The social challenges of immigration in the Canary Islands. The special case of Colombians

migrants arriving on the spanish canary islands in 2004
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Ein Flüchtling bei seiner Festnahme auf den Kanarischen Inseln (2004)


by Manuel Ferrer Muñoz

Migration constitutes a structural phenomenon intrinsically associated to economic globalization and, therefore, in the need of panoramic, not of singular approaches. Hence the need of thorough reflection instead of studies rushed by immediate urgencies.

At the same time, more research about the diverse immigrant collectives, with their own peculiarities, are needed. For example, Colombian immigration to the Canary Islands responds to specific stimuli that are associated with domestic problems in Colombia and, in particular, to the dramatic displacement of peoples due to the internal guerrilla conflict, paramilitary forces, drug traffic, the environmental destruction done for the sake of the Plan Colombia and, in particular, and the deep recession of 1999. Not in vain has Colombia been represented as a country that flees in the face of combating armies. In terms of significant specificities there are comparable cases of immigration from Morocco, Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina or Ecuador, to quote just a few non-EU countries from which the most intense migratory flows come into the Canary Islands.

The media have accustomed Spaniards to focus the immigration phenomenon from the perspective of its problems, without paying due attention to the positive effects it entails, to name just a few: the increase in the number of contributions to Social Security, the coverage of jobs in areas of low demand (domestic work, care of the sick and elderly), the activation of markets for the banking sector, the sales of used automobiles, the rent of housing etc.

A deeper analysis of migration into the Canary Islands demands, first of all, that we open our horizons. This implies, on the one hand, an interdisciplinary approach to search solutions for the challenges derived from those population movements, and on the other hand a conceptual framework that ponders the solutions provided by scholars and administrative experts of other regions affected by similar situations, but also at research carried out in origin countries.

Besides, it is needed that the local population, used to hear about this phenomenon from an exclusively statistical perspective –oftentimes, a needlessly alarming one-, gets to know the human reality of migration and to put a face to the persons who live to far from the soil where they were born. Having recognized this human reality, we need to reflect upon the complexity of situations and the diversity of migrant collectives: as an example it suffices to think –as we noted before- about the differences between the population coming from Latin America and Africa or Europe. A far as Colombia is concerned –maybe the most notorious case- there are some who had arrived to the Canary Islands to flee prosecution related to the guerrilla and those who left for fear of the paramilitary.

We also need a better understanding of the living conditions in the origin countries; that is, the reasons that explain the willingness to start the migrant adventure and also of the contexts in which the existence of foreigners who live among us unfolds.

The Columbians in the Canaries

The case of Colombia, as stated above, constitutes a chapter of its own, and claims a thorough meditation about the possibility to put to work some attempts of containing war with social development policies or by of way of the restructuring of marginality into productive force that may be the basis for alternative projects of development through social investment in education, welfare policies and financing of community enterprises. Venezuelan migration, on the other hand, requires a reflection upon the return of Canaries who migrated to Venezuela half a century ago, and about the contemporary context of the aggressive politics of the Chavez government in the agrarian sphere. If we think of Morocco, we cannot ignore the significance Saharaui politics of recognition and the repression exercised by the army and the Moroccan police. Besides, African migration is inseparable from the profound economic deterioration that affects the Atlantic African coast…

In the end, it is civil society that is to give satisfactory responses to the demands of immigration. And for that matter, civil society disposes of its own resources: associations of diverse kinds, religious confessions, neighbourhood groups… The effort seen so far in the Canary Islands by organizations tied to the Catholic Church, such as Cáritas, or the effort developed by evangelic communities deserves special consideration. But diligent and determinate action is needed to prevent xenophobic attitudes from taking hold among the population –attitudes which are more dangerous in times of crisis- and so that the tendencies to form ghettoes do not lead to irreversible situations.

It is necessary that the migrants themselves work in the organizations of the receiving society and in those institutional organs conceived for the very purpose of providing attention to foreign population, for example, the services of intercultural mediation.

The practical efficiency of legal measures has been very limited

Certainly the legal framework is not satisfactory so far. We may leave this wailing point aside, however, as perpetual lament is good for nothing. Since 2002 Spain requires a tourist visa from Colombians who want to enter the country: even before that date a policy was started to regulate and order migratory flux through the program GRECO (Global Program for the Regulation and Coordination of Immigration and Foreigners; Programa Global de Regulación y Coordinación de Extranjería y la Inmigración). The first bilateral agreement to this end was signed in Colombia on May 21st, 2001. The principal objectives of this agreement were the pre-selection of workers in countries of origin, combined with a system that provides information on employment offers, on how movement is organized, on the special provisions in the case of seasonal workers and on the guarantee of rights and labour conditions in the destination. The practical efficiency of this program has been, nevertheless, very limited.

Despite this difficult setting, the associative movement –in particular, that promoted by young people - can and must offer valid answers. Regarding the associations promoted in the Canary Islands by foreign citizens, however, with some honorary exceptions, a lot remains to be done.

A practically unexplored field is the psychological attention to the immigrant population, who oftentimes suffer from Ulysses syndrome. The galloping unemployment, the police raids to detain immigrants in irregular conditions, the rejection that their condition of “otherness” occasionally provokes, are all factors that affect the migrants, also in terms of the their psychological and emotional health.

Only from those premises and the determination to come to terms with migration from a plural perspective will it be feasible to overcome these problems, to turn the page on these issues and to find pragmatic solutions that make a difference in terms of an improvement of the social and economic conditions of foreign collectives who reside in the Canary Islands, and in taking better advantage of the workforce that is at the service of the prosperity for the Autonomous Community.

Understanding the causes of crime

A dangerously and irresponsibly diffused topic is of course that which associates migration and criminality, though it is true that there are some young migrants who get involved in drug traffic as a means of survival, and that there are women who resort to prostitution oftentimes induced by exploiters that operate in the islands. The blindness of the superficial observer leads him to see just the effects and not the causes, which are necessarily related with the dirty business of human trafficking, particularly acute in countries like Brazil or Colombia.

The full and successful integration of migrant population in the social fabric of the Canaries archipelago requires improving the expectations of migrants regarding the access to employments which are adequate for their professional formation. Any true and sincere respect to their social rights demands the improvement of conditions in which they work.

In parallel, and without any solution in the long term, some aspects have to be confronted such as access to housing, health services and education -important axes around which the difficult and delicate process of incorporation if migrants into the receiving society occurs. Here we list, just as example, some pieces of the most obvious evidence but which are somehow usually silenced:

  • countless immigrants find it difficult to rent a place to live, because they do not find any sponsor;
  • the overcrowded condition in which many of them live is often dramatic;
  • it is often forgotten that the majority of immigrants contribute to Social Security and, nevertheless, they hardly benefit form the Canary Island Health Service because they are young and they usually do not suffer from illnesses that require costly treatments.

There is no doubt that there are important challenges and exciting research horizons in the area of the political participation and access to citizenship for persons that come from other geographical regions and that nevertheless have already integrated into our society. The foreseeable access of non-European foreigners to vote in local elections may set a path-breaking line in this regard.

One of the most important social and political challenges that the Canary Islands must confront, as a receiving territory of migrants, is the development of formulas of integration that not only guarantee the respect to particularities, but that contribute to the mutual enrichment and look at multiculturalism from a perspective that does not oversimplify its complexity. An appropriate intercultural approach starts from a definition of the inter-cultural space as one of complex and simultaneous processes of cross-breeding and segregation, globalization and localization, change and retention.


Translation: Luicy Pedroza

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Dr. Manuel Ferrer Muñoz is coordinator of the Centro Europeo de Estudios sobre Flujos Migratorios, Canary Islands.