Christmas looks grim for jobless migrants in Spain

Other News Materials 19 December 2008 06:31 (UTC +04:00)

For Maria G., a 40-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant in Madrid, it is a grim Christmas ahead, dpa reported.

"Since my husband lost his construction job six months ago, we have only relied on my earnings," says the bakery employee and housemaid, one among hundreds of thousands of immigrants to have been hit hard by Spain's deepening economic crisis.

"We could not even dream of giving each other presents this Christmas," Maria sighs, explaining that she always sends more than half of her monthly income of about 1,000 euros (1,400 dollars) to her children and other relatives back in Latin America.

"We will have just one Christmas meal with friends, each of us contributing one dish," Maria explains. "Maybe pork, and some sweets. That will strictly be it."

Spain's own citizens are also reeling from the sudden slowdown of the economy which experienced one of Europe's fastest growth rates for nearly 15 years, and is now hovering on the edge of a recession.

Company Christmas meals are being cancelled, people plan to give "symbolic" rather than costly presents, and city councils are cutting down on their Christmas spending.

Families with all the active members out of work already number more than half a million, and many families are struggling to pay mortgages and other debts incurred during the previous economic boom.

With the international financial crisis and the collapse of Spain's key property sector undermining the economy, unemployment has soared past 11 per cent, and some forecasts expect it to reach as much as 18 per cent in 2009.

Among immigrants, the unemployment rate is already close to 18 per cent, because many of them worked in the construction and service sectors that have lost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Spain has about 5 million official immigrants in a population of 46 million. The biggest groups include Romanians, Moroccans, Ecuadorians and Colombians.

Many immigrants unable to pay mortgages or rents are losing their flats and moving in with fellow countrymen, said Mimi Boughaleb of the Moroccan immigrants' association al-Amal.

For some immigrants, even Maria's modest Christmas celebrations represent an impossible luxury.

Thousands of penniless Africans are wandering around southern Spain, where Spaniards now accept hard jobs they refused to do in better times, such as picking olives.

Employers prefer to hire Spanish nationals, and many immigrants looking for work have turned into homeless people sleeping at bus stations and depending on meals handed out by charitable groups.

"I only have worked for three weeks over the past 10 months," an agricultural labourer from Mali told the daily El Pais in the southern town of Ubeda. "I have been in Spain for 10 years, and things have never been this bad."

So far, the stiffening competition for jobs has not appeared to significantly increase hostility towards foreigners in Spain, whose own citizens emigrated by the hundreds of thousands to wealthier European countries in the 1960s and 1970s.

The government has almost stopped the official recruitment of workers abroad, and is offering to pay unemployment entitlements in a lump sum to immigrants willing to go back to their home countries.

So far, fewer than 1,000 people have taken up the offer, but Maria says she knows a lot of people interested in leaving.

"I too would go back to Ecuador, if I were not in debt to banks here in Spain," she sighs.

"I need to pay my debts before I can return. But who knows, maybe the economy will pick up again in two years' time, as they predict," Maria says.