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Muslim immigrants leaving crisis-stricken Iberia

Source : Agencies | 23 Mar 2013

Spain and Portugal were considered the Iberian Dream not long ago but mostly Muslim immigrants have begun leaving these countries due to the recession and ensuing unemployment, Foreign Policy reports.

More people left the county in 2011 than entered and the trend increased in the first semester of 2012, the Spanish Institute of Statistics reported.

2,114 requests for repatriation through the Assisted Program for Voluntary Return, which pays airfare home, were made in 2011 and the number is expected to have risen in 2012. While immigration to Portugal was less common, Portuguese press reported a 2 percent decrease in foreign residents for 2011.

Sheikh David Munir, the popular imam of Lisbon’s Central Mosque, realizes that Muslims are leaving Portugal and estimates attendance at Friday prayers, which averaged about 1,000 faithful a couple years ago, is down by 10 to 15 percent.

According to the report, titled "Moving On: Iberia's New Muslims," much of Lisbon’s immigrant life is concentrated in Martim Moniz Plaza, where the two malls, with 60 and 156 shops, were quickly occupied by Africans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Brazilians, and Chinese. Now Chinese immigrants dominate both centers.

Taslim Rana, a Bengladeshi who owns three shops admits business is terrible at Martim Moniz, and plans to close them and open a translation office. He says, “I just hope we can escape the radicalization you see in England and other places.”

While both Spain and Portugal experienced major changes as the ancient colonial powers went from fascism to democracy, rapid development during the early 1990s made them a prestigious gateway to the rest of Europe. Due to their aging populations, low birth rate, and urgent need for labor, they welcomed immigrants.

The new European Immigrant Citizens Survey found that in 2011, migrants were generally more satisfied with their lives in Spain and Portugal than the average citizen and more than migrants in other European countries. It was a strong endorsement of the Iberian Model of integration.

According to Marvine Howe, Spain and Portugal will inevitably need to rely on immigrant labor whenever recovery might take hold due to continued decline in the birth rate to 1.3 children per woman.

The influx of Muslims had special significance in Spain and Portugal given their history. The Islamic rule which lasted from the 8th to the 15th century in some regions was followed by the Christian Reconquista, the Inquisition, and the mass expulsion of Jews and Muslims.

Refugees, called retornados, first came to Portugal after its African colonies’ independence in 1975.

Immigration boomed in Spain after the 1990 Schengen Treaty, which dropped all internal border controls between European countries while imposing visas for all North Africans and many other foreigners. Spanish authorities were more tolerant of undocumented workers. Thousand perished in pateras, or ramshackle skiffs.

Spain and Portugal built an elaborate humanitarian integration process based on the principle of interculturalism.

The government established the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs for immigration policy and it worked with other ministries and local authorities to provide immigrants with access to basic social services, education, and employment.

According to the policies of Portugal’s national immigration agency, the High Commission for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue, all children of immigrants have the right to free health care and education. The new Nationality Law allows foreigners to acquire Portuguese citizenship after six years of residency, compared to eight to ten years in Spain. Latin Americans need only two years residency.

Changes after 9/11

Spain and Portugal have actively developed political, cultural, and commercial relations with the Islamic world. More Iberian politicians and academics now cast a positive light on Islamic rule, which they contend has placed them in a unique position to understand and coexist with their Muslim neighbors.

Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, launched a project for an Alliance of Civilizations in 2004 and persuaded Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to co-sponsor the project, which was formally adopted by United Nations on July 14, 2005.

Spain in 2005 conducted a mass legalization involving some 700,000 undocumented immigrants. Wary Europeans charge that Iberians are soft on immigrants and press them to defend Europe’s southern frontiers.

After September 11, 2001 and the March 11, 2004 attacks on five commuter trains in Madrid, generalized negative sentiments toward Muslims became more prevalent.

Polls showed that in 2006, the peak year for boat people, Islamophobia reached its highest level, with 60 percent of Spaniards holding a negative opinion of Muslims, up from 37 percent a year earlier.

The Arab Spring, national elections, and the world economic crisis changed dynamics in Iberia.

In the midst of the accelerating recession, conservative parties secured victories in the 2011 regional, municipal, and legislative elections. The new administrations have sought to reduce their deficits and gain control over the catastrophic jobs situation.

Spanish unemployment topped 25 percent, with Portugal at 15 percent. Joblessness is twice as high for immigrants.

While the Iberian states agree on the principle of interculturalism, the economic crisis has accentuated differences in public attitudes. Spain’s Muslim population, composed mainly of North Africans, is seen by some as descendants of the Moors who inhabited Iberia during the late Medieval period. There have been occasional Islamophobic incidents—protests against the spread of Islamic prayer halls or Muslim headscarves in public schools—but never approaching those in other European countries.

Crisis hits hard

As of September 1, all undocumented immigrants will be barred from national health service and their children denied free schooling. Catalonia and its capital of Barcelona, the Basque country, and Andalucia have said “no” to the law. The main labor federations denounced the ruling as a violation of human rights while non-governmental agencies declare they will not implement the reform.

Rajoy’s government, however, has renewed the mandate of the main institution charged with religious minority relations, the Foundation for Pluralism and Coexistence but has cut its budget in half. Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo says Spain will remain in the Alliance of Civilizations, though there will be a reduction in contributions for budgetary reasons.

Both Iberian nations remain vested in North Africa and the Middle East because of their dependence on imported energy resources and investments in the region.

Spain’s Ministers for Public Works and Foreign Affairs traveled to Saudi Arabia to sign contracts for the construction and operation of a high-speed railway between Mecca and Medina, a $9 billion project.

While the Foreign Ministry announced sweeping cuts in foreign assistance, it emphasized that aid would be continued to “Arab and African states going through a democratic transition.”

Portuguese technicians are heading to Algeria and Morocco with job contracts, while businesses and skilled workers flock to former colonies Mozambique and Angola.

Spain is moving aggressively to increase bilateral trade and investments with Turkey, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates.