Thousands of Refugees Are Backlogged to Resettle in Spain

In the past year, Spain has absorbed just 394 of the 9,323 refugees it's obligated by the EU to resettle.

by Meredith Hoffman
Oct 12 2016, 8:46pm

Protestors hold a banner reading in Catalan "Barcelona: refugee city? Hommage to those who die, a siege for those arriving." Photo by Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Last fall, Barcelona named itself the "Refugee City," proudly unveiling a plan to help Spain fulfill its commitment to the European Union to resettle 9,323 refugees within two years. The plan, which expanded social programs, counseling services, education, and housing for refugees, was meant to push Spain into quick action on the global crisis.

But more than a year later, Spain has opened its doors to just 394 of those 9,323 refugees, according to the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU. The slow progress has enraged Barcelona city officials, who say they've prepared for the influx.

"Only 4 percent have entered of the number Spain must take, so we have one year to relocate 96 percent of our commitment," Ignaso Calbo, the coordinator of Barcelona's "Refugee City" plan, told me. "It's impossible. It's a disgrace."

Barcelona has coordinated a network of Spanish cities to coordinate refugee relocation, and just this month, representatives from the cities met with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to discuss the issue, according to Calbo. And Barcelona has begun joining with other cities around Europe to put pressure on their countries to accept refugees, Calbo told me, but said the details were still confidential.

"This is a question of being on the side of human rights," Calbo asserted, adding that Barcelona had used municipal funds for refugee provisions like housing and social programs, which were typically the federal government's financial responsibility.

But as much as Barcelona fights, it can do nothing without the federal government of Spain, which is in charge of refugee intake.

"We have no political power, and we don't know how many people are going to come or how much to invest," Calbo told me. He said that a representative from Spain's government was invited to the UNHCR meeting, but did not appear. "The problem is we have no relationship with [the federal government]. We ask for meetings, but they don't respond."

Political analysts told me that Spain's resistance to welcoming refugees was unsurprising given the country's precarious condition: The federal government has had an interim prime minister for nearly a year since no candidate has won the majority of the vote, and the economy is clamoring to recover from a crisis.

"Spain has been very timid, not complying with the quotas that have been implanted by the EU plan, because the question of the leadership has not been resolved," Jaime Pastor, a professor of politics at the University of Madrid, told me. "The Spanish cities are uniting to coordinate for the distribution of refugees, but the problem is the only one that can authorize the intake is the state."

A representative for Spain's federal government did not respond to my questions about refugee resettlement, except to reiterate that individual states had no control over the process.

"Only the central government has the legal authority in immigration matters, because it's an international issue, and the regional governments can only act on refugees once they've been taken by the central government," Paloma Martinez Aldama, a press representative for the Embassy of Spain in the US, told me in an email.

Spain, however, does not hold the ultimate authority: It is legally bound by the European Commission to relocate 9,323 refugees by this time next year.

"The EU member states agreed on a total figure of refugees and on a method of how to distribute them, so this is legally binding legislation," commission spokeswoman Tove Ernst told me on the phone, but would not speculate what the penalties would be if Spain or other EU nations did not fulfill their commitments within the next year. "Overall, the member states have not relocated as quickly as we would have expected. We report on this every month and call on member states constantly to speed up the process."

As Spain faces pressure on all sides to open its doors, refugee advocates warn that the nation also needs to step up its support for the refugees who have already arrived. Pere Serra, secretary of, a network of several refugee organizations in Spain's Catalonia region (which includes Barcelona), said Spain had provided inadequate funds to the nonprofits working with the population.

"From 2012 to 2015, we went from having 2,500 refugees to 16,000," Serra told me, referring to individuals who showed up at the border asking for asylum (not those who Spain resettles from camps outside the country). "In Barcelona, there weren't enough beds. At one point, we had 28 beds for 800 or 900 people."

When I visited a refugee shelter in Barcelona, residents offered mixed reviews of their experiences in Spain. One couple from Venezuela, who had booked a flight to Barcelona when violence broke out at home, told me they came to Spain because of the language but were frustrated at the lack of opportunities and slow asylum process.

"A lawyer told us we'd have to wait three or four years for the court to decide our asylum case," said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her identity. Other asylum seekers from Ukraine and Iraq said they were not sure if they wanted to stay in Spain.

Serra also claimed that Barcelona was not as prepared as it claimed, but may be using the refugee discussion as a way to push the independence of Catalonia. Catalonia, which has long fought to be its own nation, will vote on an independence referendum next September, after growing separatist sentiment in the region.

Both Calbo and Pastor, however, said that the issue was not about Catalonia's statehood, but rather addressing human rights concerns by citizens both in Catalonia and around Spain.

"This is absolutely a rights-based policy," Calbo told me. "We have always said it's a question of a city policy, not a party policy, which is why all actions in the plan are agreed by all of the parties. And I'm constantly talking with other cities."

Pastor said the push "does not have to do with the theme of independence." Instead, he said, "the people of Spain are for a politics of welcoming refugees."

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter.

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