The Magazine

Europe's Future

The Senegalese (and the Malians, Mauritanians, Gambians, et al.) are coming to Spain--and staying.

Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Dakar/Santa Cruz de Tenerife

In late July, a brightly painted, sun-baked Senegalese lothio--a narrow-beamed traditional fishing boat, shaped like a 25-yard-long plantain and used for netting fish on the shores of West Africa--crashed onto La Tejita beach on the southern coast of Tenerife, one of Spain's Canary Islands. The boat had been fitted with two outboard motors and global-positioning devices; stocked with barrels of water and spare gasoline, rice, powdered milk, salted mérou (a fish), cured meat, biscuits, tubs of the lemon-and-onion sauce called yassa, lifejackets, and a supply of Efferalgan for seasickness; and loaded to overflowing with many dozens of young men hoping to enter the European Union to work illegally.

La Tejita beach is popular with German tourists. The western part of it is nudist, or "naturalist," as the brochures say. One wonders whether the first sight that greeted these generally sober and hard-working Muslim migrants as they approached their Eldorado was the wagging breasts and swinging scrota of the gray-haired German bourgeoisie at leisure. Certainly the dozens of bathers who rushed to give first aid to the weary voyagers were not taken by surprise. Boats bearing clandestine workers have been arriving on Spain's southernmost beaches for more than a decade. Granted, it used to be a piecemeal affair. The small North African craft the Spaniards call pateras would arrive filled with a dozen or so Arab or Berber laborers. Now the traffic has been industrialized. Immigrants come in these huge lothios--or cayucos, to use the Spanish word--the largest of which hold more than 150 people. There were days towards the end of last summer when a half-dozen of them were looming on the southern horizon at the same time.

Thus far in 2006, 30,000 "boat people" have landed on Canary Island beaches--already six times last year's tally. The great majority come from Senegal. There are also Malians and Mauritanians, Gambians and Guineans, Congolese and Cameroonians, and others whom Spaniards don't usually think of as their neighbors, but who now consider Europe just a hop, skip, and a jump away. There are occasional boats full of Chinese and Bangladeshis, too. Spain isn't the only destination for boats pouring out of other continents. The Italian islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria have received well over 10,000 boat people this year. Migrants from East Africa, Pakistan, and India are beaching boats launched in Libya on the shores of Malta and Greece. And boats are not the only way to bust into the E.U.--there are also land routes through Eastern Europe, and the majority of immigrants to Europe still get there by flying in as tourists or students and then overstaying their visas.

But Spaniards have started to note that, in contrast to previous waves, these migrants seem to be coming to, not through, their country. Spain, which a decade ago thought it had an emigration problem, now finds itself the top immigrant destination on the entire continent. Its population has jumped to 44 million people, thanks to almost 4 million new immigrants. Slowly, over decades, a lot of European countries have reached the point where about 10 percent of their population is of immigrant background. Spain is now about 10 percent first-generation immigrant, and this has happened overnight. Much of the present migration is to cities. Foreigners make up 19 percent of the population (and 28 percent of the workforce) in Madrid. The Valencia region is 14 percent foreign-born. The Raval area of central Barcelona, where immigrants were exotic up until the early 1990s, is now a "majority minority" neighborhood. It is in Spain, too, that a series of questionable immigration-policy decisions have riled public opinion, and threaten to poison relations with other countries in the European Union, who worry that Spain's lax immigration policies are creating a problem not just for the country but for the continent.

Come to sunny Spain

Roughly speaking, Spain has the normal European relationship to immigration. It needs workers badly, both to do grunt work and to prop up its welfare state, but the public is not exactly thrilled. In one sense, the Spanish problem is relatively mild. After the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, a part of the country's elites repudiated the mid-twentieth-century statism that went unexamined elsewhere. Particularly under the government of José María Aznar in the late 1990s, Spain sought ways to make the state leaner and more business-friendly.