The Spanish migrants who want to go home (but not at any price)

The government is working on a plan to attract people who left the country during the crisis

Cristina Cartes, 30, inside the European Parliament.
Cristina Cartes, 30, inside the European Parliament.Delmi Álvarez

“If I’m going to live on a shoestring in Spain, I might as well live on a shoestring in Berlin,” thought Belén Lucas, a 33-year-old from Catalonia, before packing her bags in 2010. At that point, the youth unemployment rate was above 40% as the country grappled with a protracted financial crisis.

Lucas, who has a degree in the humanities and speaks five languages, has since held a variety of jobs that include sales clerk, accountant, and writer. Now she is thinking of going back home, but first a few things need to change in Spain.

The Spanish government is working on a plan to attract people like Lucas, who would like to return, but not at any price.

A timid trend

The number of Spaniards living abroad has grown 64% in the last 10 years, while the number of people taking themselves off embassy records has increased from approximately 27,000 in 2013 to nearly 64,000 in 2017, according to figures from the National Statistics Institute (INE).

There is this enduring notion that you should be grateful to whoever gives you a job, as though it were a favor

Belén Lucas, resident in Berlin

These numbers are not entirely representative, as there are other factors at play such as Latin Americans with Spanish citizenship who are moving back to their home countries, or the fact that not all Spaniards living abroad inform their local embassies when they arrive or leave.

However, these figures suggest that emigrants are beginning to make the journey back. With this group in mind, the government of Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), is working on a comprehensive plan to help them make the journey back, said Consuelo Rumí, the state secretary for migration, at the project presentation in October.

“The plan is not ready yet, it will be completed in January and a pilot project will get underway in February or March,” adds Raúl Gil, co-founder of Volvemos.org, a support group for returning Spaniards that works for the government in an advisory capacity.

Officials are meeting with emigrants and business leaders to understand the needs on both ends of the labor market before drafting specific policy guidelines.

“Wages could be higher,” says Lucas in a telephone conversation from Berlin. “In Spain they ask for too much experience for precarious jobs, and there is this enduring notion that you should be grateful to whoever gives you a job, as though it were a favor.”

We give them information about the job market, about the hiring situation in specific industries

Laura Maldonado, mediator

“Spain is still very much stuck in a culture of personal contacts,” adds Cristina Cartes, 30, a journalism graduate who lives in Brussels, where she moved seven years ago. Since then, Cartes has been building a career at the European Commission and Parliament, but she is convinced that “experience does not count” in Spain. She also wants more job stability: “Precariousness continues to be the rule.”

“The lack of a work-family balance, the absurd insistence on face time, the hierarchies, the poor training...” are also problems says Gil, the head of Volvemos.org, who also left during the crisis.

Finding a decent job is one of the “basic necessities” that this advisory group and the government have identified after meeting with Spanish migrants in Germany and the UK, which are home to 14% and 27.7% of Spaniards living abroad respectively, according to Gil’s organization. The unemployment rate in Spain is now 14.5%, and most contracts are temporary.

Gil says that Spanish residents abroad want all information on legal and administrative requirements to be available on a single platform. They also want personalized attention because “there is no one single migrant profile.”

According to figures compiled by Volvemos.org, 8,893 people, based in 114 countries, are interested in returning to Spain. They cut across all age segments and educational backgrounds – students, senior citizens, engineers, scientists, teachers, architects, artists, journalists, singles and families with children. “The plan must be sufficiently inclusive to meet the needs of every profile,” says Gil.


The Spanish region of Castilla-La Mancha was a pioneer, launching a plan last year that has helped over 300 Spaniards return. This year the budget was doubled to €700,000. The plan uses mediators to provide individualized assistance through the process via Skype, explains Laura Maldonado, who works as a mediator herself.

Spain is still very much stuck in a culture of personal contacts

Cristina Cartes, resident of Brussels

“We give them information about the job market, about the hiring situation in specific industries, and we help them keep their expectations in check, because the return process can last anywhere from a month to a year.”

The central government has taken note of this and other similar experiments currently underway in the Basque Country, Balearic Islands and Valladolid. Elsewhere in southern Europe, Portugal has been implementing similar plans since 2015 through Emprendeer2020, which seeks to bring back “highly qualified professionals.” And last year Greece launched a “virtual return” plan to “facilitate networking between themselves and with the Greek economy,” said project coordinator Dimitri Maragos.

Belén Lucas thinks she will stay in Berlin a while longer, although she dreams of returning.

“I would like to go back to be closer to my family. Besides, we really suffer with the climate and the food here. I just don’t feel like sausages anymore,” she jokes, then adds seriously: “There are people who really want to go back but it’s hard.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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