Why 160,000 protesters in Barcelona want Spain to welcome more refugees

At least 160,000 protesters marched from the city center to the Mediterranean coast, demanding the conservative government stop dragging its feet on the issue. 

Susana Vera/Reuters
People walk past Madrid's Town Hall, where a banner welcoming refugees is displayed, in Madrid, Spain, September 8, 2015. A similar message was written on posters marchers carried through the streets of Barcelona on Saturday.

In 2015, Spain’s government made a promise: welcome in more than 17,000 refugees within two years.

On Saturday, at least 160,000 protesters at a march in Barcelona said the conservative government is not living up to its pledge.

The marchers, who organizers said numbered 300,000, held banners and posters that read in the Catalan language: “Enough Excuses! Take Them in Now!” and “No More Deaths, Open the Borders!”

Spaniards and Catalans have a history of being more accepting of migrants than much of the rest of the European Union, perhaps because of their geography, their own histories of emigration and asylum seeking, their experiences with Basque and Islamic-inspired terrorism, or all of the above.

But Saturday’s protest, organized by a group that calls itself Casa Nostra Casa Vostra (Our Home is Your Home) offers a counter to anti-immigrant and nationalist attitudes that have bubbled to the surface in Europe and the United States. It’s true the borders of the Iberian Peninsula have not seen the same flow of migrants as the rest of the continent. But Spaniards and Catalans have been overwhelmingly supportive of refugees and asylum seekers, even if they accuse their government of dragging its feet.

“It is very important that in a Europe of uncertainty where xenophobia is on the rise for Barcelona to be a capital of hope,” said the city’s mayor, Ada Colau, who joined the march on Saturday.

The marchers, who police said numbered at least 160,000, but organizers said reached 300,000, demanded Madrid increase its efforts to take in refugees from war-torn countries like Syria. Protesters made their way from the city center to the Mediterranean coast, a stopping place symbolic of the 5,000 refugees who are estimated to have perished in the sea in 2016.

So far, the Spanish government has accepted only 1,100 of the 17,337 refugees it pledged to accept two years ago, 15,888 from camps in Italy and Greece and 1,449 from Turkey and Libya. Of the 1,100, 65 Syrians and 1 Iraqi arrived in Madrid on Thursday.

These numbers are far less than the 890,000 asylum seekers Germany brought in in 2015 and an additional 280,000 in 2016. But behind Germany and France, Spain has agreed to accept the third most migrants relocated from Greece and Italy of any EU member, according to the BBC.

But such moves have largely been driven by protesting Spaniards, not the government, writes Catarina Fernandes Martins for The Christian Science Monitor. 

In Spain, after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy agreed to welcome less than half of the original 6,000 [refugees] requested, Spaniards protested. Local authorities in Barcelona and Madrid called for cities across the country to provide shelter and aid to refugees, while Spaniards registered to have refugees stay as guests in their homes. Mr. Rajoy ended up accepting the requested EU refugee quota of 14,931, in addition to the 2,379 it initially agreed to accept.

Ms. Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, has been a leader of this charge. She was the driver behind Barcelona, Madrid, and several other cities launching a register of families willing to open their homes to refugees or simply help them, according to The Guardian. She criticized Madrid’s stance toward refugees in December at a Vatican conference on Europe’s refugee crisis.

Colau, who rose to prominence as a spokeswoman against Spain’s eviction measures, has the support of much of Catalonia, Spain, and Iberia behind her, as Ms. Martins wrote for the Monitor. 

The welcoming attitude on the Iberian Coast stands in contrast to most Central European countries, many of which have been overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees seeking asylum and where support for ultra-right groups has surged in response. Although some anti-immigration remarks can be found on social media, the people of both Spain and Portugal have been overwhelmingly supportive of incoming refugees, perhaps due to their own histories of emigration and asylum seeking. It also may be partly because the refugees themselves – aware of the difficult economic conditions – prefer to press on to more prosperous countries such as Germany or Sweden. 

A recent BBC World Service poll also found Spain the most welcoming of all countries, with 84 percent of the population agreeing to take in Syrian refugees. Along with this accepting attitude of immigration, Spaniards appear less fearful of terrorism inspired by Islamic extremism, a cultural attitude political scientists say stem from its own experiences.

“Spaniards have had to deal with terrorist attacks by the [Basque] separatist organization ETA. The Spanish public opinion slowly learned not to descend into a spiral of rhetorical and political violence," Spanish political scientist Miguel Ángel Simón told Martins. "The major parties paved the way when they signed the Antiterrorism Pact in December 2000. In it, they agreed not to use terrorism as a political weapon. The same philosophy determined a new agreement against radical Islamist terrorism, after 2004."

A 2013 study by the Migration Policy Institute, a migrant think tank in Washington, also attributed Spain’s immigration attitudes to three factors: a belief that immigration both bolsters economic growth, a perception that it is representative of democracy, and the low visibility of immigrants, “which makes them less of a perceived threat to national identity.

But since the flow of migrants into Europe has increased by the tens of thousands, European leaders have had to navigate complex sentiments over refugees. While Mr. Rajoy of Spain has been hesitant to live up to his government’s pledge, British Prime Minister Theresa May was slow to condemn US President Trump’s travel ban, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s support of refugees was a red flag for political foes and helped buoy the far-right Alternative for Germany. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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