All my welfare checks had run out long ago. My parents, who are elderly, had been paying my 540-euro mortgage for several months already. Nothing was turning up, and the outlook was very bad. I remember I was sitting at a bar with the TV set on, and it was showing that program Españoles en el mundo [Spaniards across the world]. There was a man on it who lived in the north of Norway, who said he made 4,000 euros a month. The guy looked happy... So I said to myself, Paco, you've got to go there."
Francisco (Paco) Zamora, a 44-year-old from Alcantarilla, Murcia, is a laid-back kind of guy. He is wearing a scarf wrapped three times around his neck to keep the cold at bay. He holds a degree in electronics, has experience in construction and at one point made 3,000 euros a month. But all that ended over three years ago. Like him, hundreds of jobless Spaniards recently decided to move to one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It was a fail-safe choice, or so they figured.
But once there, the dream turned into a nightmare. As unqualified workers lacking language skills, they found nothing but closed doors. The authorities want nothing to do with them. Some have spent their life savings to come here, and now eke out a living as best they can, even sleeping on the streets if necessary.
"Do you know what it's like to rummage around in the trash?" asks a Catalan who was born once democracy had come to Spain, and for whom the term "emigration" always sounded like a thing of the distant past.
Last August, Paco borrowed money from his parents one more time and bought a one-way ticket to Bergen. It was the first time he had left Spain. He had 225 euros in his pocket, and spent the first week exploring one of the world's most picturesque towns, with its sea view, its mountains and its colorful wooden homes. "I had a small rucksack that fit inside the train station lockers. I paid five crowns [0.75 euros] to use the bathroom and washed up in there. One day I ran into a Spaniard who told me about a shelter where I could go during the day to get some food and warm up."
The Robin Hood Foundation takes up two stories in a wooden house in downtown Bergen. It's right next to a McDonald's, where a Big Mac costs 6.50 euros, compared with 3.80 euros in Spain. The foundation opened in 2003 "with the idea of providing shelter for low-income Norwegian families who cannot afford four euros for a coffee at a bar," explains Wenche Berg Husebo, the hobbit-like woman who presides this private initiative (which is funded with 270,000 euros of public money).
But on this Wednesday morning, the predominant language at Robin Hood is Spanish. Between 60 and 100 people drop by every day, and half of them are Spanish, says the center director, Marcos Amano. The entrance is not in plain sight, to spare users the embarrassment of being seen walking into a shelter. Inside, there is tea, biscuits and peeled fruit, as well as computers and clothes.
"We used to get Norwegians, Poles, the odd family of political refugees... but in March, the Spaniards started to arrive," explains Husebo. "Since then, we've had 250 of them. At first it was men of all ages, then single women in their thirties. Later it was family men, some with their children in tow. Most never find a job because they speak neither Norwegian nor English."
When he finally located Robin Hood (he couldn't find the entrance for several days), Paco met Mauricio, an Ecuadorian who teaches Norwegian for free and who has been a lifesaver for more than one Spaniard. Mauricio managed to slip Paco into a hotel laundry room for a while. He'd go in at night, sleep indoors, and set the alarm for 7am to get out of there before the workers arrived. "One day I slept through the alarm and an employee caught me. But she didn't say anything, she was nice," he recalls.
Oil-rich Norway, with its enviable welfare state, its work-family programs, its high wages and extremely low jobless rate of three percent, has witnessed the arrival of a new type of immigrant in the last few months: Spaniards fleeing long-term unemployment and dwindling salaries. Norwegian newspapers have dubbed these arrivals "the euro's labor refugees."
Jesús Tierno, a 60-year-old Catalan who has been in Bergen for nearly a year, sums it up neatly: "There have always been Spaniards around here: summer students, your typical adventurer types, people who spent a season here, saved good money and lived on that for the rest of the year. But the desperate cases have started to arrive in the last few months - people between 30 and 55 who really need a job."
Jesús himself left Spain to follow his wife, who decided to emigrate when the best average salary she could hope for was reduced "from between 1,000 and 1,300 euros to 800 euros. And we couldn't live on that." The couple, who have a nine-year-old daughter, rely on the money that Jesús' wife brings home from her work as a maid at a hotel, while Jesús contributes by recycling plastic bottles he finds in dumpsters. For each one he puts inside a machine, he gets one crown (13 euro cents).
To meet these Spaniards, all one needs to do is settle down in one of the comfortable couches at the Robin Hood Foundation and wait. Soon enough, José Andrés comes along, humming a tune. This lean 47-year-old, with blue eyes and an Andalusian accent, was born in France to Spanish migrants, who returned home when he was a child. José Andrés is a construction worker, and he has spent the last year and seven months knocking about in Norway. "But around here, buildings are made out of wood, while we're all about cinder blocks, bricks, tiles..." He moved to Bergen a few months ago after having a hard time of it in Oslo. "One night when it was -10ºC, I walked into a hospital with this guy from Seville. We couldn't take the cold anymore. And they wanted to kick us out! No way, man, I'll die outside, I kept telling them."
But he has had no luck in Bergen, either. "I haven't worked a day since Christmas. Financially I've reached the end of the line, and this month I can't even pay the rent on my room." So what is he planning to do? "Get a blanket and sleep out in the street. What else can I do?"
Norwegian prosperity and TV programs like Españoles en el mundo - many migrants mention it to explain their choice - have been a siren song for a growing number of Spaniards. At the Spanish Embassy in Oslo, the number of registered citizens has risen from 358 in 2010 to 513 in 2011, although many others never register at all. Once in the country, however, they find themselves up against an insurmountable barrier made up of three elements: the biting cold, the language and the exorbitant prices (renting a room costs 600 euros; a carton of milk costs two euros).
Although Norway refuses to be part of the European Union, it is a Schengen member, which means that EU citizens can freely travel in and out of the country. But there is no public support infrastructure for them once they are here.
"The government doesn't offer them accommodation, money nor aid of any kind. That's up to Caritas, the Red Cross or the Salvation Army," explains Bernt Gulbrandsen, of Caritas Oslo. "We've noticed a rise in the number of unskilled migrants. They lack social and family networks here, which is the best way to find a job, and their money soon runs out."
Yet Gulbrandsen is not alarmed. "If the numbers keep rising, it will not become a problem - but it will be a challenge for non-profit groups, and the state will have to increase our grant. A week ago, the Salvation Army told us that they're running over capacity."
The local media did not take long to pick up on the stories of these new immigrants. In a country with a population of barely five million, the news has had an impact. In Bergen, a prosperous city of 260,000 souls where there are hardly any homeless people in sight (a Spanish woman who has lived here for years only recalls ever seeing two: "the Communist Swede" and "the Madman Biker"), papers and TV networks have given the issue a lot of coverage. "They fled from the crisis in Spain, but life in Bergen is not the way they imagined it," reads one headline. Another one states: "The euro refugees living in poverty in Bergen." A third trumpets: "The job search that turned into a nightmare."
But one case received special media attention: Gonzalo, a 34-year-old from Madrid, arrived here in early December. A month later his money had run out and he spent three nights out on the streets. The image of Gonzalo holding a cup of tea with grotesquely swollen hands made the cover of a newspaper. What the Norwegians did not know is that Gonzalo left a wife and two kids behind. He had been unemployed for months, and some time ago his parents opened up a bakery for him to run, back in their home village. But for some reason, Gonzalo attempted to do things on his own far away from home. He even left a note asking people not to look for him, that he was out searching for a job. The day he made the newspaper's front page, he was at the end of his tether. He spent the night at Mauricio's, the Ecuadorian from Robin Hood, who took pity on him. But the next morning he could barely stand on his own two feet, and Mauricio called an ambulance. Gonzalo was hospitalized with signs of frostbite, and spent the next 12 days in hospital. His family paid for a return flight back to Madrid two weeks ago. His three last nights in Bergen were spent at the home of a retired couple who had read about his case in the press.
"I'd never seen such a distressing situation in Norway," says Astrid Dalehaug Norheim, one of the reporters who covered the story for her newspaper, Vårt Land. "It reminds me of a visit to Moscow during the crisis of the late 1990s, when Russians from rural areas started migrating to the cities in search of a job, but ended up penniless in the shelters instead."
The testimony provided by Tuna, one of the workers at the Red Cross in Bergen, illustrates how Norwegians see the situation. "First you'd see mostly Poles come around, but suddenly the Spaniards started to arrive. They have no food and no work and they ask for help. It's scary. Norway is very close to Spain, which is our holiday destination. We do provide support for political refugees, but not for people who come here voluntarily. Those of us who work in this field have been caught unprepared."
Juan Criales, 57, left his native Bolivia 30 years ago, fleeing the dictatorial regime of Luis García Meza. He has been in Norway since. "This country is very good about welcoming political refugees. We start out with the same rights [the native population] has, but the treatment of immigrants is very different," he confirms.
Criales works at one of Bergen's job-placement offices, where last week 75 Spaniards tried to find a position. Those who do not speak English try to make sure they see Criales. "Between September and November is when we had the most Spaniards in here, three or four a day," he says. "Most are between 25 and 40 years old, and do not have a whole lot of studies. Their training is in construction work or the hotel and restaurant business, but they don't speak any languages. It's hard."
Speaking Norwegian is one of the gateways to finding a job, and learning it can become something of an obsession. But classes are expensive, around 500 euros. The Red Cross offers free courses, but there is only room for 50 students, and the waiting list is long. "Spaniards never used to come, and now they are the third most numerous nationality, after the Poles and Romanians," says Rita, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross. "To us, they are not a priority community. We help those most in need, not those who emigrated of their own free will, and some have quite high education levels."
"I wonder how many Spaniards who are here used to criticize immigration to Spain?" blurts out a Latin American man who arrived in Bergen a few weeks ago with his wife and four kids, who were all born in Spain. All six of them share a room in an apartment. Also in Bergen is a young Arab man who arrived in Spain when he was three, and a sub-Saharan who spent the last 15 years in Valencia.
It is Thursday, February 2, at 12.45pm. Around 20 people are waiting for food handouts outside Korskirken church, in downtown Bergen. It is snowing. The food packages contain bananas, cheese and even some sushi, all of it nearly expired food donated from supermarkets and restaurants. "We're going to go daft, eating so much expired food," jokes one Spaniard. "Have Spanish TV programs been encouraging people to move to Norway?" enquires Norum Noremark, the woman who coordinates the handout.
Some of the Spaniards newly arrived in Norway have mixed feelings about their own situation. They feel like they are being watched with suspicion by those who got here before them, yet they themselves see it as a problem if more countrymen keep coming.
"If they can't speak Norwegian, it's better for them not to come," says Susana, a 37-year-old waitress who, just minutes later, admits that another Spaniard recently recommended the same thing to her. "Oh, so you get to stay but I can't, eh?" she remembers quipping back.
The available jobs for unskilled Spanish workers are almost always dishwashing and house cleaning, nearly always through temp agencies. The unions have been alerted to the fact that some people are made to work more hours than their contracts stipulate. "They pay me for three hours of work, but give me enough tasks for four or five hours," notes one Spaniard, who chose not to give his name. "They say I'm the one with the problem, that I'm too slow."
Spaniards who come to Norway have six months to find a job. After that, if they fail to find one, they can stay but only as long as they can pay for their own keep - the law sets the minimum amount at 2,200 euros a month. Otherwise they become illegal immigrants. Despite this law, Norwegian authorities do nothing to go out and find penniless migrants - on the contrary. Marcos Amano, director of the Robin Hood Foundation, says that he has accompanied at least six Spaniards to the police station when they ran out of money and wished to be deported. Authorities would not reveal whether these volunteers succeeded in being sent back home.
The matter of the Spanish work-seekers has opened up a debate in Norway. The journalist Sjur Holsen wrote in Bergens Tidende, one of the country's biggest-selling papers, that "Spaniards can be blamed for their naïveté, for coming here in the hopes of finding a job without speaking the language. And yes, there are people in the world who are suffering more than them, but theirs is also a form of need, and we must face that. If Spaniards who are living on the streets manage to make us wonder whether we are part of Europe, and whether solidarity is a currency in the euro zone, then something important will have been achieved."
But last January, Labor Minister Hanne Bjurstrom was very clear: European immigrants who do not find a job must leave; Norway cannot look after them.
On February 2, around 500 people from 20 countries attended the International Career Fair, held in downtown Bergen. Most participants had college and master's degrees. But Paco, José Andrés and other Spaniards were also there with their résumés. The event was inaugurated by Mayor Trude Drevland. "I understand that, from the viewpoint of your problems in Spain, this may seem like heaven on Earth, but it's not that easy," she later said. "Things are regulated here - we're under no obligation to help the Spaniards."
"We can do nothing for unskilled Spaniards who speak neither English nor Norwegian," added Marit Warncke, director of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "It is tragic for them to spend their savings on a hopeless journey."