The immigrants' flight from Spain
They arrived on the back of the construction boom and bought houses that now rest with the banks
Spain's immigrant population is falling for the first time this century
Unemployed workers are forced to return to their native lands, carrying less than they arrived with
For the last two hours, Andrés Sammuesa has been weeping. He is sitting in Terminal 4 of Madrid's Barajas Airport, about to say goodbye to his daughter and two grandchildren, who are returning to his native Ecuador. Sammuesa has no idea as to when he might see them again. "I never imagined that life could be so cruel. The crisis in Spain has broken my heart, it is separating me from my family," sobs the 47-year-old. His daughter, Neli, aged 28, and his two granddaughters, Gisela, aged nine, and Naidine, aged seven, are going back to the South American country because "Spain is no longer better." Andrés is staying because he still has a job as a window cleaner, , earning 1,000 euros a month, with which he will try to look after his remaining five children, who all live with him. He has gradually been bringing them over to Spain over the last decade, but is now coming to terms with the likelihood that he will be back at the airport before long to say farewell to another, taking advantage of a government offer of 400 euros and a one-way ticket.
"I was 17 when I got here," says Neli. "I have spent half my life here. For a long time, things were good. My husband worked in the construction sector, he was never out of work, and I worked cleaning houses. But when the crisis hit, we were both laid off. He hasn't worked for four years, and I haven't had a job for two. We had to give the house we had bought back to the bank, we couldn't pay the mortgage. We are going back with less than we came with. We failed here."
Her husband, José, is already back in Ecuador. Their youngest daughter, Naidine, has never been there. She holds on to a doll, and opens her suitcase, filled with bags of candy for the 15 cousins she has never seen. "I love you," says her grandfather Andrés. "As soon as I lose my job, I won't hesitate: I'll be straight back over," he says. "I came here in 2000, when Spain still had the peseta. Spain was better with the peseta. I came here in the hope of making a success of things, but if I had known that this was going to happen, I would have stayed in my own damned country," he says later, crumpled on the ground by the security control area after finally saying goodbye to his daughter and granddaughters.
Aboard the same plane, Ana Carchipulla and her husband Norberto are also returning to Ecuador with a one-way ticket after 13 years in Spain. With them are their two daughters Daiana, aged 14, and Ana Cristina, aged 11, along with their dog, Curro, who was barking inside his travelling case before being sent to the hold. "I was 18 when I got here, I came because there were more opportunities here, and I am going because there are no longer any left," says Ana.
Her story is the same as the Sammuesa family's. She worked cleaning houses, and her husband had a job in the construction industry until the property bubble burst. The house that they were trying to buy has been repossessed by the bank, and they are returning home with nothing.
"I am going home with no more than I came here with. I am trying not to see this as a failure. But rather than live badly here, I would rather live badly in my own country," says Ana. She left her eldest daughter behind in Ecuador when she came here. "I didn't see her for two years. It was very hard, but I was earning money. But there is no longer any point in being separated from my family," she concludes.
Vladimir Paspuel is the president of the Rumiñahui association, which represents Ecuadorans living in Spain and is just one NGO out of 11 that is coordinating the government's return program for immigrants. He has spent many afternoons at Barajas airport bidding farewell to friends. In 2003, when the government set up the voluntary return program, just 604 people took up the offer, most of them Colombians and Ecuadorians. By last year that figure had risen to 2,119 and in the first three months of this year alone, 480 have applied.
There is another return program, set up in 2008 for immigrants who had lost their jobs and were in receipt of unemployment benefit. Under the program, they would be allowed to claim 40 percent of their payment in Spain, and the rest in the country of origin, on condition that they did not return to Spain for at least three years. Initially, few people were interested, but as the unemployment level has risen, more and more are applying: from November 2008 until April of this year, 18,265 people have done so, the majority of them Ecuadorians. More than 2,500 have applied in the last two months of last year and the first three of this.
"The situation is extreme," says Paspuel. "We are seeing people who have been evicted from their homes, they are eating in soup kitchens, some have been reduced to begging, and after having worked so hard, after having helped so many Spanish women, for example, to return to work after having a baby. Immigrants have played a very important role in the economic development of this country. But now, they are being told that they are simply no longer wanted."
Paspuel is angry that the voluntary return program is now being wound down for lack of funding, at the very moment when growing numbers of immigrants have no option but to go back home, and are asking for help. After finally coming to terms with their failure to make it in Spain, and overcoming their pride to ask for help, many are now being told that the government cannot aid them. A new program is in the offing for next year to help immigrants who have lost their jobs, but given the waiting list, Employment Ministry sources say that it should be implemented now.
Meanwhile, Ecuador has launched its own program, called "Welcome Home," for returnees. "But that has also run out of money," explains Paspuel. Furthermore, he adds, even when immigrants get back home, things are not much better. "There are families who are obviously glad to see their loved ones come home, but then when they see that they have brought nothing with them, they see them as a burden. Returning migrants are meant to come back with suitcases full of money. But these people are going back empty-handed, they can't help anybody; they are simply another problem."