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Cosmopolitan Catalonia: a long history of attracting newcomers from worldwide

Catalonia has a long history with immigration, welcoming foreigners from all over the world has left it with a cosmopolitan and multicultural nature. In more recent years, immigration has been well-documented by the Catalan Government and official statistics, which show various patterns. The first wave of people arriving in Catalonia, especially in the industrial capital of Barcelona, were domestic immigrants from within Spain, while later many came from South America and Northern Africa. The recent economic crisis caused a lull in these figures, but the number of foreign nationals from Asia and Europe (especially Italy and the UK) has increased over more recent years. Conscious of the need for sustainable co-living, Catalonia taken pains to accommodate its diverse population and the ACN spoke to several people about their experience moving to Barcelona.

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17 March 2015 08:48 PM

by

Nell English

Barcelona (ACN).- Barcelona is a cosmopolitan city, whose open attitude to immigration over the years has resulted in a rainbow mix of nationalities within the Catalan capital. This opens debates in many areas, from the changing demographic in a future Catalonia, to social cohesion, to cultural changes, to political implications, including support for independence. Thanks to studies made by the Catalan Government and official statistics bodies, patterns can be observed in peoples’ movement to Catalonia. While the second half of the 20thcentury saw domestic immigration within Spain, with many people moving to the industrially productive Catalonia, the early part of this century saw huge numbers of foreign nationals from South America and northern Africa. In the economic crisis years, these have slowed dramatically, but been replaced by rising numbers of immigrants from within Europe (especially Italy and the UK) and from Asia. In 2000, there were some 181,000 foreign nationals living in Catalonia and they represented 2.90% of the total population. Ten years later, they accounted for 1,198,000 people and represented 15.95% of the population. Due to the economic crisis, by 2014 their number had dropped and they accounted for 1,089,000 people, 14.49% of Catalonia’s total population. Conscious of the need this represents for sustainable co-living, Catalonia gone to great lengths to accommodate its increasingly diverse population and the ACN spoke to several people on their experiences in moving to the Catalan capital.


From a population of roughly 2 million people in 1900, Catalonia has undergone two immigration waves to reach a total of 7.518.903 in December 2014, according to the official government statistics body, Idescat.

As early as the beginning of the 19th century, people had been moving to Catalonia from all over Spain. In the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s however, there was a huge increase in the number of arrivals. During the dictatorship under Franco, this was largely domestic immigrants from within Spain, with many people coming from the southern regions of Andalucía and Murcia, Extremadura in the west, or Galicia in the north-west, seeking jobs and better lives. Catalonia was then and is now the main industrial area of Spain and the backbone of the Spanish economy. While Barcelona was a great magnet, attracting the largest number of immigrants, nevertheless people settled throughout Greater Barcelona and the whole of Catalonia. Some of those who initially set up in Barcelona, moved to surrounding areas following the urban redevelopment of the city and its nearby towns in the last third of the 20th century.

The second massive wave of immigration took place as from the late 1990’s and particularly in the early 2000s, and this time it was a global phenomenon. Between 1996 and 2012, Catalonia’s population increased from 6.090.040 to 7.570.908 people. Initially, these were mostly from Northern Africa, followed by Latin and South America, then following a lull in numbers during and post crisis, an increase in the numbers of people coming from Asia and Eastern Europe.

Now, many of the small independent supermarkets are run by families from Pakistan or Bangladesh

In the metropolitan area of Barcelona, immigrants of varying nationalities tend to occupy different sectors of the city’s economy. One recent phenomenon that has developed over the past 10 to 15 years is that many of the small independent supermarkets are run by families from Pakistan or Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent, China.

Two brothers from Bangladesh, Said and Raoul, manage one such shop on the corner of the streets Marina and Pujades in Barcelona. The brothers came separately, a few years apart, leaving their hometown of Dhaka and travelling overland in lorries through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France before crossing the border into Spain. Both have now legal residency papers, having been living here for over the requisite three years.

Together they manage the small supermarket, which stocks everything from fresh produce to toiletries. Sundays, bank holidays and 'puentes' (long weekends) are no break for these two, who make the most business as they are in high demand for providing weekend essentials and items forgotten from the last big supermarket shop.

On life in Barcelona, both brothers were positive. Said is a big FC Barcelona fan, and watches matches on a small computer under the counter. While Raoul, his younger brother, has no interest in football but follows Bangladeshi cricket religiously and occasionally plays at the weekend. The brothers make enough to send money home to their family, and still have extra to eat out occasionally in one of the city’s many local Bangladesh restaurants.

The brothers work long hours, as they recently obtained a licence to keep their shop open 24 hours. They work in shifts, with several other men, all from the same area of Bangladesh, and admit it gets boring, and the shop is cold during winter. However they say they are happy to be working in the shop, they have some friends who sell beer on the streets who often have their produce confiscated by the police. Although selling alcohol can also be problematic for them; Raoul said "people always come in wanting to buy alcohol after 11pm", when shops are no longer authorised to sell alcohol. While Raoul finds the drunk people coming in late at night annoying and obnoxious, Said laughed and said "but they are funny. And they spend so much money, sometimes buying very stupid things!"

Immigrants from specific nationalities tend to work in specific sectors

Different nationalities have tendencies to dominate various sectors of the city. For example on the one hand there are the ubiquitous Chinese-owned bazaars, supermarkets and are the third largest group of immigrants in Barcelona. Before the crisis in 2008, there was little investment by China in Spain. In more recent years however, this has increased exponentially. In 2012, Spain received a total of €409 million from Chinese investors, which particular interest in Catalonia. In 2010, Chinese companies invested €355 million in Catalonia, and as for Catalan exports to China, they represented €675 million in 2010.

Within Barcelona, increasing numbers of Chinese companies are setting up and investing heavily in the Catalan capital, many technological companies such as Lenovo and Huawei, and others with especial interest in the port areas. This year for instance, Chinese company Hutchinston Port group will invest €150 million in the Barcelona port terminal; this is in addition to the €315 million over the last two years.

Then there are the men who sell the one euro beer throughout the tourist districts of the centre, largely from the Middle-East and central Asia. Most frequently, the countries of Pakistan (of which they were 46,295 nationals in Catalonia according to the 2014 census), Morocco (23,147) and Bangladesh (6,209), while those pushing trolleys of scrap metal and selling sunglasses and handbags are inevitably Sub-Saharan African, mostly Senegalese (2,000 documented in 2010, but unofficially estimated at 6,000 nationals).

Many Africans collect scrap metal and sell sunglasses and handbags on the street

These last group make up a familiar sight to visitors and locals alike in Barcelona, solitary African men towing trolleys about the city to fill with scrap metal, old televisions, and other "junk" that to them is money. To find out more I spoke to one such man; Mamadi, a 26 year-old man from Kedougou region in Senegal. Not wishing to continue the subsistence farming lifestyle of his family, he left Senegal 9 years ago, and made the journey to Spain at just 17. He spent a week in Morocco, and then travelled by boat through the Canary Islands and onto Barcelona. Asked whether the border crossing was difficult, he explained that "back then it was much easier. We spent just a week there, I made some friends with a boat and we came directly here. Now it is much harder to come".

As for life in Catalonia, he said in the beginning he had "lots of jobs. I worked as a gardener, in a construction company and painting houses". His favourite was painting houses, which was relaxing, and he hated working "en el campo" (in the countryside) as it was extremely hard and sometimes they didn’t pay you, and when they did it was only €100 per week of full time work. Now, in the last few years, there is less construction, so Mamadi is looking for work, and in the meantime he collects scrap metal from abandoned factories to sell. A trolley of metal can bring in €5 to €10 depending on the quality, and sometimes he can fill three in one day.

For this work, it means he has to travel by train from his home city of Calella, on the coast about an hour away from Barcelona. He does not want to live in Barcelona however, as the city is too expensive. "I was going to get a room in Barcelona with a Pakistani man, but he told me €300". Whereas in Calella, he has a roomy house which he shares with 4 men from Gambia, Senegal and Mali for €500 rent a month divided between them.

Catalonia is used to host migrants

Catalonia has a long history of attracting foreigners. Whether they come for the incomparable Mediterranean climate, an active life surrounded by mountainous nature, in search a better life than that offered by their own countries, Catalonia has accommodated a variety of nationalities, cultures and languages.

During the last few years, foreigners arrived in a Catalonia where more and more people were looking for, and failing to find jobs. Across Europe, this unhappy combination can inevitably result in backlash of xenophobia from local populations and politicians. One only has to look at the rise of populist parties such as that of UKIP in the UK, or the Front National in France, who exploit anti-immigrant sentiments to garner popularity. This has not occurred in Catalonia however, which has traditionally had a socially inclusive attitude towards immigrants.

Where large numbers of immigrants have settled in one town, there have been occasional instances of social incohesion, but these are in the minority.  There was the example in 2010, of the Mayor of Badalona being taken to court for distributing pamphlets that were found to be racist by opposition parties and human rights defenders. Badalona, which is located next to Barcelona municipality, is the third largest city of Catalonia, whose high levels of immigration (in January 2014, immigrants made up 13.4% of the total population) and unemployment led Xavier Garcia Albiol to run his campaign based on fighting "illegal immigration" in the city, and distributing pamphlets that allegedly related Romanian immigrants to crime. He was taken to Court for this action, although the charges were finally dropped. A member of the People’s Party (which currently lead the Spanish Government), he was voted in as Mayor of Badalona, meaning that for the first time the PP obtained the position of mayor over a major Catalan city.

As a whole however, Catalonia has an open and embracing attitude towards foreigners. The Catalan education system ensures that children settling here from other countries learn Catalan and Spanish through school. From the view of health, from 2012 CatSalut, the public health system (healthcare is entirely managed by the Catalan, and not the Spanish Government) stated it would provide primary medical attention to all those who have been living in Catalonia for at least three months and are duly registered to the municipal population lists, including immigrants without their legal residence status, despite the Spanish Government wanting to restrict healthcare for immigrants.

There are still challenges ahead to ensure full Integration of immigrants

There are still deficits in integration however. In 2012, the Catalan Government did a study on immigrant cohesion, and published their 'Report on the integration of immigrants in Catalonia', which explored different factors enabling or preventing integration. The language barrier poses one challenge, in 2012 local population use of Catalan in the workplace was 77.7%, while that of immigrants was 37.4%, and there was a disparity in employment, with more immigrants jobless. Nevertheless, the report outlined a wealth of policies underway to facilitate immigration settlement, through promoting the learning of Catalan, and measures to help immigrants find housing and feel welcomed in communities.

The City Council of Barcelona has recently published their 2010-2015 plan for immigration. In this 31 page document, the Mayor of Barcelona Xavier Trias, acknowledges the changing face of migration, "We have gone from a decade in which the arrival of people from other countries has been extremely high to a period of stagnation" and stresses the need for policies of "integration and cohesion, always from the perspective of interculturality and with maximum emphasis on projects that assist processes of interaction between the people of Barcelona."

The manifesto outlines measures for including and integrating immigrants into the city, including the Improvement of the flexibility of procedures for the official recognition of qualifications, so as to "reinforce the talents that immigrants contribute to the economy", and the "promotion of programmes to encourage children and teenagers of immigrant origin to participate in sporting activities and join the city’s clubs".

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  • Catalonia is a multi-cultural society, with a long tradition of hosting newcomers (by ACN)

  • Catalonia is a multi-cultural society, with a long tradition of hosting newcomers (by ACN)