Spain prepares to expel thousands of illegal migrants

Demonstrations prohibited as the government seeks to deport undocumented workers in the face of widespread opposition
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The Independent Online

Protest marches, sit-ins and hunger strikes mounted by illegal immigrants across Spain in recent weeks were outlawed yesterday when a tough new Aliens Act came into force, threatening to bring expulsion for hundreds of thousands without work permits or residence papers.

Protest marches, sit-ins and hunger strikes mounted by illegal immigrants across Spain in recent weeks were outlawed yesterday when a tough new Aliens Act came into force, threatening to bring expulsion for hundreds of thousands without work permits or residence papers.

Protests that had been gathering support in recent days, especially in the agricultural region of Murcia and in Madrid, dissolved peacefully yesterday, the participants aware that the law forbids illegal immigrants from meeting, demonstrating, striking or joining a union.

But some 400 on hunger strike in two churches in Barcelona vowed to continue their struggle "until death" for the right to seek legalisation of their presence in Spain. Many of those protesting, and legions of those affected by the new law, have been living in Spain for years, working as farmhands, building labourers or domestic cleaners for employers eager to hirecheap and docile workers.

The Interior Minister, Jaime Mayor Oreja, said he would be "demanding" with those seeking legalisation and "implacable" against mafias who brought immigrants to Spain, often in perilously dangerous conditions and for huge sums. He warned the countries from where most immigrants originate - Morocco, Ecuador and Poland - that they must "break the habit" of permitting irregular immigration.

The new law is vehemently opposed by opposition parties and groups working with immigrants. Jose Maria Aznar's conservative government rammed it through last month, using its absolute majority. Immigrants form 0.1 per cent of Spain's population, less than half the European average of 0.22 per cent.

The Spanish government wants those seeking legalisation to return to their countries to complete the tortuous paperwork. Ecuador has protested, warning of the "grave social impact" of the immediate return home of 150,000 Ecuadoreans living in Spain. The plan is for those who get papers to return to Spain in annual batches of 40,000, which means many would wait years.

The fate of illegal Ecuadoreans gained world attention when 12 were killed earlier this month in a level-crossing accident as they were being trucked to vegetable fields in the south-eastern farming town of Lorca. Their boss was subsequently fined and imprisoned for hiring illegal immigrants - prompting employers throughout Spain to sack instantly their undocumented workers and refuse to hire any without papers. Meanwhile, fruit and vegetables lie rotting in the fields.

The government plans to set an annual quota of immigrants "in function of the needs of our labour market", Mr Mayor Oreja said yesterday. Spain's unemployment, about 15 per cent, is the highest in Europe. But immigrants say there is no shortage of work that Spaniards do not want to do. "A lot of the work is seasonal. It means moving around a lot, and Spaniards settled in one spot don't want to keep moving. But we are prepared to work anywhere and do anything," said Jorge Wilson, a 42-year-old Ecuadorean with a university degree who has worked for a year in Spain on building sites, in fields and in bars. "We've found good will among the Spanish. They know we work well and conscientiously. I'vealways been told I'm welcome to work but now, without papers, it's impossible."

Oscar Ramirez, 36, has sought legal status since he arrived from Ecuador a year ago. "My country is in crisis. There's no prospects there. My last job here was shepherding near Salamanca but a trailer fell on my foot and my employer sacked me. My money ran out and I'm living in a Red Cross hostel, wondering if I'll be put on a plane and sent home."

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