From The Economist print edition
When immigration policy fails, try giving up
IN MANY ways, Spain’s Socialist government has done better than outsiders expected. But it lacks an immigration policy. Spanish television screens show daily boatloads of exhausted Africans arriving illegally at the Canary Islands. And Spaniards now say immigration is one of their worst problems. Some 60% put part of the blame on their government.
More than half a million foreigners have arrived for each of the past three years. Some 700,000 illegal immigrants were granted amnesty last year. So the issue is hardly new. But the questions it prompts are becoming tougher. Can Spain absorb more people? Can it afford not to?
The Socialists do not seem to have an answer. “The labour market has absorbed all it can,” said José Blanco, a senior party official, recently. “Spain will continue needing immigrants for a long time,” replied the government’s employment chief, Valeriano Gómez.
The scale of Spanish immigration makes angry debates in other European countries look trivial. Some 650,000 people arrived last year, pushing the total population over 44m. Italy, Europe’s second-biggest migration magnet, managed barely half that.
Immigrants now make up 8.7% of the population—a fourfold increase in just six years. Those turning up so telegenically in the Canary Islands are, at 21,000 over a year, just a detail. Most step off flights from Latin American countries and walk straight into jobs on building sites or as household helpers.
Spain has benefited in many ways. Social-security receipts have increased, postponing a pensions crisis. Migrants have stoked demand, helping annual GDP growth reach 3.7%. They have even turned around the country’s declining birth rate. And they have kept labour costs down.
Josep Oliver, from Barcelona’s Autónoma university, reckons Spain will need 4m extra workers by 2020. With their families in tow, that would put the immigrant population at 10m, or almost a fifth of what may then be the total. His study suggests Spain may need even more, with up to 9.8m if growth continues apace. Even if growth is low, 2.3m will be needed.
That is because native Spaniards’ birth rate is so low. An average señora will bear just 1.35 children in her lifetime. “Collectively we decided not to have children and, without knowing it, we decided to have immigrants,” says Mr Oliver. To show he has a grip on the issue, the prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, must tell voters to expect more newcomers, not fewer. That will take courage.