Spain is offering jobless non-EU immigrants a one-time payout of unemployment benefits in exchange for surrendering their Spanish residency rights. But many immigrants are loath to leave their adopted home.
Elhadri is hurting from the Spanish downturn, but had adapted to his new country
South American and African immigrants in Spain increasingly find themselves caught in a tough predicament. Unable to gain long-term employment in their host country, they see no attractive prospects back at home, either.
Despite high unemployment, many of these immigrants choose to remain in their host nations rather than return to their countries of origin.
Among them is Moroccan immigrant Ali Elhadri, a construction worker who has found himself a victim of the collapse of Spain's construction industry.
The 34-year-old Moroccan had a much different vision of his future when he risked his life 12 years ago to come to Europe in a boat which he described as "a little nutshell."
"There were 25 of us, and the boat was only five or six meters (16-20 feet) long," he told Deutsche Welle. "We were practically stacked one on top of the other."
Skilled labor positions in Spain have gotten harder to come by
Elhadri said he and his fellow passengers came "with the illusion that we would find the land of our dreams. But what awaited us was a harsh reality."
Elhadri arrived at the time of Spain's construction boom and at first had no trouble finding work. He soon received permanent residency status. However, in the wake of the global financial crisis a decade later, many of Spain's construction companies have gone out of business.
Now jobless, Elhadri can no longer count on state benefits. A few weeks ago he stopped receiving unemployment benefits. He currently works on odd jobs, such as helping out friends with renovations.
Better jobless in Spain than gone for good
In the face of high unemployment rates among immigrants, Spain came up with an initiative in 2008 to support jobless, non-EU citizens who want to return to their countries of origin. In these cases, the government offers a one-time payout of immigrants' full unemployment benefits.
Usually, the lump sum amounts to about 10,000 euros ($14,000).
However, the initiative has been far less popular than the government had expected. Only 1,400 immigrants took up the government’s offer in the program’s first two months. A likely reason is that immigrants who choose this option must give up their right to live in Spain.
"Many immigrants leave feeling they've failed," said Rocio Redondo of Spain's Red Cross. "Of course they are thankful for the financial aid, but almost all of them have difficulty giving up their Spanish papers."
Redondo is in contact with many immigrants who would like to return to their countries of origin for a certain period, but said most give up their plans when they learn that they will not be allowed to return to Spain. It is difficult for people who aren't from Europe to get a Spanish visa.
Elhadri's friend Said is also unemployed but would rather try his luck in France than return to Morocco
Sometimes Elhadri and his friends toy with the notion of returning to Morocco, where the construction industry is expanding and laborers are in demand. Yet Elhadri is loath to take this option, saying he would have to accept wages of about six euros a day - the cost of a kilogram of meat.
He also does not want to give up the freedoms he enjoys in Spain. Elhadri said he has grown quite liberal in Spain and cannot imagine living in Morocco, where he says religion pervades daily life.
"Life here in Spain is good. In terms of politics, there's democracy,” he said. “Your rights are protected." That's quite different from Morocco, where he says corruption still rules.
"Even when you need something that you have a right to - like papers from a government office - you have to bribe people."
In Spain to stay
Back when Elhadri was still had a good income, he bought a house in Morocco. Last year he married in his home country and had a daughter.
Elhadri also has land back in Morocco where he would like to start a vineyard, but he says he would need three or four years to establish wine production. He would consider the project if it didn't mean losing his Spanish residency.
As it is, Elhadri says, neither his unemployment nor his family could convince him to leave his adoptive Spanish homeland.
Author: Stephanie Eichler (dl)
Editor: Chuck Penfold