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The ties that bind

Like many EU countries, Spain has seen a sharp increase in immigration. But government figures are scarce, making it difficult to establish policies

Going to work in another country often means leaving everything behind, and for half of non-EU workers who come to Spain to make a new life, that means a husband or wife, and children. Some immigrants are able to bring their families over, once they have found work and settled, a process that can take between one and five years.

Individual EU states have differing immigration policies, which obviously determine to a large degree whether migrants with families are going to be welcome. In general, most countries prefer migrants with family links back home - in the case of Spain, this policy has encouraged workers from Latin America and Romania in particular.

Ecuadorians and Romanians tend to bring their families with them, or try to regroup them as quickly as possible.

Around 40 percent of immigrants have left a stable relationship behind at home

In particular, Latin American families are vulnerable to break-ups

"The migrant who returns home triumphant belongs to the last century"

Many parents worry that their kids will be "contaminated" by Spanish values

Around 57 percent of women who migrate do so alone, while for men the figure is 53 percent. In the case of Moroccans, only 12 percent of men and 27 percent of women bring their partners with them. In the case of West Africans, around 23 percent of men bring their families.

It is difficult to draw a detailed picture of immigration in Spain, in part because the latest available figures are three years out of date. Similarly, as Spain has no freedom of information act, it is impossible to know whether the government is hiding the true figures. That said, the last National Immigration Survey, carried out in 2007, shows that around 40 percent of immigrants coming to Spain have left a stable relationship behind.

"The way that migration works is that people must be separated from their partners for a period of time, at least in the case of people coming from outside the EU," says Clara Cortina, a demographer at the CSIC Science Council. She points out that not all migrants necessarily want to bring their families with them. "In general terms, there are two types of migratory process: either to go abroad for a limited period of time, during which the migrant will save as much money as possible, and then return home; the other case is people who decide to start a new life in another country. In the latter case, bringing their family over is part of the process."

She goes on to say that spending long periods of time apart "puts a lot of pressure on people, and can change the nature of a relationship. We see new models emerging," she adds, whereby the migrant will return home maybe once a year, and communicate with their family by telephone.

Teresa Castro, another demographer at the Science Council, says it is difficult to make generalizations about migration: Spain receives immigrants from Latin America, particularly Ecuador, as well as from the EU, mainly Romania. But there are also significant numbers from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa, particularly West African countries such as Senegal. Spain also attracts large numbers of Chinese migrants.

Castro says that Latin American families are particularly vulnerable to break ups, brought on by the pressures of living apart for many years. "We are seeing a lot of women who come here, and who have left behind partners and children. They are vulnerable and their relationships are at risk of breaking down over time," she says.

Demographers like Castro say that a new, trans-national, family model is emerging among immigrants in Spain, similar to that which has emerged in Mexico, where huge numbers of men and women spend extended periods working in the United States, sometimes over different generations. As a result children grow up under the care of the mother, and when they are old enough, will travel to the United States to be with their father.

At present there are some 4.7 million foreigners legally resident in Spain, of whom 2.4 million are from non-EU countries. There are no exact figures on how many of these return to their countries of origin each year, but based on figures from electoral registers gathered by the National Statistics Institute (INE), around 14 percent of migrants are leaving Spain. That figure is likely to rise to up to 20 percent. That said, the fact that somebody doesn't sign up on the electoral register if they move house doesn't necessarily mean that they have returned home.

Diego López de Lera, a demographer specializing in international migration at the University of Coruña, says that many migrants do not make a successful new life abroad, and often return home penniless.

"The image of the migrant who returns home triumphant belongs to the last century, and is no longer valid. The electoral register figures are not to be entirely trusted, but we know that in 2009, some 142,000 immigrants came off the electoral rolls, and that around half of that figure did so because their work permits had run out. Of those who deregistered, the majority were Bolivians, Moroccans, Argentineans and Colombians, along with Romanians. Around two-thirds of them were men," says López de Lera.

The reason migrants are returning home, he goes on to say, is not necessarily because of the economic crisis. "There are a great many other factors that prompt migrants to leave: family issues particularly, for example when there are problems with children or when a family member falls ill."

Another source for assessing the number of migrants who have returned home is through those who have signed up for the Labor Ministry's Program for Voluntary Return. Under the scheme, unemployed workers receive about 70 percent of their salary for the first six months without a job, then up to 60 percent for up to two years. Under the proposed deal, workers would receive 40 percent of that money while in Spain and 60 percent on arrival in their home countries. They would then have priority in obtaining working papers if they reapplied to return to Spain after five years.

When it announced the scheme in late 2008, the Labor Ministry said that 100,000 immigrants from 19 countries would be eligible to receive the payout, but it expected only between 10 percent and 20 percent to agree to the trade-off.

According to the Labor Ministry, some 10,600 migrants have returned to their home countries since 2003.

Amparo González-Ferrer of the Science Council also dismisses the idea that the economic crisis has prompted migrants to return home. "Immigrants do not return home on the basis of what is happening here, but on the basis of what is happening in their home countries," she says.

"In Germany, in the early years of the 1980s, it was noted that economic crisis could be a factor in speeding up a decision to return home, but only once the decision had been made. We should also bear in mind that returning home is a costly decision, not in monetary terms so much, as in terms of the psychological impact: it is not easy to reintegrate, and often there is no market for the skills that they have acquired abroad. What's more, the reasons that they left their country in the first place, whether personal or social, may not have changed."

The extent to which the economic crisis is a factor in prompting migrants to return home will continue to be debated, but what is certain is that fewer immigrants are arriving in Spain. And those that do are part of the process of family regrouping. Experts like González-Ferrer say that the government now needs to begin collecting more detailed data on the process and establish a clearer picture of life among the country's immigrant population.

"The information on family regrouping that we currently have is no use at all in establishing a planning policy," she says. "A 2007 EU directive obliges states to increase the number of permits for family regrouping," she says. "But the main obstacle migrants face in bringing their families over to Spain isn't here, it's in their countries of origin. Consulates in Latin America and Africa are unable to cope with the numbers. They have just two months to complete the application process, which means going back home, and waiting while the Spanish consulate there processes their papers. In terms of policy-making here, we don't have any proper figures; we don't know how many people are applying, nor how many people have just gone ahead and brought their families over here without following the legal procedures."

Estrella Rodríguez Pardo, who heads the Labor Ministry's migrant assimilation department, defends the government's approach to family regrouping. She says that her ministry is looking at what she calls "circular migration," whereby those coming to this country are allowed to return to their countries of origin for periods of time without losing the rights and benefits that they have accrued here, such as social security contributions.

Aside from the scheme offering immigrants who want to return home 40 percent of their unemployment benefit in a lump sum, with the remainder paid to them once they have returned to their country of origin, the Labor Ministry will also pay for a return ticket to those who have used up their unemployment benefit after losing their jobs, and then provide them with financial help until they get back on their feet. "These are voluntary options, and we need to keep them available so that each migrant can decide what they want to do," says Rodríguez.

With around 40 percent of immigrants arriving alone, and with the intention of bringing their partner and families, the scale of the challenge in implementing a viable regrouping policy is immense, says González-Ferrer, pointing out that the survey shows that 60 percent of migrants were reunited with their family within a year of arriving.

"This means that many migrants have brought their families here by circumventing the legal procedures, because it is quite simply impossible to have met all the requirements in such a short time," she says.

The conclusion is that partners are making their own way here, and then going about legalizing their situation. The problem the Spanish government faces, like almost every other in the EU, is assessing the reality of the situation on the ground, which is very different to that shown in official figures.

Whether migrants regroup through official procedures, or they do so unofficially, their partners and children almost always face a culture shock, according to a range of studies. For example, the figure of the father in Spain is less authoritarian than in most countries of origin, while older people are generally accorded more respect in traditional cultures. Many parents from Latin America and Africa are deeply worried that their children will be "contaminated" by Spanish cultural mores and values.

"All countries have their own family model, and this inevitably influences those coming in. In the case of Spain, this increasingly means the nuclear family; the government's policy is to encourage newcomers to accept this model," says González-Ferrer. "But many people coming to Spain are not familiar with this, and find ways to protect their family models. This is particularly the case with the Dominican Republic, where women are the mainstay of the family. So here in Spain it tends to be women who come here to set things up. And they bring sisters or aunts. But in the case of Senegal, it is mainly men, and if they are going to bring another family member over, it is more likely to be a male relative."