By Paul Stern
Amidst the current coverage of the European refugee crisis one would be hard pressed to find too many examples of European governments being overwhelmingly supportive of incoming refugees. Mixed with anti-immigration policy stances, some elected officials have shown no regard for the humanitarian crisis faced by millions of individuals fleeing their home nations due to war, discrimination, or strife in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Some EU member states such as Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, have outright refused asylum requests by refugees seeking to enter their border, even fighting back thousands of refugees in riot gear with tear gas and water cannons. Other governments have also refused to accept suggested refugee quotas, thereby undermining any EU-wide agreement.
In the midst of this crisis I found myself on a casual trip to Spain in early September. While the purpose of the trip was purely a getaway, I could not help but follow Spain’s response to the ongoing wave of refugees seeking asylum in European countries.
Despite being a country of what I found to be incredibly welcoming and friendly people, Spain does not have a history of having an inviting asylum policy. Whereas other European nations like Germany, France, and Italy welcome tens of thousands of refugees seeking asylum each year, last year Spain took in a lowly 5,738. Additionally, in 2014 the Spanish government came under fire, for calling for an amendment to Public Safety Law that would allow law enforcement agencies to turn away refugees at its African border without allowing them the opportunity to apply for asylum.
After learning these facts it was not surprising on my first day in Spain that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy issued a statement claiming that Spain would only agree to take in 2,749 refugees due to its current economic troubles, less then half of the quota requested by the EU.
For that reason it was both surprising and heartwarming to see a sign proclaiming “Refugees Welcome” hanging from city hall in the Spanish capital of Madrid towards the end of my trip. After more than a week of protest and pressure from Spanish citizens and local governments, the usually conservative Rajoy administration indicated that it would accept the requested refugee quota of 14,931 (in addition to the 2,379 it initially agreed to accept) suggested by the European Commission in Brussels in early September.
While the Spanish government has taken on great responsibility by accepting nearly 15,000 refugees, the greatest display of generosity has come from the citizens and local governments of Spanish cities. On August 28, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, disheartened by the recent tragedies in the Mediterranean and Austria,called for a network of refugee cities across Spain, and more broadly across Europe to work towards providing shelter and aid to refugees. She denounced those who utilize xenophobic tactics to promote fear of “the other”, as well as the European Union’s reluctance to face this humanitarian crisis with the humanity that it deserves.
Spanish cities like Madrid and Valencia have offered to join this network of cities, as has the island of Mallorca, the region of Castilla y Leon, and others. Each region has offered to do its part to welcome as many refugees as possible, showing solidarity with those seeking to assist and house refugees across the country. The city of Madrid has pledged ten million euros towards resettlement services, and its football team Real Madrid has pledged over one million euros and use of its facilities to incoming refugees. For its part, the local government in Valencia has pledged to work with local banks, public buildings, and universities to offer housing to incoming refugees. Similar to Real Madrid, the Valencia CF and Real Betis football teams will be donating part of their ticket profits to initiatives responding to the crisis, and will also be engaging with refugees directly in coming days. Spanish citizens are also excited to help. Since Mayor Colau’s initial post on her Facebook page, the network has received an outpouring of support from citizens and government officials alike, with thousands of citizens offering to assist in any way they can.
Eager to assist in this process is Spain’s chapter of “Fluchtlinge Wilkommen”, or “Refugees Welcome”. Originally founded in Germany in November 2014, this group has spread to other European nations such as Spain. Quickly becoming known as the “Airbnb for refugees”, Refugees Welcome seeks to match individuals with tenants and landlords willing to open up their homes as shelter for incoming refugees. According to Elena Lazaro Real, the Head of Media Commissions for the Spanish chapter, the group has only just recently organized in Spain, and has already received over one thousand offers to assist, with seven hundred members of the public offering their apartments as potential shelter for refugees, spanning almost 51 cities in Spain. Individuals not only provide refugees with shelter, but also an opportunity to learn local customs and culture – two things that they would be unlikely to learn in a refugee camp or mass housing.
There is no simple solution to how to effectively handle the constantly growing population of refugees crossing into EU nations. However, to quote Ada Colau, any response must come “from the ability to love that makes us human, or we will all end up dehumanized.” Countries like Hungary and Croatia can take a lesson from the actions of Spanish citizens, local governments, and the thousands of other Europeans who are showing their willingness to open their nations, cities, and even their homes to incoming migrants fleeing war and persecution.
Paul Stern received a B.A. (with honors) in Government & Politics with a minor in Spanish Language and Cultures from the University of Maryland, College Park. His honors thesis focused on the positive economic effects of highly skilled immigrants, and how the United States could learn from policy changes employed by other nations. He has engaged in both research and casework throughout various professional experiences, and will soon be volunteering with recently resettled refugees in the Washington D.C. area. All opinions are his own.