Spanish fertility rates for 2001 hit a seven-year highpoint, easing concern about a demographic time-bomb in a country where an ageing population threatens to strain the pension system and public coffers. Spain's National Statistics Institute said yesterday that the number of children per fertile woman rose to 1.24, the highest since 1995. In 2000, Spain had the lowest fertility rate in the European Union at 1.2 children per woman. In the Balearics there is plenty of concern about the low birth rate. Even after the increase, births are still well below replacement levels - the number of children at which the population is stable - of 2.1 per woman. The centre-right government wants Spaniards to have more babies to ease the strain on a working population that pays for a pension system supporting increasing numbers of older people. Spain, a predominantly Catholic country where abortion became legal under relatively restricted conditions in 1985, also has one of the highest female life expectancies in Europe, at more than 82 years. Bank BBVA estimates that by 2050 there will be one retiree per 1.7 workers, versus one for every four in 2000. Few companies or individuals have private pensions so the potential strain on public finances could be intense, experts say. The Institute added the increase was largely thanks to a boom in the birth rate among immigrants, although it gave no breakdown of the figures. With Spain's robust economy attracting 1.4 million legal immigrants in 2001, three times the 1999 figure, as well as unknown numbers of illegal immigrants, the issue of immigration has rocketed to the top of the political agenda. The government blames the newly arrived immigrants - mainly from Africa and Latin America - for a rise in crime, and a hardline immigration law has come under fire for allegedly denying immigrants basic human rights. The International Monetary Fund warned earlier this year that while current immigration trends might well delay the demographic shock in Spain, its impact on public finances will remain considerable.

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