Spain’s woes have transformed the prospects of illegal immigrants from Latin America dramatically. Long seen as Europe’s softest border, Spain’s economic crisis has turned the situation on its head. Headlines focus on the construction work that employed much of the male immigrant population and how that work has dried up, sending many of them home. But the women who have quietly been cleaning most of Catalunya for the last few years are also feeling the pinch.
Spain is also becoming more risky for South American illegal immigrants, with the police reportedly given daily deportation quotas as the government attempts to close the door. For some, the economic and emotional equation of staying in Catalunya no longer adds up.
The quarterly study of the labour market, the Encuesta de Población Activa (ENA) published by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE) revealed in July that unemployment in Spain had reached 20.09 percent. These official figures have a huge impact on the illegal migrant workforce.
Angela del Rosario Castillo from the Asociación de Mujeres Latinas sin Fronteras says that 60 percent of the women they see end up doing domestic work and that this job market has shrunk. Speaking to Metropolitan she said: “The crisis has meant that Spanish couples are doing more of the work in the home themselves and may now hire a girl for only three days rather than five. It’s the same at the banks where a girl may now only have two days work. The women have to look a lot harder.” Rosario Castillo, who came to Barcelona from Colombia in 2000 explains: “The roles in families have changed now. Since the crisis, construction work has dried up and so now it is often the man who stays at home either here or in the country of origin. Women have to earn double to sustain their households and send extra money home.”
Adding to an already difficult situation is the fact that Spain is tightening up on immigration. The government’s reported figures for 2009 showed 10,616 people were deported under the ley de extranjeria for staying here illegally. This is up 25 percent from 2008. New revisions of the immigration law were introduced in December, restricting the number of family members immigrants can bring over and extending the amount of time illegal immigrants can be held if found without papers.
As life becomes more difficult for immigrants in Spain, so it becomes more attractive to go home and finally reunite with children and family often not seen in years.
Age: 31, Peru
Lived in Spain since December 2005
Dominga, whose name has been changed, was a 26-year-old unmarried mother with no support from the father of her four year-old son when she decided to leave her son behind and come to Barcelona.
“When I left I was working as a hairdresser but in Peru you don’t earn much working full-time, just enough to be able to eat and buy clothes. I wanted to give my son more. In Barcelona I have saved money working as a carer. Here, if you earn, say €800, you have €400 for food and rent and the rest you can send home.
I’ve been able to build a two-storey house in my home town back in Peru.
I’ve never seen it, but my son tells me about it. I had to borrow from the bank to do it quickly because once you’ve started you have to finish because of everything you’re paying.
I still owe money on it and that’s why I can’t go home yet. I also want to save about $5000 to start a weekend restaurant in the ground floor of my house. But salaries have dropped. As a carer, you used to be able to earn €1,100 but now the maximum is €850 and there are 20 women going for each job. You have to get up at 5am to stand a chance in the queue and there are always hundreds of people there.
I plan to return at the end of the year just before my son’s 10th birthday. When I left, it was five in the morning and my son was still in bed sleeping, I woke him up to say I was going and he just took my hand and then closed his eyes again because he was half asleep. That was the last time I saw him. I am pleased I came because I didn’t come in vain and I’ve managed to buy a roof over our heads so I do feel better than before, in a way, but at the same time I can never get back the years that I’ve lost.
Age: 40, Bolivia
Lived in Spain since March 2007
Teresa, whose name has been changed, left her four children, (now aged between four and 22) in Bolivia three years ago.
“I came to pay off a debt of $3,000 that I built up with my husband after we were defrauded whilst buying a taxi. What I’d heard about Spain was that you could earn good money and that was all that mattered; saving and sending money. When I left the house everyone was crying and I had to leave my youngest, a nine month-old baby, with my mother. But it had to be then because after April 1st, 2007 (when entrance requirements were tightened for Bolivians) I wouldn’t have been able to get in on just my passport.
I had to borrow $2,500 to pay an agency, which organises the flight, hotel and instructs you on immigration. That’s a lot of money in Bolivia, so it’s very risky if they deport you because you can lose it all and end up with double the debts you started with. In the last three months, before April 1st there were a lot more deportations.
It’s been hard to find full-time work, I’ve spent months looking. But I’ve worked off all my debt. I don’t owe anything to anyone and we’ve bought a new taxi, so in November I’ll go home. More people are going back because of the crisis. It’s more difficult here, and it’s sad to be alone, even though we tell ourselves it’s not. I don’t want to be here any longer.
Age: 28, Bolivia
Lived in Spain since March 2007
Alejandra, (not her real name), is one of nine children whose father was a miner in Potosi, Bolivia who earned good money until the mine was privatised.
“So we moved to Cochabamba and then life was more difficult. It was really difficult for him to find other work and we (the children) were all really small. We lived two years with my parents before they couldn’t manage anymore and sent my two sisters and me to work as nannies.
At the age of nine I went to live with a teacher from my school and I looked after her kids. I was there for nearly four years before I went back to my parents and worked. Now I’m working in Spain to generate money, mostly for my family and I’m building a house on land that belongs to my mother. There is still a lot to do so I need to stay here in order to finish that off and make a bit of money for myself. But I’m not thinking of staying much longer. It’s a sad life at the end of the day because everyone is so busy running around working, you can’t make a life for yourself.
Age: 38, Peru
Lived in Barcelona since November 2005
“I left my two children in Peru four and a half years ago. My little boy was four and my eldest was 12. It was so hard but I had to make some money as my husband couldn’t find work. I sent money home as soon as I arrived and for the next four years so that my husband could use it to build a house and pay for the children. I went home in January this year and I found my husband and children living in the new house with another woman. My kids told me they didn’t love me anymore, that I’d left them and made them unhappy. They said that this new woman had looked after and loved them and that they weren’t going to leave her. They threw me out of the house.
Now I’m back working in Barcelona because there didn’t seem much point staying in Peru but my heart’s gone out of it. I no longer send any money back now as I know now that my family has moved on.