SPAIN opened an amnesty for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants yesterday, rejecting criticism its policy would make the country -and Europe -- a stronger magnet for migrants. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government says the amnesty will allow it to manage migration better, cracking down on those already living illegally in Spain and those trying to get in.
Under the new measures if immigrants can prove they have a clean criminal record and that they have been in Spain since last August, they can qualify for residency and thus work legally. They must also have a work contract for the next six months, to ensure only those workers needed will stay, the government says.
The plan has stirred controversy both inside and outside Spain, the main gateway to Europe.
An estimated 800'000 illegal migrants live in the country, but there is no way to know how many will benefit from the amnesty. “The problem with this measure is that people come thinking it's easy here,” said Antonio, a 20-year-old student from Madrid. “If immigrants are going to come they should arrive with their contract in order already. Otherwise, they are taking jobs from us, the Spanish people who are already here.” CLAMPDOWNS
The move appears to run counter to clampdowns in the rest of Europe.
Madrid's assurances its policy is the right one have done nothing to soothe international concerns.
In Britain, the Labour government is preparing to introduce tighter controls on asylum seekers and better filters on unskilled workers, aimed at calming public fears about immigration and its effects on security and public services. At a meeting of EU ministers last month, Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk said the bloc needed to debate the issue of amnesties, because once the illegal migrants are recognised they have the right to move to other EU states.
CRITICISM
In an interview with newspaper El Pais, Spanish Immigration Secretary Consuelo Rumi played down criticism from other EU members that the new policy attract more illegal foreigners. “Those countries have highlighted that the EU has no common policy (on immigration)... Our government backs, first and foremost, a common immigration policy,” she said. Authorities rescued more than 200 would-be migrants from a decrepit fishing boat found drifting off the Canary Islands at the weekend, a relatively common occurrence. The issue of immigration is a sensitive one, with the public concerned about the sudden influx in recent years after decades in which Spain was a net exporter of labour during much of the 1939-1975 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. “There are too many (foreigners) now, they are invading us ... they have to take measures to stop it. But at least the ones who are here should have papers so that they can be controlled,” said Pilar, a Madrid secretary in her 50s.
DIFFICULT
The government says that after the amnesty, dodging the law will be more difficult in future. “Foreigners ineligible for this process must know it will be very difficult for them to stay in the country illegally. And employers that still have illegal workers should know we will use the law forcefully,” Rumi said.
ATTEMPT
The amnesty is an attempt to recognise that thousands of migrants are already working illegally without paying taxes or joining the social security system.
The measure is also underpinned by a desire to keep a closer eye on foreigners after the al Qaeda-linked train bombings that killed 191 people on March 11 last year. Most of the Islamic militants accused of carrying out the attacks were born in Morocco and many of the victims were also immigrants.
Some 160 Social Security offices throughout Spain will open in the evening for the next three months to accept applications for residence and work permits. It is estimated that the process will mean an additional 51 million euros a year for the Social Security coffers in the Balearics alone, and this will help guarantee the survival of the pensions system.