Page last updated at 10:58 GMT, Saturday, 9 October 2010 11:58 UK

Immigration and economy fuel Spanish anxiety

Protest during national strike over cuts in Spain
Spanish unions have staged national strikes in protest at spending cuts

By Pascale Harter
BBC News, Spain

The economic downturn has hit Spain hard, especially its immigrant workers, among whom unemployment is 10% higher than the national average. But are calls for them to return to their native countries caused by financial worries or by fears about how Spain is changing following unprecedented immigration to the country in recent years?

"Immigrants who can't find work should go home now," Jose Luis Roberto tells me.

He is the president of the political party Espana 2000. But I wonder if it is not the lack of jobs, but what he says next that is the real reason he wants immigrants to leave.

"We don't want Muslims here who don't integrate and whose religion is incompatible with Spanish culture."

spanish market
Spanish shoppers have largely forsaken open-air markets

Espana 2000 may be a small party, with only three members elected to council level and only 3,000 members nationwide, but its views cannot be dismissed.

The rate of immigration into Spain over the last few years has been extreme, not just for the numbers - during the boom 500,000 migrants were arriving every year - but because it has been so sudden.

'All suffering together'

In 1999, Spain was a country with barely any immigrants at all. Today they make up 12% of the population.

Moroccans form the second largest immigrant group here. Many of them are young men who have come to Spain alone.

They are under-schooled and under-skilled, so they stand little chance of finding employment in the current downturn.

"I'm not saying Spain is racist," says Mustafa Assan.

He has worked here for 14 years. He has married and had children in Spain and, even though he has not been able to find work for a year now, he says he cannot even consider going back to Morocco.

Spain is his country and I can hear it in the easy, colloquial way he speaks the language. His every gesture utterly Spanish.

Spain had changed anyway, with the economic liberalisation and investment that came with membership of the EU

"Sufrimos juntos," he says - "We're all suffering together." (Spanish people cannot find work either.)

I met Mustafa in a bar in El Ejido in the south. He was having coffee, waiting for his number to come up in the unemployment queue.

Local hub

Bars play a particular role in Spanish life.

Local bars are the lynchpins of the community, so perhaps they are a useful measure of how much immigration is changing Spain.

The bar is where workmen go for a cognac at 6am.

By 10.55am, coffee cups and saucers line the tables, ready for the white-collar workers who descend from the surrounding office blocks and are back at their desks five minutes later, leaving the bar deserted but for stained cups and cigarette butts.

When my family came to visit me in Barcelona, I had to introduce them to Juan, the owner of my local bar. Not to have done so would have been rude.

It was Juan who fed me for free when I locked myself out of the flat without my wallet. It was Juan who got a ladder and climbed in through the open window to let me back in.

I knew he was struggling during the recession but, when I came back from a work trip and found the bar closed for good, I was not the only one on the street to be horrified.

Juan's bar has been replaced by a clothes shop you find on high streets all over the world.

Shopping habits

The downturn has changed Spain for good, perhaps more than rapid, high rates of immigration.

Spain had changed anyway, with the economic liberalisation and investment that came with membership of the European Union.

Inside a bar in Spain
A neighbourhood bar is often the centre of local activity

Spanish shoppers have forsaken the open-air markets for the French-owned supermarket chain Carrefour.

And it is sad. You do not tend to talk to people at the supermarket checkout.

You cannot help but get caught up in conversation at the market, though.

There is always an old lady in front of you in the queue, inspecting a cut of meat to cook for her son's visit.

"He's a doctor you know," she'll say, before giving the stall owner and the rest of the queue a full description of his house, job and beautiful children, as well as an aside about the wife who is not quite good enough.

When I first lived here in 1995, everyone went to the market. In the handful of supermarkets there were then in Barcelona, there was not a single brand name I could recognise.

Now the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have set up shops all over the city stock PG Tips tea and Heinz baked beans.

Because despite the speed with which the immigrant community has grown, there has also been rapid, deep integration.

And the bar I chose as a replacement for Juan's bar is proof. It is staffed by one Filipino and two Bangladeshis who run the gamut of local greetings as if they had been born here.

"Hola, nena," they say, greeting everyone in Catalan slang.

In another bar, run by Chinese immigrants, the owner's children pester the customers for help with their Catalan homework. The customers do not seem to mind, this is after all their local neighbourhood bar. The centre of goings-on.

"It's the global boom and bust, not the immigrants, threatening the Spanish way of life," an old man at the bar tells me.

And I have to agree.

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