Title: How welcome are refugees in Spain?
Author: Madeline Syke
When it appeared on the façade of Madrid’s Palacio de Cibeles in September 2015, the now-famous Refugees Welcome sign was a bold statement. Its authors, the left-wing municipal party Ahora Madrid, knew that the sentiments behind the phrase were shared by many residents calling the city council to offer aid to asylum seekers in the city. It was, however, an optimistic statement –based on the lack of political action following it, some might even call it an empty promise.
Shortly after the sign went up, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy bowed to domestic and international pressure, announcing that Spain would participate in the EU’s new quota system for refugee redistribution. Under it, Spain would take in 15 888 refugees from Greece and Italy and 1449 from states bordering Syria by 2017. Six months after the introduction of the quota system, only 18 had arrived in Spain.  By September 7, 2017, that number had risen to only 1980. If the welcome mat has already been rolled out, why has the Spanish government been so slow to open the door?
The answer is complex, but two factors appear to be key in explaining the sluggish pace of refugee resettlement. The first is the absence of a government for most of 2016. Following the inconclusive results of the 2015 general election, no party was able to secure the majority of support needed to form the government. As a result, Spain was kept under the watch of a caretaker government through 10 months of interparty negotiations and a second, also inconclusive, election. Ultimately, Rajoy managed to get the votes needed to secure his investiture as Prime Minister in October 2016. The second, more worrisome factor is the lack of political will on the part of the central government. Many in Rajoy’s cabinet consider Spain’s most pressing –and only – concern to be the country’s deficit levels well in excess of the EU’s targets and its 17.1% unemployment rate as of July 2017. In their minds, the state simply cannot afford to take on so many refugees. Of course, Spain has also not been immune to the fearmongering that has affected much of Europe; the Sectorial Undersecretary of Rajoy’s Partido Popular, Javier Maroto, said in an interview in 2015 that, “. . . [A]mong the Syrians who enter there are many jihadists. They are people who one day put a bomb in any of our cities . . .”. Regardless of whether the government has been unable, unwilling, or simply afraid to act, they are unlikely to make their quotas all the same.
Photos taken by Madeline Sykes. Scenes from an #InauguramosUnaCiudad protest in Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid.
In spite of bureaucratic inertia, many in Spain are mobilizing to do what they can to help refugees. Several grassroots organizations have formed in Spain in response to the refugee crisis, including Madrid for Refugees, a charity formed largely by expatriates eager to help the asylum seekers in their adopted country. Their volunteers act as a support network for refugees, helping them to secure housing and jobs as well as holding drives to collect such essentials as clothing and household supplies for them. Some of the fundraisers they hold allow the refugees they help to promote their skill set; a migrant from the Gambia identified only as G.B. gives boxing lessons in the Parque del Buen Retiro. A Syrian named Khaled and other “chefugees” cook dishes from their homelands at fundraising banquets held in local restaurants. They also maintain an informational campaign about the plight of Europe’s asylum seekers both over social media and through events like the “Stepping Stones” exhibition displaying photos of the migrant influx in Lesbos. Through such activities, Madrid for Refugees hopes not only to raise funds for its own activities but to inform and mobilize others on these issues.
Apparently, such campaigns are having some success. Several protests have taken place in the streets of Spain’s major cities calling for local and regional governments, in addition to the central government, to live up to Spain’s commitments under the quota system. Among them was the #InauguramosUnaCiudad (We inaugurate a city) campaign by Amnesty International. Taking place on March 4, 2017, the initiative saw simultaneous demonstrations in cities across the country in which participants rallied around the phrase “Yo acojo” (I welcome). The demonstrations may not have pushed the central government into action, but they did result in 68 municipal governments creating 2741 new spaces in refugee reception centres. In spite of the economic and political grievances that strain and divide the electorate, a large portion of the Spanish population is willing to welcome refugees into their communities and will likely continue to demand that their government make good on the claim still emblazoned on Palacio de Cibeles.