Hundreds of people gathered in central Madrid on Saturday to protest the introduction of legislation that threatens to deny healthcare to the more than 150,000 people living in Spain without residency permits and who have not contributed to the social security system.
Shouting: "These aren't cuts, they are xenophobia!" and "Nobody is illegal," the protesters included immigrants and healthcare workers opposed to the government's measures. These will prevent those without residency papers from using public health services except in cases of emergency, the under 18s and pregnant women, who will be given treatment at hospitals. The government said the measure would save around 1.5 billion euros annually.
Among the demonstrators at the Gregorio Marañon hospital in the center of Madrid was Faloo, a 30-year-old Senegalese, and his friend Mustafa. The pair said that they have been in Spain for four and five years respectively, and do not have residency permits. They scratch a living selling fake designer goods and pirated CDs from sheets laid out on the pavement. "I have had to use the health services after I had a problem with my leg but I don't know what will happen now. The hospital has said nothing, but I can see that things are going to get more difficult," said Faloo.
Lucrecia Sáenz, a 53-year-old Nicaraguan, has been in Spain for eight years - "Always working illegally, usually cleaning houses. I have had problems with my back, as well as high blood pressure and allergies. My local health center says that it doesn't know what will happen from now on. I don't think that I will be able to use the center again," she said resignedly.
The government says that people living in Spain without residency papers, and whose governments do not have an agreement providing them with access to healthcare while abroad, will have to take out private medical insurance costing 710 euros a year. Many migrants say that this is beyond their means.
A universal, free healthcare system that cannot change from one day to the next"
The 300 or so protesters briefly cut off the main road outside the hospital, but decided to form a human chain around the clinic after police threatened a baton charge.
Miguel Falcones, president of the Madrid branch of Doctors of the World, one of the co-organizers of the protest, described the government's measures as "unjust and discriminatory," saying: "We are not talking here about health tourism, which doesn't affect migrants without papers, who cannot regularize their situation because we won't let them. We are not talking here about EU citizens who go to another country for an operation because it is cheaper there. Immigrants come here to work and to contribute to the economy overall, and studies show that they access healthcare up to a third less frequently than Spaniards."
The nearly six million documented immigrants in Spain, most of them legal residents, account for only five percent of the country's healthcare costs, according to a study by La Caixa bank published last year.
Some doctors in regions run by the governing Popular Party (PP) also reject the ban, which they say is at odds with Spain's universal healthcare service and could end up costing the state more if immigrants go to hospital emergency rooms instead of seeing a regular doctor.
The Spanish Society for Family and Community Medicine, which initiated the campaign against the PP ban, says more than 1,400 doctors have signed up, including 22 percent of primary health providers from the PP-governed region of Madrid.
Regions not controlled by the PP have used the ban as a focus for their opposition to central government spending cuts.
Andalusia, ruled by the Socialist Party, hopes the government will change its stance by September, when public workers and labor unions plan protests against spending cuts.
"We are talking about people here, and a universal, free healthcare system that cannot change from one day to the next to stop treating these people," María Jesús Montero, head of Andalusia's health department, said in August when the measures were first announced.