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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But in another sense, Spain's immigration problem is more severe than any other in Europe. Its population seems to have lost the appetite for procreation altogether. The average woman has 1.32 children, a figure that would have looked like a misprint to any social scientist before the 1980s. As a result, Spain's native-born population will begin contracting with shocking rapidity after 2014, and it is too late to do anything to stop it. Already Spain has gaping holes in its labor supply. The strawberry fields and clementine groves of Andalusia require tens of thousands of pickers every year. The tomato-growing greenhouses near Almería rely on Moroccan labor, and Eastern Europeans staff many tourist hotels. During the recent regional elections in Catalonia, when candidate Artur Mas urged that newcomers be held accountable to measurable assimilation criteria, the left-wing daily El País ran a picture of the Spanish factory that made Mas's campaign posters. It was manned by Pakistanis, of whom Barcelona has about 30,000. (In November, Pakistan announced it was opening a consulate there.) Naturally, sub-Saharan Africans would like their own piece of this economy.

"Spain is not the only rich country in the world," says Lucia Figar, the immigration minister for Madrid. "Why are they coming here?" It is an excellent question. In the case of the Senegalese, there are two commonly proffered answers. One is that Senegalese will go wherever there is work. As many as 2 million of Senegal's 11 million people are working abroad. The 45,000 Senegalese in Italy are tireless tomato-pickers and careful construction workers, and also do many of the jobs in the high-end leather industry. In Spain, they are best known for top manta, the practice of selling CDs (usually pirated) and luxury goods (usually fake) on top of a blanket (manta) laid out on the sidewalk. French and British authorities have a reputation for coming down hard on this practice, Italian and Spanish ones for winking at it.

The other, more hotly disputed explanation for the wave of Senegalese is that Spain's immigration controls are, by European standards, uniquely lax. Spain is the unlocked side-door of the European Union's house. And since the E.U.'s Schengen agreements eliminated old frontiers between member states almost a decade ago, once you get into Spain, there are no border guards to keep you out of the Netherlands, Germany, or wherever you choose to settle. If you imagine that Senegalese tend to gravitate towards France, where they speak the language and have a big established community, you are wrong. Experts at ENDA Tiers Monde, a Dakar-based think tank, say that France, while still popular for students, is far down on the list of desired work destinations, owing to its rigid labor market and relatively tough immigration laws. Italy and Spain are the countries most attractive to the latest wave of newcomers. In October, a network that had trafficked hundreds of freshly arrived Senegalese by train between Barcelona and Milan was broken up by Italian police.

Spanish laws towards foreigners are generous, and punctilious about human rights. They also invite chicanery. You cannot detain an immigrant for more than 40 days unless you charge him with a crime, and you cannot deport an immigrant unless you know where he comes from. If he can keep his mouth shut for a month or so, or if he can mis direct the bureaucracy until his 40 days have elapsed, he's in like Flynn. A common way to throw authorities off balance is to pretend to be from somewhere else. Since Spain does not have an extradition treaty with strife-torn Ivory Coast, for instance, many of the Senegalese who have arrived by boat in recent weeks have claimed to be from there (even though the two countries speak mutually exclusive sets of African languages). In October, Pakistan demanded that a half dozen boat people (out of hundreds taken off a rusty old freighter and "repatriated" there) be sent back to Spain. They turned out to be from Indian Kashmir, not Pakistanis at all. You have to be pretty unlucky to get repatriated. Of the 30,000 Senegalese who have arrived this year, only 4,000 have been sent back. The others are put on flights to the Spanish mainland, with an expulsion order in their pocket. Such orders are virtually never enforced. For a migrant, this is roughly a 7-out-of-8 chance of settling in Spain indefinitely: excellent odds.