Is the crisis fueling an exodus?

Studies are trying to pinpoint just how many people are leaving Spain due to rampant unemployment

The first contingent of Spanish workers bound for Belgium gather in Madrid in 1957.
The first contingent of Spanish workers bound for Belgium gather in Madrid in 1957. MANUEL IGLESIAS (EFE)

What if the Spanish exodus caused by the crisis was not quite as massive as we have been led to believe? This is the question that drives a recent study by Carmen González Enríquez, of the Elcano Royal Institute think-tank. Based on information gathered from Spanish consulates, the researcher notes that only two percent of nationals living abroad are Spaniards who left because of the crisis. That is just 39,912 people.

But what if it was the other way around, and we were in fact underestimating the extent of the trend? This is what Amparo González Ferrer, a sociologist and demographics specialist at the CSIC National Research Council, claims. She says that the number of émigrés who left the country between 2008 and 2012 — rather than the number of Spaniards living abroad — is closer to 700,000 than the official figure of 225,000. That Spain is losing population to emigration is unquestionable in view of the data. The latest census report by the National Statistics Institute (INE), containing data up to January 2013, shows a drop of 135,538 people during 2012, taking the population down to 47,129,783.

But how many Spaniards are actually leaving due to the economic situation? There is a debate among the scientific community because of the absence of a statistical mechanism that can quickly and efficiently register the departure of nationals.

"The claim about a massive flight of people is an exaggeration, and it creates unnecessary alarm," says Carmen González Enríquez, who is also a professor of political science at the distance university UNED. She believes that the numbers are in fact so "ridiculously" low that she wonders "why a lot more people are not deciding to go abroad to seek better salaries or living conditions."

The claim about a massive flight of people is an exaggeration"

Other studies reflect similar views. One of these is the latest INE migration report, using data from the first half of 2013. The numbers show that 259,227 people left the country during those six months, but that the vast majority (219,537) were foreigners. In line with González Enríquez's observations, only 10 percent of all émigrés (26,281) were Spanish.

The Elcano researcher focused on the register of Spanish consulates, where Spaniards are encouraged to sign up once they move to a new country. This shows that the number of native Spaniards living abroad increased just six percent between January 2009 and January 2013, a rise of 40,000 for a total of 673,662. Of the new émigrés, 20,000 were living in Europe, 7,000 in Latin America and 13,000 in the rest of the world.

"It's a good analysis," admits Albert Esteve, of the Center for Demographic Studies at Barcelona's Autónoma University. "Both the official exit data [BY INE] and the destination data [the consulates] may somewhat underestimate the number of people who leave Spain and do not register abroad, but in general they do not reflect a large percentage of people who are leaving."

González Enríquez feels that the widespread concern over emigration is tied to the fact that Spanish society "has been exceptionally static over the last few decades," since the end of the great migrations that took place under Franco until the 1970s, when mostly uneducated country folk took up the lowliest jobs as cheap labor in their host countries.

Spanish society "has been exceptionally static over the last few decades"

According to the researcher, staying close to family and friends "has been a priority for the majority," which would explain the reticence to leave the country. "The experience of the 1960s still weighs heavily on the current situation in terms of national pride," she says. These days, on the contrary, the people leaving are university educated. "For them, being able to go abroad and find a job is a blessing. And they are not hurting the Spanish economy. Right now our problem is a lack of credit, not a lack of qualified personnel."

González Enríquez is aware that her research seems to support the government's thesis that things are not that bad despite the rise of poverty and inequality. "I know that this issue is politically very touchy, but what can I do? I reached my conclusions based on the data I handled, without any prejudice, and what I found is the situation that I have described," she says.

Esteve adds that most of the émigrés are in fact foreigners or nationalized foreigners who are returning to their countries of origin, or moving on to third countries. In essence, it is a balancing out following a large influx of immigrants during Spain's economic bonanza. "Above all we are seeing a readjustment of immigrants who did not settle down here. There are some Spaniards, but they are not the top group in emigration statistics," he says.

"It is a cause of concern that people with training cannot settle down and develop professionally in Spain, but whether this affects a lot of people is a different matter," Esteve notes. "The demographer and the sociologist's job is to analyze phenomena and quantify them."

Researchers have challenged official figures for Spaniards abroad

But Amparo González Ferrer of the CSIC begs to differ. She believes that the INE and consulate data do not really answer the questions that matter: how many Spaniards are leaving and when they did so. Those figures are flawed, she says, because they are linked: people are automatically taken off the local registers, and thus become emigrants to the INE, when and if they sign up at a consulate abroad. But many Spaniards never do this because to do so you need to prove that you will be living in your host country for at least a year.

Also, registering abroad means losing certain privileges back home, such as the right to primary care in the public health system or eligibility for subsidized housing. So many Spaniards living abroad only register when they have to — to renew their passport, for instance.

González-Ferrer requested official immigration information from Britain, including social security registration, which is a mandatory step, and found that the figures were seven times as high as the Spanish figures on Spaniards residing in that country. A similar comparison in Germany found six times as many Spaniards living there as the INE had counted.

As a result, González Ferrer says it is “more than likely” that Spanish emigration since the crisis began is three times higher than the INE’s estimates. That would mean 700,000 émigrés instead of 225,000. This study, however, includes foreigners who obtained Spanish nationality. “Perhaps we cannot talk about a massive emigration of Spaniards,” she says. “But we cannot deny the evidence of growing flows.”

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