Background InformationCapital: Madrid
Languages: Spanish (Castilian), Catalan (regional), Basque (regional), Galician (regional)
Area: 504,782 km2
Population (2008):1)
Population density: 91.3 inhabitants per km2
Population growth: 1.9 % (2007/08), 1.1 % (2006/07), 1.4 % (2005/06), 2.1 % (2004/2005)
Labour force participation rate2 (1/2008):
Foreign population (2008):
Percentage of foreign employees amongst gainfully employed: 14.4 % (1/2008)
Unemployment rate:
Unemployment rate of foreign population:
Religions: 35 mln. Catholics (77 %), approx. 1.2 mln. Protestants and free churches (2.7 %), approx. 1.1 mln. Muslims (2.4 %), approx. 48 000 Jews (0.1 %) (estimations, International Religious Freedom Report 2007)


From emigration country to immigration country

The history of Spanish migration over the last five hundred years has mostly been a tale of emigration. Traditionally, waves of emigrants have headed to Latin America, with flows peaking at the beginning of the 20th century. From 1905-1913, 1.5 million Spaniards left the country for Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela. Following interruptions stemming from the World Wars and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), emigration to these countries began anew. Between 1946 and 1958, about 624,000 people left the country for overseas. Then, as Western European countries gained in popularity as destination countries, Latin America no longer seemed as attractive, and the number of transoceanic emigrants sank steadily, reaching insignificant levels by the mid-1970s. In total, approximately 300,000 people joined this final wave of emigration to Latin America between 1958 and 1975.34



7 According to these records, on 1 January 2008, 5.22 million foreigners were registered with the municipalities, compared with 3.98 million residence permits (end of 2007), revealing a difference of 1.24 million.8 This difference could serve as an indicator of undocumented residency (see below).
According to these municipal figures, foreigners represented 11.3% of the total population of 46.1 million at the beginning of 2008.

If, instead of the number of registered foreigners, one considers the number of foreign-born people in Spain (5.25 million), a quite different view of immigration to Spain emerges. These people can be divided into three categories: foreigners, naturalised citizens and Spaniards. This last group is comprised primarily of just over half a million second and third generation Spanish emigrants born throughout Europe, Latin America and Africa who have returned to Spain.

1011 The Strait acts as a demographic, social and economic frontier where vast differences in population growth, economic development, per-capita income and employment opportunities collide.

Politico-legal developments

The development of Spanish migration policy can be described as a slow process of maturation toward becoming an immigration nation. Accordingly, regulations have constantly been adjusted to reflect the issues of the day. Controlling immigration has always stood at the forefront, whereby new issues, such as integration, have only gradually been given more room in the debate. In terms of the evolution of migration policy in Spain, it is possible to differentiate between three or four phases.12

In the initial policy development phase, basic legal provisions were created, and political awareness concerning immigration developed. Among these basic provisions were the articles pertaining to foreigners and asylum that were included in the 1978 constitution as well as the more restrictive and police-oriented Aliens Act of 1985. This law was generated at a time when there was no significant immigration to Spain. At the time, migration-related issues played no role in parliamentary discussion. Only as the implementation of such regulations proved problematic, as demonstrated at the end of the 1980s, did lawyers, non-governmental organisations and the Defensor del Pueblo

Partido Popular

The change of government following the elections in March 2004 brought with it a new phase of legal stability in which the question of foreign integration clearly eclipsed the question of safety and control, as evidenced by the movement of the public body in charge from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. The new socialist government took a liberal, consensus-oriented approach to the issue of immigration. While the law has remained unchanged, the new regulations on implementation passed at the end of 2004 were significantly more liberal in nature.13arraigo). A well-endowed integration fund was also established by the central government (2005: 120 million euros; 2006: 182 million euros; 2007: 200 million euros) to benefit autonomous communities14

Resident foreign population

The composition of the foreign population in Spain has changed considerably during the last two decades. Whereas immigrants from Latin America were formerly in the majority, Europeans meanwhile have once again come to represent the largest group due to immigration from Central and Eastern Europe. In addition, Africans continue to be an important immigrant group.


At the beginning of 2008 Africans accounted for 17.2% of all foreigners in Spain. The majority of these were North Africans from Maghreb, in particular from Morocco.18 At 71.8% Moroccans were by far the largest African nationality and, alone, represented 12.3% of the total number of resident foreigners. In recent years migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have come from a more diverse range of countries, with Nigerians and Senegalese accounting for the greatest numbers.

The group of foreigners from the Americas is made up almost exclusively of Latin Americans, who account for 32.8% of all foreigners. They are thus an important factor in shaping current immigration trends. Whereas Argentineans, Venezuelans and Cubans originally dominated, other nationalities came to Spain as a result of particular circumstances: increasing economic hardship in Latin America in the 1990s, internal strife in some countries and the difficulties associated with immigrating to the US. Currently, Ecuadorians19 account for over a quarter of all Latin Americans (24.5%), followed by Columbians (16.4%), Bolivians (14%) and Argentinians (8.5%). Overall, Ecuadorians and Columbians were chiefly responsible for the rapid increase in Latin American immigration. Accordingly, in 2008 Ecuadorians, at 8%, were the third largest foreign nationality after Moroccans and Romanians. These figures do not include Latin Americans entitled to Spanish citizenship through Spanish parents or grandparents and who therefore entered the country on Spanish passports.

Among the relatively small number of immigrants from Asian countries (totalling 4.9%), Chinese account for nearly half. Pakistanis, Filipinos and Indians dominate the remainder of the group and represent 38% of Asian foreigners.

The regional distribution of individual nationalities depicts a dual reality within the immigration picture. Spain offers respite for immigrants from northern regions of Europe who are in search of the sunnier south, whereas for those from Africa and Latin America, regions south of the Mediterranean, Spain is part of the wealthy North, offering employment opportunities. Accordingly, foreigners from EU countries (still) dominate in the warm Mediterranean regions and the Canary Islands. Latin Americans and Africans reside, above all, in the metropolitan areas of Madrid and Catalonia, including Barcelona, but can also be found in the agriculturally rich provinces.20

According to (EPA) data for the first quarter of 2008, three quarters of the foreign population who are of working age are available for the labour market. The proportion in gainful employment at that time was 65%, numbers having risen steadily over recent years. Those who were unemployed accounted for 14.7%, more than 5% above the average for Spain as a whole. The proportion of foreign workers who were not self-employed totalled 88%. As has been the case for years, areas in which most foreign workers are employed are firstly construction, followed by the hotel and catering industry, domestic work, retail, other services (companies offering services to other companies) and agriculture. In some cases foreigners form a considerable proportion of the workers in these areas in relation to the total workforce: in construction this proportion is almost 20%, and in the hotel and catering industry very nearly 25%. In line with the extensive 2005 campaign to legalise undocumented migrants, there has been an upward trend in the number of foreigners employed in construction, the hotel and catering industry, retail and other service industries in particular. By contrast, there has been a considerable reduction in domestic employment and a slight fall in the numbers employed in agriculture.21

Refugeeism and asylum

). This new procedure was in line with agreements at the European level and reflected provisions contained in the Schengen and Dublin agreements, such as the regulation of jurisdiction over the application review process and the concept of safe third countries of origin. The third substantial amendment to the asylum law pertained to the consequences of application rejection. Previous regulations had, in principle, enabled a person whose application was rejected to stay in the country. Because this was considered a fundamental reason behind choosing asylum as a path to immigration, the new regulations required persons who were denied asylum to leave the country in accordance with the Geneva Convention, unless they could meet the conditions for obtaining a visa under the provisions of the Aliens Act.(22)

Spain, however, has never been a particularly attractive country for asylum seekers. This could be due to the relatively low acceptance rate making it easier to enter the country illegally as a foreign worker and become legalised later. In comparison to its European partners, the number of asylum-seekers in Spain remained at low levels in the 1980s. Their number (including family members) rose slowly from approx. 1,100 in 1984 to 4,100 in 1989. Only in 1990, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern European borders, did the figure double to over 8,600. In the three years that followed, it grew to 12,600 (1993). With the reform of the asylum law, the number of applicants fell back in line with numbers from the late 1980s, even if for no other reason than the rejection of 60 to 70% of cases during the preliminary proceedings. Additionally, the approval rates remained extremely low at around 3%. With increasing coordination among European countries, this effect was relativised, so that increases in the number of asylum seekers at the end of the 1990s resulted in growing numbers in all European countries, with Spain again reaching 9,500 (2001). In the following years about 5,500 asylum seekers came to Spain per year, with Nigerians representing the largest group for a considerable period. Since 2005, however, this position has been taken over by Columbians looking for an alternative route following the end of visa-free entry into Spain in 2002. Here, too, there are evidently bands of people smugglers at work providing Columbians entering Spain via Barajas Airport (Madrid) with whole packages of false documents to enable them to make a credible application for asylum.23


Spanish citizenship law has been amended several times in recent years (1982, 1990, 1995 and 2002). Unfortunately, all of these reforms have had nothing to do with the immigration issue or the facilitation of immigrant integration in general. While more recent amendments have focused very much on integration, they have been limited above all to persons who were once Spanish or were descendants of Spaniards, making it easier for such people to reapply for citizenship and thus (re)integration. The most recent reform extended this privilege to grandchildren of former citizens. Mostly, this affects people from countries that were major destinations for Spanish emigrants in the 20th century, such as Argentina and Venezuela. Some figures estimate that as many as 400,000 Argentineans might be eligible for Spanish citizenship under this law.2425

Irregular migration

2627 In the 2008 elections the government spoke of fewer than 300,000 persons.

Actual illegal entry is significantly less common. Nevertheless, landings attempted in small boats from Northern Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar or to the Canary Islands result in dramatic situations which focus attention, particularly in the media, on this kind of undocumented migration which, consequently, often comes across as being the central problem.

At the end of the 1990s, therefore, the government started to create a monitoring system (Sistema Integral de Vigilancia Exterior,28

However, this also increases the costs and risks for the migrants. They are forced to rely more heavily on the services of organised smugglers, who raise their prices for passage. It is not known how many never reach their destination and die during the crossing. The 800 or so bodies salvaged by the authorities on the Canary Islands and along the Moroccan coast in 2006 only represent the minimum. NGOs estimate between 6,000 and 7,000.2930 In addition, supplementary bilateral patrols were organised in Morocco, Mauritania and the Cape Verde Islands.

At the same time, Spain took the diplomatic initiative in this previously little-considered region. Plan Africa31

An additional means of illegal entry involves getting past the barrier surrounding the Spanish exclaves in Northern Africa: Ceuta and Melilla. Until the end of the 1980s, their borders were relatively easy to cross. Since then, however, they have become equipped with more and more barbed wire, sensors and cameras. The Ministry of the Interior intensified upgrades to the enclosures in the mid-1990s, until multiple walls ultimately surrounded the cities. Although the number of persons seized is going down, migrants succeed time and again in scaling the walls. In September/October 2005, the problem received widespread media attention, as many hundreds of people made a collective effort to overcome the border fences simultaneously. Almost one thousand of them succeeded however, hundreds were injured and 14 died.

Irregular migration puts pressure on the Spanish labour market in particular, so, as well as tightening controls, the Spanish employ various additional strategies to channel migration flows. One of these methods is to specify annual quotas for foreign workers. These workers can then be recruited for permanent or temporary labour contracts in their countries of origin. Such quotas were introduced as early as 1993; however, in the 1990s they served primarily as a means of legalising persons already in Spain. In recent years, recruitment has taken place exclusively abroad, but almost solely for temporary employment contracts. The system is not particularly effective, however, partly because recruiting staff through the quota is a protracted affair for employers. Furthermore, the yearly quotas (e.g. 2006: 16,900) are not in line with the actual demand for labour, which is several times greater than the quotas. The quota published in December 2007 for the year 2008 also shows that this method of control continues to have little effect: it was reduced to 15,730 because it had not been possible to fill all the advertised vacancies in the previous year. Other methods of recruitment hold greater advantages for employers, even though as early as 2004 the quota procedure was modified to include a list of vacancies that were difficult to fill at a provincial level to facilitate recruitment through the quota.

32 Close to 7,500 people, for instance, availed themselves of this option to achieve permanent legal status during 2006. Legalisation has not, however, resolved all of the problems. Thus it was established, for example, that, despite being in possession of residence permits, Romanians and Bulgarians often decide to continue working in the informal economy. In this sense it was logical that the campaign was embedded in a more far-ranging programme to combat illegality which provided for improved access to the labour market, intensified labour market controls and improved options for returning illegal immigrants to their homelands. Thus, for example, the Directorate General for Labour Inspection used insights gained from legalisation to achieve more targeted controls.33

Future Challenges

It remains to be seen how the policy instruments used by the socialist government to manage immigration will work. On a positive note, it is possible to tie legal immigration to jobs. In order to become legalised on a case-by-case basis, migrants are required to have an employment contract. However, many migrants, some even in possession of a residence permit, work informally in the underground economy, which, by definition, does not involve formal job contracts and which does allow for the creation of official job openings that could be filled using the quota system. In this respect, change will probably only come about in the foreseeable future if migration policy not only offers adequate opportunities to access the labour market (the effectiveness of opportunities to date has yet to be evaluated) but if, at the same time, there is a consistent approach to controlling the shadow economy.
One interesting aspect will be how Spain deals with foreign unemployment, which, given the current economic downswing, is visibly on the increase: in the first quarter of 2008 alone numbers went up by 18% compared with the end of 2007. Here, further economic development which, due in part to the crisis in the construction sector, is currently no longer viewed so positively as just a year ago,34 will have considerable impact on the capacity of the Spanish labour market to absorb foreign workers. The fact that need for foreign workers would fall was already mooted by the Minister of Economy and Finance, Pedro Solbes, as early as March 2008. Meanwhile, the extension of an already-existing return assistance programme is being considered. According to this, starting in September 2008, unemployed foreign workers will be able to claim their aggregated unemployment allowance, paid as a lump sum, one part in Spain, the rest after returning to their country of origin. This is tied to relinquishing their residence and work permits and the obligation not to return to Spain for three years. Additionally, small loans, or microcredits, plus advice are to be made available to enable them to establish a livelihood in their country of origin. This programme, however, only applies to the 19 third countries that have concluded social security agreements with Spain.35

To further control and limit immigration, the new Minister of Labour and Immigration, Celestino Corbacho Chaves, plans to restrict family reunification by concentrating on the core family and excluding parents and parents-in-law. These restrictions are to be implemented along with an announced reform to the Aliens Act at the end of 2008. With regard to controlling illegal immigration, the Minister intends to further reinforce borders and step up the policy of repatriation. Measures taken during the last two years already appear to have had some effect, although it remains to be seen how effective they will be in the face of a possible new inrush.

36 Yet the high level of immigration makes prognoses difficult: assumptions made in some previous projections have already been overtaken by the time of their publication.37

Given this high level of immigration, the matter of integration is set to acquire great significance. For a long time, nationally-conceived migration policy has had hardly any connection with the intergration policy that has been conducted in the regions for some years. The Strategic Plan for Citizenship and Integration 3839 The process of building a family (in part by means of family reunification) is underway and a second generation is being born.40 This in turn places new demands on schools, already strongly apparent in primary schools and shortly also to reach the wide range of secondary schools. How to deal with immigrant children and children born in Spain is being apportioned great importance, since their education will determine the course of their later professional lives. Especially in cities and local communities, the matter of participation will have a role to play, and it was certainly not by chance that Immigration Minister Corbacho has been pushing the right for third country nationals to vote at a local level, something that, to date, according to the constitution, has been tied with strict reciprocity requirements.


  1. Labour force between the ages of 16 and 64.
  2. Kreienbrink 2005.
  3. permanente) lasting more than a year as well as temporary stays abroad (temporal) of three months to a year in duration. It does not contain information on migration for family reunification purposes.
  4. Figures for returnees are derived from the number of migrants registering their departure at Spanish consulates abroad.
  5. The numbers provided by the
  6. To register with the municipality, a person must provide their name, gender, city of residence, birth date, passport number (or the number of a similar document) and, when applicable, educational certificates. The authorities are not permitted to ask for proof of legal residence status. Also, the Data Protection Act of 1999 stipulates that the exchange or dissemination of information contained in the registry with/to other agencies, the Ministry of the Interior or the police is not permitted. This stipulation was changed slightly in 2003 to allow authorities to compare data taken from the municipal registry with data contained in the central aliens register (as well as with registries maintained by social, financial ministries and with criminal records). It is not clear what, if any, consequences have arisen from this change. Some municipalities have refused or been reluctant to pass on their information to security authorities.
  7. Greater participation by women in the labour market also increased the demand for domestic services.
  8. This also includes the Atlantic in the direction of the Canary Islands (see below).
  9. For further information on the following, refer to Kreienbrink 2004 and Aja/Arango 2006.
  10. Roig 2005
  11. Germans represent 3.5% of all immigrants.
  12. Pajares 2007b.
  13. Espada Ramos 1994; Fullerton 2005; Kreienbrink 2006.
  14. CEAR 2007: 81-91.
  15. Reacquired Spanish citizenship is not included in the figures.
  16. In extreme circumstances, repayment for these services can result in exploitation, forced labour and even human trafficking (Bonelli/Ulloa 2001).
  17. Carling 2007a.
  18. Carling 2007b.
  19. For the first time, however, seizures on the Levant numbered 600.
  20. In order to demonstrate rootedness (arraigo), a minimum of two or three years of residence and an employment contract or proof of employment are required.
  21. Finotelli 2008.
  22. Z. B. Bergheim 2007.
  23. The model resembles to a certain extent the 1983 German Assistance Act for Returning Foreigners.
  25. Ministerio de Trabajo y Asuntos Sociales 2007.
  26. Torres et al. 2007; Kreienbrink
  27. Aparicio 2007

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References and Further Reading

    • Pajares, M. (2007a): Inmigrantes del Este. Procesos migratorios de los rumanos. Barcelona.
Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.