Acton Commentary

Spain's African Immigrant Problem?


Spain's socialist government provided a nice red welcome mat for illegal African immigrants until March 11, 2004, when 190 people were killed by terrorists, most of whom were from Morocco. Immigration amnesty quickly became a security issue. Last month, the European Union's immigration chief announced plans to attract skilled African labor while boosting efforts to keep poor migrants out. Spain finds itself in a dilemma, simultaneously needing immigrants and seeking to curb them.

Spain's Canary Islands off west Africa, a popular European vacation spot, has become a favorite European entry point for Africans as well. This year alone nearly 24,000 people-- about five times the number for all of 2005--have been caught trying to reach the islands.

The new EU plan seeks to address shortages of skilled labor while stemming illegal immigration by offering $53 million to boost job creation in those African regions where most of the unskilled migrants to Europe originate. This strategy, however, will likely do little to solve the poverty, corruption, and violence that are at the source of African migration patterns.

Having no electricity, jobs, education, or running water in many African regions has created a context for desperate measures and a market for criminal activity, including human trafficking. Khalil Jemmah, a Moroccan aid worker, told FOX News that, “these people are so desperate they are ready to die ... it's just a question of who gets here first, the smugglers or the terrorists.” With only nine miles separating Africa from Europe, the dangerous journey to Spain in some of the most treacherous waters in the world is deemed by many to be worth the risk.

Spain's socialist government is stuck with the fact that the 700,000 immigrants granted amnesty last year are not in a market structure that can absorb them. Ironically, Spain cannot afford to keep large numbers of immigrants away either. Because institutions like marriage and family seem silly to many Spaniards, with the average woman only bearing 1.28 children in her lifetime, young workers are too few to support the socialist regime. Without immigrants, Spain may collapse. Josep Oliver, from Barcelona's Autonoma University told The Economist , “collectively we decided not to have children and, without knowing it, we decided to have immigrants.”

Because Spain's services sector now dominates the economy, accounting for an estimated 66.5 percent of GDP in 2005, low-skilled African immigrants filling those jobs have rescued Spain from a social security crisis. In the services sector, retailing, tourism, banking and telecommunications are critical contributors to economic activity helping annual GDP growth reach 3.7 percent. Spaniards need immigrants to meet their economy's demands. It is estimated that Spain will need 4 million extra workers by 2020 and the current devaluing of marriage and family leaves this need unfilled.

Spain's need notwithstanding, respect for human dignity requires that the desperate circumstances that compel African emigration be confronted. Commitment to the expansion of the rule of law, property rights, and free markets will permit African nations to develop economically, creating a context where migration to Europe no longer depends on the poverty of Africa.

These problems have their roots deep in history. Europe is now paying the price for not championing African autonomy, liberty, and free economic development during the1884-1885 Berlin Conference, when colonial powers scrambled to gain control over the interior of the African continent. The legacy of foreign intrusion and government coercion were exacerbated decades later by the Cold War.

As long as parts of Africa remain morally, politically, and economically unstable, and countries such as Spain feature generous welfare states and devalue family, Europe should expect huge waves of immigrants upon which it will, in fact, continue to rely to pay the bills. Africa's long-term political and economic problems are now Europe's problems as well, and $53 million is not enough to furnish the collateral benefits that would be the effect of African entrepreneurial societies ordered by law and liberty.