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Spanish downturn ends immigrants' dream of better life

Spain's sharp economic downturn has put an end to the dream of a better life for tens of thousands of immigrants

AFP , Sunday 2 Jan 2011
Spain 1
Spain`s unemployment rate attained almost 20 per cent of the general population. (Photo: Reuters)

After losing her job as a maid several months ago, 26-year-old Magaly Baez is preparing to return to Paraguay with her husband, an unemployed waiter, and their nine-month-old baby.

"The plan had been to stay in Spain, bring over our children and obtain residency papers," she said as she left a government-run soup kitchen set up by the regional government of Madrid specifically for immigrants.

Spanish visa rules deny renewal requests if immigrants become unemployed and fail to make social security payments. So without jobs the couple are no longer living legally in Spain, putting an end to their hopes of having their three other children join them in the country.

Just three years after moving to Spain, the couple has decided to accept the offer to have their return trip home paid for by the Spanish government.

Spain's sharp economic downturn has put an end to the dream of a better life for tens of thousands of immigrants from Latin America like Baez who moved to the country over the past decade.

The country has 5.7 million immigrants, just over one-quarter of them from former Spanish colonies in Latin America, out of a total population of 47 million, up from around half a million in 1996.

Many were drawn to jobs in the construction sector, which collapsed when the bubble burst on Spain's credit-fueled property market at the end of 2008, causing the unemployment rate to soar, especially amongst immigrants.

Spain's jobless rate stands at around 20 per cent for the general population but it is ten percentage points higher amongst immigrants, according to official data.

Of all the member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development with a foreign population of at least ten per cent, Spain has the highest immigrant unemployment rate. Without steady jobs, many immigrants struggle to cover basic necessities.

Baez said she earned some money babysitting or doing housecleaning but relied on charities like the soup kitchen to survive.

"At the beginning I felt ashamed. But if it wasn't for this, who knows what we would eat," she said as she held bags of food provided by the soup kitchen to feed herself, her husband and her baby.
The soup kitchen has gone from feeding 300 people a day before the collapse of the property sector to 500 last year and over 600 currently.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government launched a programme at the end of 2008 to ease the "voluntary return" of jobless immigrants which allows them to collect their unemployment benefits in two lump-sum payments if they go back to their countries of origin.

At the time the government estimated around 100,000 people would take advantage of the programme but so far only 15,000 people have applied, according to labour ministry figures.

"It has been a failure," said Raul Jimenez, the spokesman of Ruminahui, a group which represents Ecuadoreans living in Spain.

"The amount of money offered is not enough to pay for return flights, buy a house and set up a small business."

Many immigrants say they do not want to accept the lump-sum payments because of the requirement that they give up their right to live and work in Spain for three years in return.

Others say they are embarrassed to return home with little to show for their time in the country, or have mortgages and other debts in the country to pay or they do not want to pull their children out of school.

"The return is not right for us now," said German Cuellar, a 44-year-old Bolivian who lost his job as a waiter a year and a half ago as he left the soup kitchen with food for his wife and their two sons aged seventeen and three.

"We will fight to the end. If we have to leave, we will. But as our sons are in school we do not want to interrupt their studies."

But Cesar Lezcano, a 40-year-old Ecuardorean, said he did not think too long about accepting the offer after he lost his job at a bakery in the town of Alcala de Henares located just outside the Spanish capital.

"Every day I would see friends who could not find work. I wanted to make use of the little which I had," he said.

Lezcano, who moved to Spain three years ago, received 40 per cent, or 3,500 euros (4,600 dollars), of unemployment benefits he was entitled to now and will get the remaining 60 percent when he arrives in Quito.

"I am a little disappointed," said Lezcano, who had hoped to save enough while in Spain to build a home in Ecuador.

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