Spain’s Decade-Long Immigration Boom

In the decade between 1998 and 2008 Spain experienced an influx of immigrants unprecedented in its history.

Granted, all the Romans, Visigoths and Moors who settled on the Iberian Peninsula during the first millennium CE could probably be labelled immigrants too. In modern history, though, there is no precedent for the large-scale influx of immigrants into Spain at the start of the 21st century.

UE immigration chart-topper

For most of the twentieth century Spain had been a net emigration country. That changed dramatically as the millennium came to a close. In the first seven years of the 21st century Spain topped the EU immigration charts. The immigrant population jumped from fewer than 900 000 in 1998 to 5.2 million in 2008 – the equivalent of the whole population of Croatia moving to Spain in just ten years! 2007 alone saw an influx of 700 000 people. By 2014 Spain had an immigrant population of 6.5 million, representing 14% of a total population of almost 47 million people.

Where did the immigrants come from?

The largest immigrant contingents came from Morocco, Romania and South American countries such as Ecuador and Colombia.  Immigrants from the UK, France and Germany also flocked to Spain; by 2007 almost 15% of all immigrants in Spain came from these three European countries.

Immigrants were attracted by three factors: the democratic transformation of Spain during the 1980s and early 1990s; the economic boom between the mid-1990s and 2008; and for sun-seeking Britons, Germans and French there was the lure of a sunny, relaxed retirement destination, offering excellent infrastructure.

Spain’s membership of the European Union held great appeal for people outside the EU, especially for residents of the former Spanish Empire who could gain citizenship after just two years of continuous, legal residence.   Access to Spain meant access to Europe.

What’s more, the huge demand for low-skilled workers in construction and service industries appealed to immigrants from countries that had a lower standard of education, compared to Spain. Education was not a barrier to job entry because most of the jobs on offer did not require advanced skills. It was possible to fill service niches in restaurants, hotels and the domestic environment because these niches were labor-intensive and did not require an advanced education.

As immigration escalated, a third factor came into play:  large immigrant networks were established, making it easier for new immigrants to enter Spain. Immigrant communities provided a safe and supportive point of entry and so vanguard immigrants were followed by their families and friends.

Reverse gear

Then, in 2008 the promises of economic Nirvana in southern Europe bottomed out when the world-wide economic crisis struck.  In just two years Spain’s gross domestic product fell by 3.9%. Unemployment rose sharply. Hardest hit were foreigners, whose rate of employment dropped by 18.9% between 2007 and 2009, compared to the 8.8% drop in the employment rate of Spanish citizens.  By 2010 Spain’s unemployment rate was double the rate in the Eurozone.

The Spanish government came under increasing pressure to curb immigrant flows and to rethink its liberal immigration policies.  In August 2011 the European Commission approved the restriction of access for Romanian workers until 31 December 2012.

Financial pressures, regulatory restrictions and economic hardship took their toll and many of the immigrants who had sought a better life in Spain started leaving the country. Spanish immigration was set into reverse gear, causing net migration to become negative again in 2012. The foreign-born population dramatically dropped by 1.3 million people in the four years between 2012 and 2016.

The aftermath of the boom and the bust

The challenge for Spain in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis was three-fold: retraining and upskilling the labor force to be productive in a development economy; educating and integrating second generation immigrant youth whose school drop-out rates were generally high; and addressing potential cultural, religious and political tensions between diverse communities.

Spain is making some headway in tackling the first challenge.  Although upskilling the labor force is a long-term project, the economy is on the mend and job opportunities are growing again. In 2017 the economy was growing at 3% – double the Eurozone average.

However, employment of under-25s is still more than 40% and high school dropout rates amongst immigrant children remain very high.

The third challenge, social integration, seems to be on track.  Although Spain was one of the countries hardest hit by the economic bust, the country has not suffered from a strong anti- immigrant sentiment. There are indications that attitudes to immigration may be hardening, but so far social and political checks and balances have made Spain a relatively friendly space for immigrants.



Policy of the Spanish state regarding immigration. Free movement of Romanian workers restricted in Spain by Cristina Ilie Goga

A Social Network Approach to Spanish Immigration:  An Analysis of Immigration into Spain 1997-2006 by  Rickard Sandell,  Senior Research Fellow IMDEA  (Instituto Madrileño de Estudios Avanzados)

Spain: Time of Reckoning after the Immigration Boom by Mauricio Rojas Director of the Observatory for Immigration and Development Cooperation, Rey Juan Carlos University (Madrid) Associate Professor of Economic History, Lund University (Sweden) Member of the Swedish Parliament (2002-2008)

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