Spain to Senegal: Stay Home

Adrian Bleifuss Prados

An African immigrant is rescued off the coast of the Canary Islands on January 7, 2008. (Desiree Martin/AFP/Getty Images)

In September 2007, Senegalese television viewers saw the image of a drowned body washed up on a rocky seashore. In the grim advertisement – paid for by Spain’s secretary of state for immigration – a grieving mother explains that she hasn’t heard from her son in months.

The spot then cuts to Senegalese pop star Youssou N’Dour. Seated on a boat with ocean surf in the background, the singer tells the audience in the Wolof language, You already know how this story ends. Thousands of young people have died. Don’t risk your life for nothing. You are the future of Africa.”

Ricardo Losa, a spokesman for the Spanish Ministry of External Affairs and Cooperation, says the aim of the campaign is to encourage the Senegalese to pursue legal avenues of immigration and avoid dangerous sea-crossings. 

The drowning deaths of would-be immigrants have added a tragic element to what is becoming an increasingly heated debate within Spain and across Europe. According to the Spanish Civil Guard, thousands of immigrants have died attempting the voyage. During a 45-day period in 2005, the guard estimated that as many as 1,700 Mauritanians were lost at sea. 

At a time when far-right politicians are gaining ground across Northern Europe, Spain has taken a different tack. Despite the infamous fences that encase Spain’s North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, the center-left government of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has implemented one of the most liberal immigration regimes in Europe. 

Zapatero’s government has legalized – or, in the government’s words, regularized” – hundreds of thousands of undocumented foreigners. This has drawn the ire of Spain’s right-wing opposition, as well as criticism from other leaders, such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who perceive Spain to be an open gate to the European Union. 

However, before immigrants reach Spanish soil, many must brave dangerous voyages in un-seaworthy vessels. One of the most treacherous routes is between continental Africa and the Canary Islands, off the Moroccan coast. 

Given Senegal’s dismal economy, many are willing to risk the waters in search of a better life. A Spanish government spokesman is quick to point out that Spain has sponsored vocational programs and agricultural development in the West African country. But three job-training centers are woefully inadequate for a country of more than 12 million people and with nearly 50 percent unemployment.

The Canaries are fertile ground for anti-immigrant sentiments. Speaking at a rally in the Canaries on Feb. 27, Mariano Rajoy, leader of Spain’s conservative Popular Party, told supporters that the immigrants … must commit themselves to adopting Spanish customs. I understand that there are other countries where there is polygamy. But not here, and it is not enough to say that they must follow the law.” Rajoy advocates an assimilation contract” – a document that would bind immigrants to culturally integrate into Spanish society.

This commitment to Spanish customs” has become a key theme in the Popular Party’s challenge to the Socialist government. The message is problematic at a time when regional and separatist movements are undermining any monolithic view of Spanish identity.

A commentator in the Socialist-friendly newspaper El País sarcastically suggested that Spain would be better off if Muslim immigrants retained their traditional prohibition on alcohol rather than adopt the botellón, the often raucous, open-air style of drinking now popular with Spanish youth. 

Until recent decades, poor Spaniards emigrated to more developed economies in Northern Europe or the Southern Cone of Latin America in search of work. 

But Spain is now an importer of labor, and as economic refugees of this new century arrive on its shores, will the Spanish people remember their own history of emigration? 

As singer N’Dour’s ad says, You already know how this story ends.”

Adrian Bleifuss Prados is a lawyer in Chicago.
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