As cold bites, Madrid residents step in to help stranded asylum seekers

WhatsApp groups, parishes and NGOs are filling the gap left by politicians who cannot agree on who is in charge of assisting the hundreds of people turning up outside social services

Locals give food to a Peruvian family seeking a bed outside Madrid’s Samur Social.
Locals give food to a Peruvian family seeking a bed outside Madrid’s Samur Social.DAVID G. FOLGUEIRAS

Thirty-seven adults and 12 children were curled up outside the doors of Madrid’s municipal social assistance service, Samur Social, on Tuesday of last week, covered by blankets provided by local residents. The previous day, hundreds of neighbors had marched from here to La Latina district headquarters, demanding a political solution to the situation on their doorsteps.

The demonstration coincided with a 24-hour strike by Samur Social workers who were protesting, among other things, against the lack of resources to cover the demands on their services. So far there has been no political response and the situation looks far from being resolved (see bottom box).

The social services are completely overwhelmed by the situation

Night after night, it is the same story. Families of asylum seekers, many with children, wait in the cold at the doors of Samur Social in the hope they will get a roof over their head. Some wait all day, believing that this will increase their chances of finding a bed. But the municipal services are overwhelmed.

The previous week, Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida of the conservative Popular Party (PP) had urged the central government to address the situation. In the meantime, it is the local residents who are addressing the crisis on the ground with their own resources.

Last Tuesday, dozens of locals turned up on San Francisco street armed with food, clothes and toys for the children. Until recently, only members of refugee organizations and a couple of locals had been coming here to serve hot soup and hand out blankets. But faced with the social emergency, a growing number of locals has joined parishes and other organizations to offer help.

A family of refugees pitch their tent outside of Samur Social to get out of the rain.
A family of refugees pitch their tent outside of Samur Social to get out of the rain.DAVID G. FOLGUEIRAS

This year, the number of asylum seekers arriving through Madrid-Barajas airport has more than doubled from 20,500 to 50,000, according to municipal data. Once in the country, the refugees go to the Aluche National Police Station to get an appointment to start the process of requesting international protection.

Solidarity networks. The Solidarity Refugee Network, the Latina-Carabanchel Popular Solidarity Network and the San Carlos Borromeo parish in Puente de Vallecas have been there from the start, offering solace and putting the asylum seekers up in hostels, parishes and even their own homes. As the parish priest from the Madrid neighborhood of Entrevías, Javier Baeza, explains: “There is food and plenty of clothes. What we lack are the resources to pay for transportation, as those seeking protection sleep in Puente de Vallecas and make their way to Samur Social every day.” The parish is collecting funds via a bank account.

Local residents. It all began with Sandra, Eneko and Merche who could see what was going on in front of Samur Social from their windows. Complaints from NGOs, solidarity networks, street protests and coverage by the national and international media have all helped the solidarity movement gain momentum. Now there are Excel pages and chat groups in which hundreds of people are addressing the questions of those seeking asylum, as well as organizing the day’s logistics.

One WhatsApp group, known as Neighborhood Action, has split into several committees: one deals with the food cooked by locals; another tries to make the wait less tedious for the children and easier for the mothers. And yet another is trying to get politicians to take responsibility.

As the WhatsApp group is private, anyone wishing to join needs to be invited by an existing member. Those wishing to collaborate should go in person to the Samur Social building. “That’s where we provide more details on the different WhatsApp groups that are being set up,” says one local, who advises finding out what is lacking before turning up with resources.

“The needs change every day and we don’t have anywhere to store things. They just get left in the street to spoil and quickly become useless,” says another volunteer.

The experts. Volunteers from the Refugee Solidarity Network, lawyers specializing in immigration and activists who know the procedures for asylum seekers are all working on an internal handbook to address frequent questions and become a source of useful information. Training workshops are also being set up for volunteers, and any expert help on immigration and asylum is welcome.

Signatures. Thousands of residents have signed a petition addressed to Madrid Mayor Almeida, caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Madrid social welfare councilor José Aniorte, asking for resources for these families who urgently need shelter.

A fruitless meeting

Representatives of the city of Madrid, the central and regional governments and non-profit groups met to address the lack of resources for asylum seekers in the Spanish capital. The gathering ended without any specific measures or timetables for action. Madrid’s city councilor for social welfare, José Aniorte, said that there was talk of “an urgent crisis cabinet headed by the central government,” but that no date had been set for its creation.

The city of Madrid has offered the central government, which is officially in charge of asylum seekers, seven spaces to house refugees, but only one of them is currently operational, and it is located in Cercedilla, 57 kilometers north of the capital.

Agustín Torres, the Spanish secretary for migrations, said that the system is overwhelmed due to the large number of people who apply for protection despite not meeting the conditions. “Statistics show that 95% are rejected because they do not meet the requirements, and that is creating tremendous pressure on the national system. Most of the people who come from Latin America are economic migrants,” he said.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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