- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 23, 2002

MADRID Here under a hot, midafternoon sun last month, Charles Ikilo, 25, a Nigerian, was selling newspapers on a downtown sidewalk at $1.50 euros a copy, the current equivalent of $1.42.

He entered Europe illegally by sea in April 2001 at Tarifa, the southernmost tip of Spain where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic Ocean. Mr. Ikilo earns $420 euros a month, which doesn't allow him to "do anything," he said. "I only pray to God every day to help me."

Spain, where nearly 3 percent of the 40 million population are foreigners, seeks to prevent illegal immigration.

According to rough estimates by the European Commission, an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants each year come into the European Union, where 3 million illegal immigrants are already more or less settled in.

This country like many of the other 14 members of the European Union blames refugees for many of its problems. Spaniards fault the newcomers, mostly from Africa and South America, for taking jobs and creating high unemployment, and also for the rising number of street crimes.

"It's out of control," said Albert Renom, a project manager for a computer company in Barcelona, referring to illegal immigration.

Pickpockets from Latin America steal from Spaniards and tourists, he said, on Las Ramblas, a popular Barcelona avenue near the harbor bustling with outdoor vendors, cafes and entertainers. "I don't know what's happening in other countries, but I think the feeling is the same."

Some Spaniards, though, realize that Spain cannot prosper without immigrants, who bolster the work force in the service, agriculture and construction sectors. A large number of Spaniards don't want such work, experts say, and illegal aliens prop up a deficient economy.

"We need people to work here," said Alejandro Inurrieta, an economist at the CIMD Group, a leading Spanish brokerage firm. "We are not the core of the European economies like Germany or France."

Spain is Europe's fifth-largest economy, and Mr. Inurrieta, a former professor at Basque Country University in Bilbao, considers the country as being in the European Union's middle third. Spain's annual inflation rate is 3.6 percent, compared with 2.2 percent for the European Union overall, he said, and unemployment is at 11.5 percent, considerably above the 8.4 percent average and the European Union's highest overall.

Madrid currently holds the European Union's six-month rotating presidency a distinction it will yield to Denmark on July 1.

For Spain to improve its economic performance, it must find a way to coexist with both legal and illegal immigrants, said Carmen Martinez, 43, an ornithologist. She works in Madrid but lives in Toledo, more than an hour south by train. Spain should negotiate with other countries, and allow a certain number of refugees to obtain decent jobs on normal terms.

"We can learn to live with them without problems," Mrs. Martinez said, conceding that "a lot of people don't have this opinion."

The country has a long history of intolerance toward outsiders, perhaps dating back at least to the Visigoths, who supplanted the Romans only generations after the locals began speaking Spanish. After a few centuries under the rule of German-speaking barbarians came the Moors, who stayed twice as long. After evicting the Saracens, the Spaniards expelled the Jews in the 15th century.

"Modern Spaniards are the descendants, physically and ethnically, of Jews, Muslims and Christians," said Maria Rosa Menocal, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University, and author of "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain."

Modern Spaniards "don't understand their own history," says Mrs. Menocal. "They're descendants of all the people they forced to convert" to Christianity.

Thousands of immigrants from Morocco and sub-Saharan countries now risk their lives each year by taking to the seas and trying to get to Spain. Typically, they pay organized crime to smuggle them close to their goal on untrustworthy vessels.

Mr. Ikilo, the newspaper vendor, paid $200 a large sum in Nigeria to reach Spain. The boat developed a leak, he said, and the 50 or so people on board had to be rescued.

"I decided to leave for a better living," Mr. Ikilo said. A farm laborer in Nigeria, he chose Spain because of its relative proximity. He hopes to attend college.

Not all immigrants violate laws to enter Spain. Ariel Lo, 26, is from Argentina and works at a tapas and jazz bar in Barcelona. He has the proper documentation, he said, and moved to Italy in the late fall of 2001, and then Spain.

Mr. Lo came to Europe, rather than the United States, to get further away from his home and family. "The nightlife is very good," he said enthusiastically, referring to the myriad restaurants and bars that stay open regularly until 2 or 3 a.m.

Spain was the second-most popular tourist destination in the world last year behind France, and with more people arriving come more problems. For example, the country's crime rate rose 10.9 percent from 2000 to 2001. Police say 40 percent of those arrested are foreigners.

Fear of terrorism hasn't dampened Spain's allure. While the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States temporarily reduced foreign travel, about 1 million Americans a year still visit Spain.

Ironically, the crux of Spain's economic problems is its reliance on tourism, which is responsible for 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product, said Mr. Inurrieta, the CIMD economist. Hotels and restaurants frequently raise prices, blaming Spain's high inflation. "We abuse the situation in terms of prices," he said.

The inflation leads to a decrease in Spain's exports and to job losses, Mr. Inurrieta said. That leaves only low-paying and temporary jobs, such as housecleaning and picking crops on farms in the southern regions.

"Like any country in Europe, the wealth of the people has increased a lot from the 1980s, so we now have a different sense of security. People feel more comfortable," said Mr. Inurrieta, 39, in an interview at his Madrid office building. "They prefer to stay unemployed," he said, nodding toward women and young people.

If matters are to improve, the Spanish government will have to properly manage the rising number of immigrants. So far it has avoided the political fallout experienced in France and the Netherlands, where anti-immigration sentiment has been on the rise.

Mr. Inurrieta suggests establishing immigration quotas and reducing the time needed for aliens to obtain legal documentation as ways Spain might avoid the political tensions evident elsewhere. Further, allowing more countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, into the European Union would help, he said.

"One of the main weapons to decrease illegal immigration will be economic integration," Mr. Inurrieta says. "Immigrants do not cause an increase of unemployment. [Their impact is] more positive than negative."

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