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Irregular migration | Spain |

Spain Background Information Historical Development Political Development Foreign Population Refuge and Asylum Citizenship Irregular Migration Future Challenges References

Irregular migration

Axel Kreienbrink

/ 7 Minuten zu lesen

Irregular migration (and especially irregular residence) is a lasting problem associated with immigration in Spain. There are also indications that a significant number of citizens from EU member states live as long-term tourists in Spain without legal residence status.

As in other Southern European countries, irregular migration (and especially irregular residence) is a lasting problem associated with immigration in Spain.

Many involved in this form of migration tend to be citizens of non-EU countries in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America or Asia. However, there are also indications that a significant number of citizens from EU member states and other "First World" nations live as long-term tourists in Spain without legal residence status. In Spain, undocumented stays are usually the result of "overstaying"; that is, staying on beyond the permissible duration after entering the country legally. Individual migrants as well as those financed through organized networks or mafias utilise the tourist route to gain entry. Estimates as to the magnitude of the phenomenon are by nature uncertain and principally serve as ammunition in political disputes. Simply subtracting the number of residence permits from the figures in the padrón municipal, which results in values in excess of one million each year, gives some idea as to the size, but still falls short. In the 2008 elections the government spoke of fewer than 300 000 persons.

Actual illegal entry is significantly less common. Nevertheless, landings attempted in small boats from Northern Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar or to the Canary Islands result in dramatic situations which focus attention, particularly in the media, on this kind of undocumented migration which, consequently, often comes across as being the central problem.

At the end of the 1990s, therefore, the government started to create a monitoring system (Sistema Integral de Vigilancia Exterior, SIVE), which combines long-range radar, thermal cameras, night vision equipment, infrared beams, helicopters, etc. in order to "close off" these sea routes. The system has a deterrent effect which, however, is not readily apparent from the number of seizures alone. Compared with 2004, the year 2005 showed a reduction. During 2006 numbers increased enormously due to high migration pressure, falling significantly again in 2007. Controls have led to successive shifts in migration routes, with the Canary Islands in particular becoming a migration destination after the Strait of Gibraltar. At the same time, the departure point for crossings moved further south as a consequence of Spanish and equally intensified Moroccan controls. Boats now cast off from Mauritania or even Senegal. Spain responded by extending the SIVE to the Canary Islands. Further extension along the Levant (as the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula in the regions of Murcia and Valencia is called) and as far as Ibiza is planned by 2009.

However, this also increases the costs and risks for the migrants. They are forced to rely more heavily on the services of organised smugglers, who raise their prices for passage. It is not known how many never reach their destination and die during the crossing. The 800 or so bodies salvaged by the authorities on the Canary Islands and along the Moroccan coast in 2006 only represent the minimum. NGOs estimate between 6 000 and 7 000. The largest amount of illegal immigration of this kind was recorded in 2006, with approx.
31 700 seizures on the Canary Islands and 7 500 on the Andalusian coast. In response to this, controls were intensified, to which end Spain also requested assistance from the European external borders agency, FRONTEX. FRONTEX set up a regional coordination centre on the Canary Islands and carried out several operations during 2006/2007 (HERA I – III). In addition, supplementary bilateral patrols were organised in Morocco, Mauritania and the Cape Verde Islands.

At the same time, Spain took the diplomatic initiative in this previously little-considered region. Plan Africa (2006-2008) aims to improve the situation with regard to returnees and to this end various readmission agreements have been made (e.g. with Senegal). The plan also tackles the matter of development cooperation – depending on the main goal. Thus new agreements (known as second generation agreements) provide for controlling irregular migration as well as aspects of recruitment and voluntary repatriation. Such agreements have been made, for example, with Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, the Cape Verde Islands, Mali, Cameroon, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and others. In addition, local diplomatic presence has been reinforced inter alia by the installation of new embassies in the region. Overall, the package of measures appears to be having some effect – at least the number of seizures in 2007 fell by 60% on the Canary Islands and by almost 25% on the mainland.

An additional means of illegal entry involves getting past the barrier surrounding the Spanish exclaves in Northern Africa: Ceuta and Melilla. Until the end of the 1980s, their borders were relatively easy to cross. Since then, however, they have become equipped with more and more barbed wire, sensors and cameras. The Ministry of the Interior intensified upgrades to the enclosures in the mid-1990s, until multiple walls ultimately surrounded the cities. Although the number of persons seized is going down, migrants succeed time and again in scaling the walls. In September/October 2005, the problem received widespread media attention, as many hundreds of people made a collective effort to overcome the border fences simultaneously. Almost one thousand of them succeeded however, hundreds were injured and 14 died.

Irregular migration puts pressure on the Spanish labour market in particular, so, as well as tightening controls, the Spanish employ various additional strategies to channel migration flows. One of these methods is to specify annual quotas for foreign workers. These workers can then be recruited for permanent or temporary labour contracts in their countries of origin. Such quotas were introduced as early as 1993; however, in the 1990s they served primarily as a means of legalising persons already in Spain. In recent years, recruitment has taken place exclusively abroad, but almost solely for temporary employment contracts. The system is not particularly effective, however, partly because recruiting staff through the quota is a protracted affair for employers. Furthermore, the yearly quotas (e.g. 2006: 16 900) are not in line with the actual demand for labour, which is several times greater than the quotas. The quota published in December 2007 for the year 2008 also shows that this method of control continues to have little effect: it was reduced to 15 730 because it had not been possible to fill all the advertised vacancies in the previous year. Other methods of recruitment hold greater advantages for employers, even though as early as 2004 the quota procedure was modified to include a list of vacancies that were difficult to fill at a provincial level to facilitate recruitment through the quota.

Spain has also sought to combat illegal migration in recent years by concluding agreements with various countries of origin on controlling labour migration and migration movements in general. The goal of these agreements is to control immigration to Spain, including the return of foreign workers to their countries of origin. Such agreements have been entered into with Columbia, Ecuador, Morocco and the Dominican Republic (all in 2001), with Romania and Poland (both in 2002) and with Bulgaria (2003). Political disputes prevented the Moroccan treaty from entering into effect until autumn 2005. However, with the exception of Poland there has been no actual progress towards implementing the agreements. Nonetheless, further agreements of this type have been concluded: a relatively open cooperation agreement with Peru (2004) plus others with Gambia (2006), Mauritania and Guinea-Conakry (2007). It remains to be seen whether these agreements will meet expectations, or whether the provisions related to returning workers to their countries of origin will result in the same effects generated by earlier "guest worker" schemes in other European countries. Faced with the prospect of not being allowed into the country again, workers are inclined to refuse to leave, apply for family reunification and increasingly root themselves in society.

With regard to those who are already staying in Spain irregularly, successive governments have repeatedly resorted to legalisation campaigns. Although they are often described as one-time or final measures in conjunction with legal reforms, they have taken place with relative regularity (1985, 1991, 1996, 2000, 2001 and 2005) and therefore appear to be a constant in Spanish migration policy. During the most recent campaign in the year 2005, 578 375 of 691 655 applications for legal residence status were approved, making it by far the most extensive legalisation to date in Spain and Europe-wide. In contrast to previous years, applicants in this so-called "normalisation" (normalización) process were required as a precondition to prove that they already had an (informal) employment contract as well as a guarantee from the employer that the employment would be continued. Generally speaking it was the employer who had to make the application. Moreover, the work permit issued only became valid if the employment was subsequently registered in the social security system and initial contributions had been paid in. It was hoped that the introduction of these requirements would reduce clandestine employment and boost social security funds. Additionally, since 2005 a regulation has been in place that allows for the legalisation, on a case-by-case basis, of individuals who can prove that they are "rooted" in the country. Close to 7 500 people, for instance, availed themselves of this option to achieve permanent legal status during 2006. Legalisation has not, however, resolved all of the problems. Thus it was established, for example, that, despite being in possession of residence permits, Romanians and Bulgarians often decide to continue working in the informal economy. In this sense it was logical that the campaign was embedded in a more far-ranging programme to combat illegality which provided for improved access to the labour market, intensified labour market controls and improved options for returning illegal immigrants to their homelands. Thus, for example, the Directorate General for Labour Inspection used insights gained from legalisation to achieve more targeted controls.



  1. In extreme circumstances, repayment for these services can result in exploitation, forced labour and even human trafficking (Bonelli/Ulloa 2001).

  2. For problems associated with the padrón see above. In addition, various groups such as asylum applicants, EU citizens and students do not require a residence permit. For further information see Arango/Finotelli 2008.

  3. Carling 2007a.

  4. Carling 2007b.

  5. Cf. newsletter: "Migration and Population", 7/2006; 1/2007.

  6. For the first time, however, seizures on the Levant numbered 600.

  7. In order to demonstrate rootedness (arraigo), a minimum of two or three years of residence and an employment contract or proof of employment are required.

  8. Finotelli 2008.

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