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Migration and migration policy in Spain | Southern Europe |

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Migration and migration policy in Spain

Dr. Mercedes Fernández

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In the 1970s, Spain began to register increasing inflows of immigrants. The foreign population grew rapidly. Today, 15.4 percent of the country's population are foreign-born.

Puerta del Sol, Madrid. Spain's population is characterized by immigration: 15.4 percent were born abroad. (© picture-alliance, Design Pics)

Spain has traditionally been an emigrant-sending country. However, in the 1970s, it started to turn into a country of immigration with the return of former Spanish emigrants and increasing numbers of foreign citizens arriving and settling in the country. In 1980, there were around 180,000 foreigners in Spain, 65 percent of whom came from Europe and 25 percent from the Americas.

The economic boom that started in the late 1990s and lasted for more than a decade acted as a pull factor: people from lower-income countries came to Spain attracted by job opportunities, mainly in construction, agriculture and hostelry. The global economic downturn that took place between 2007 and 2014 slowed immigration down, but most of those immigrants who were already established in Spain did not leave the country.

Immigration, emigration and migration balance in Spain, 2008–2020 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

As of 1 January 2021, there were about 5.4 million foreign nationals living in Spain, 11.4 percent of the country's population (see table 1). The main areas of origin were the EU-27 (29.2 percent), Africa (22.1 percent) and South America (20.9 percent). The most numerous nationalities were Moroccans (around 870,000 people), Romanians (around 640,000 people) and Colombians (around 290,000 people). If we split the population by sex, 50.1 percent of the foreigners were men and 49.9 percent were women. The immigrant population is younger than the Spanish one. Spanish nationals are on average 44.7 years old whereas foreign citizens are 36.6 years old.

Table 1. Population registered in Spain, by nationality, 1998-2021

SpanishForeignersTotal population% foreigners
2021 (provisional)41,936,8275,407,82247,344,64911.4 %

Source: National Statistics Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, INE): Población (españoles/extranjeros) por País de Nacimiento, sexo y año [Population (Spaniards/Foreigners) by country of birth, sex and year] [Externer Link:].

Many immigrants have acquired the Spanish nationality. On 1 January 2021, there were almost 7.3 million people of foreign origin (so-called foreign born) residing in Spain (15.4 percent of the whole population), according to provisional data. Of these, 2.4 million (33 percent), were Spanish citizens (see table 2). Spanish nationality can be comparatively easily obtained by immigrants from Latin America who can apply for naturalization after two years of residence in Spain, whereas for most immigrants naturalization is possible after ten years of continued legal residence in Spain. In fact, around 60 percent of those who have obtained Spanish nationality since 2009 originated from Latin America.

Table 2. Foreign-born population by citizenship

YearForeign born with Spanish citizenship Foreign born with non Spanish citizenshipTotal born abroad% foreign born with Spanish nationality
2021 (provisional)2,407,6524,885,2417,292,89333%

Source: National Statistics Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, INE): Población (españoles/extranjeros) por País de Nacimiento, sexo y año [Population (Spaniards/Foreigners) by country of birth, sex and year]. Externer Link: (Zugriff: 12.11.2021).

Public bodies governing migration

Migration management in Spain is primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration (Ministerio de Inclusión, Seguridad Social Y Migraciones). It was formed in January 2020 and absorbed the Secretariat of State for Migration (Secretaría de Estado de Migraciones), the Directorate-General for Migration (Dirección General de Migraciones) as well as the Directorate-General for Programs of International Protection and Humanitarian Attention (Dirección General de Programas de Protección Internacional y Atención Humanitaria, GDIHA). While the Directorate-General for Migration is in charge of administrative affairs concerning immigration and the support of Spaniards living abroad, the GDIHA is responsible for all matters regarding humanitarian protection and immigrant integration policies. The Permanent Observatory on Immigration (Observatorio Permanente de la Inmigración) and the Spanish Observatory on Racism and Xenophobia (Observatorio Español del Racismo y la Xenofobia) conduct research and compile data on migration and discrimination in Spain which inform policy-making of the above mentioned public bodies governing migration.

Integration policies in Spain follow a model of multi-level governance that comprehends the central government, the regional authority (autonomous communities), local entities (town and city councils) and civil society (trade unions, employers’ organizations, NGOs and immigrant associations). The coordination of the different levels is backed by three bodies :

Multi-level governance levels of integration policies in Spain

Level of governanceEntity
CentralInter-Ministerial Commission on Aliens
(Comisión Interministerial de Extranjería)
RegionalSectoral Conference on Immigration
(Conferencia Sectorial de Inmigración)
LocalForum for the Social Integration of Immigrants
(Foro para la Integración Social de los Inmigrantes)

Political developments

The most relevant political developments regarding immigrant integration are:

  • Strategic Plans for Citizenship and Integration (Planes Estratégicos de Ciudadanía e Integración, PECI) which aimed at fostering integration of immigrants into society, promoting their access to health, work, education, housing and social services in conditions identical to those of Spaniards. The first one covered the period 2007-2010 and the second one covered the period 2011-2014. The measures proposed by the second plan could not be implemented due to the economic downturn suffered by Spain during those years.

  • The National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2013-2016 (Plan Nacional de Acción para la Inclusión Social, PNAIN), which proposed a series of specific measures that affect the migrant population, especially in the area of equal treatment.

  • Finally, specific measures to protect and improve the rights of immigrant workers are found in the Strategic Plan of the Labor and Social Security Inspectorate (Plan Estratégico de la Inspección de Trabajo y Seguridad Social) for the period 2018-2020 and the Master Plan for Decent Work (Plan Director por un Trabajo Digno) 2018-2019-2020.

Currently (in fall 2021), the GDIHA is working on a new Strategic Plan for Citizenship and Integration. In the meantime, it launched an annual grant program, targeted to NGOs working to promote coexistence and social cohesion. NGOs and civil society organizations (including migrant associations) are paramount for the integration of migrants, enhancing the implementation of regional and local integration policies. Not only they bid for public calls, but they often design their own projects that cover after-school activities, leisure, health-care, adult education, language learning, intercultural mediation, and legal assistance among others.

The major current challenges regarding immigration and its management include the shaping of coexistence and social cohesion. In this context, a stronger investment in public bodies fostering coexistence and diversity management seems to be necessary. Another challenge is the creation of equal rights for second generation immigrants compared to people of Spanish origin. This includes strategies against anti-immigrant, racist and xenophobic discourses such as awareness raising, prejudice prevention policies, and inclusive education policies.

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was head of the University Institute of Studies on Migrations at the Comillas Pontifical University, Madrid, Spain, from 2012 to 2018. In September 2021, she was reappointed as director of the Institute. Her focus is on projects regarding social cohesion, racism, the migration-development nexus, and labor market integration of immigrants.