characteristically mostly young and generally not very qualified or experienced migrants into the Spanish labor market enabled the expansion of employment in sectors such as agriculture, the hotel business, household services, and above all construction, where there had been a noticeable lack of native workers and where a large share of migrants found employment.

The Economic Crisis and its Consequences

Since 2006 there has been a dramatic collapse in the real estate market sector, which had been one of the main drivers of the growth in Spain’s economy. The onset of the global economic crisis in 2007 with the burst of the real estate bubble in the USA had a negative effect on Spain’s economic performance. In the second quarter of 2008 Spain’s economy fell into recession. There was a hint at an improvement of the situation in 2010, but in the last quarter of 2011, Spain fell back into a recession that has continued until today.

One of the most difficult consequences of the economic crisis is the massive retrenchment of jobs in recent years. Unemployment is one of the fundamental problems that influence the recovery of Spain’s economy. The climbing unemployment rate is leading to an ever-increasing burden on the social security system because, on the one hand, both the number of contributors and hence, the tax yields are sinking, while on the other hand, the number of recipients of social welfare benefits is increasing.

The unemployment numbers take on historical dimensions. In the third quarter of 2012 there were more than 5,778,000 unemployed, of which 1,200,000 were foreign citizens. Unemployment is particularly serious in the youth population. 44% of the unemployed Spanish are between 16 and 34 years old and in the same age group among the unemployed foreigners the rate is above 46%.

Immigrants are affected by the crisis to a greater degree than is the native population. In the third quarter of 2012, the unemployment rate of the foreign population was 34.8%, whereas in the Spanish population it was at a lower 23.3%. Particularly affected are the citizens of third countries, whose unemployment rate (34.6%) was above that of EU citizens (28.9%).

Decreasing Immigration

Employment conditions in Spain have affected migration patterns. The effect is that the immigration is decreasing and many migrants that already live in Spain are deciding either to immigrate again to another country or to return to their home countries. Between 2007 and 2011, more than 1.5 million people left the country, of which 1.3 million were foreigners. The number of incoming migrants has dropped by half while out-migration has been continuously increasing (increase by 65% between 2007 and 2011). This has led to the migration balance currently being in the negative. In 2011, there were 50,000 more people who left the country than those who immigrated into the country in the same time frame. The most recent numbers published in September 2012 show that this number has more than doubled, amounting to 138,000. Nevertheless, immigration to Spain has continued, albeit at a rather low rate. In 2008 there were still 690,000 immigrants to Spain, though this number has dropped down to the current annual average of 400,000. This indicates that the migration streams are adjusting to the new situation in Spain.

Changes in Migration Policy

The effects of the crisis also influence migration policies. The socialist government issued an ordinance in 2008 entitled “Plan for a Voluntary Return” (Plan para el retorno voluntario), which is intended to encourage immigrants to voluntarily return home. The ordinance allows migrants to continue receiving unemployment benefits if they return to their home countries and if they promise to not return to Spain for three subsequent years.

After the change in power in 2012, the Spanish People’s Party (Partido Popular – PP) made two changes to their aliens act (Ley de Extranjería). The first change made the requirements for registration in the resident registry more difficult. Registration, however, is an essential requirement for the assignment of a health insurance card. Having disguised it as an austerity measure, the People’s Party limited the access of irregular immigrants to public health services.

The second legal change deprived irregular migrants of the possibility to obtain a legal residence status on the basis of their social embeddedness (arraigo social). [2]

Studies show that one of the effects of the economic recession is the change in behavior of the Spanish towards the immigrant population and that immigrants are confronted with growing resentment, particularly in the workforce. The social conflicts that have risen due to the economic situation have led neither to an open public discourse on immigration nor to a noticeable increase in anti-foreigner movements. But the aforementioned restrictive measures appear to have been developed in order to calm the native population and to make it clear to them that measures were being taken to avert a possible negative economic impact because of jobless immigrants.

Emigration of Spanish Citizens

Fig. 2: Development of emigration of Spanish nationalsFig. 2: Development of emigration of Spanish nationals Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)
The media especially highlights the changes concerning the immigration balance and stresses in particular the renewed tendency of Spaniard migration. On the other hand, there are only a few reports about immigrants and immigration. The emigration of Spanish workers, which grew by 88% between 2007 and 2011, is a matter of public debate, although the number of emigrants has, until now, not been alarming. However, since 2008 the migration balance of Spanish citizens has been in the negative, meaning that every year the number of Spaniards leaving the country is higher than the number of Spanish citizens returning to Spain from abroad. In 2011, 52,000 Spaniards emigrated (INE, 2012) in comparison to the 38,400 that returned from abroad to their home country. This has resulted in a negative migration balance of more than 13,000 people (EVR, 2012). The migration losses increased in the time from January to September, 2012 to a negative balance of more than 25,000 people.

Many young, well-trained Spaniards with foreign language knowledge and international experience are beginning to see emigration as a possibility to find work. At the same time they are looking at Spain as a country which is void of job opportunities and are certain that they will find work abroad which corresponds to their qualifications.

The majority of Spaniards that emigrated in 2011 decided to settle in another EU country. Of the 22,282 total, 7,000 went to England and 4,000 to Germany. The USA became the second most important country of destination for Spanish emigrants, receiving 4,410 people in 2011. The current stream of Spanish emigration, made up of young people, also shows up in the statistics. The majority of emigrants are between 25 and 44 years of age. In Germany, the USA and Great Britain emigrants in this age bracket make up 59%, 57%, and more than 64% of the total, respectively.

The discussion about the consequences of the growing emigration circles primarily around the fact that a large number of well qualified workers are leaving the country. Should the economic crisis persist, so does the concern that brain drain could have a lasting effect in weakening Spain’s economic performance.

Translation into English: Jocelyn Storm


Encuesta de Población Activa (EPA) [Study on the Working Population], published by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE) [National Institute for Statistics]
Up to now irregular migrants were able to legalize their status if they could prove that they had lived longer than three years in Spain, that they had not committed a crime in their home country, that they had family members in Spain and that they had either a work contract or an offer of at least a year of employment. Although the law foresaw the possibility of regularization only in exceptional cases, there were in fact large numbers of immigrants that took advantage of it.
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