View from Madrid: Welcoming, but worries over capacity

Questions over Spain's ability to absorb migrants grow after Spanish volte-face on quotas

On 31 August 2015, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took a private walk with Angela Merkel in the Meseberg castle gardens in Germany. What ensued can only be described as a 180 degree pivot in the Spanish government’s response to the refugee crisis.

When a quota system to distribute refugees across the EU was first announced, the Spanish government staunchly opposed it with two main arguments. Firstly, it argued that Spain had already taken exemplary measures to deal with immigration, cooperating with Morocco and the Sahel through repatriation agreements and development aid. Secondly, high unemployment rates were highlighted as a barrier to increased admittance of refugees. As such, the Spanish government did not see the refugee crisis as its issue and shied away from direct involvement.

Following his stroll with the German chancellor though, Rajoy announced his willingness to take in more refugees at a press conference the following day. Mirroring the Polish pivot, the Spanish position also reversed when Rajoy realised that this fundamental issue for Germany could not be ignored, and that blocking it could generate negative consequences.

The response of Spanish society has been remarkably positive thus far. Across cities and the autonomous regions, solidarity activism has emerged, particularly in Madrid and Barcelona, home to new mayoresses and social movements. This social reaction has allowed the government to change its position without incurring serious reputational damage. Pressure from these social movements had, in fact, already contributed to a softening of the government’s approach towards migrants, and forced the government to review restrictive measures in place such as refusing health cards to irregular residents.

The big question now surrounds Spain’s capacity to absorb refugees. Success is contingent not simply on the ability to receive refugees but also the ability to host them – something Spain has a poor track record in. Take the group of Cuban asylum seekers brought to Spain under former Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero’s government. They were unable to find employment, they conducted hunger strikes and some even emigrated in what emerged as a complete fiasco. The negative impact the crisis has had on Spain’s welfare system and its capacity to host refugees successfully has further undermined its credibility as a host society.

The government has calculated that the absence of xenophobic movements in Spain and the positive reaction of Spaniards to date, grants them some margin to take in refugees. Yet there is a fear that anger could be provoked over issues such as housing, a very delicate topic in Spain following highly publicised evictions. For example, tension could arise out of decisions to give social housing to asylum seekers when the majority of councils have depleted their social housing stock by selling it off to vulture funds.

Spain’s poor asylum policy and weakened welfare system taken together could lead refugees to leave the country following the initial six month waiting period. Germany may find itself facing larger numbers of refugees than anticipated, as those who can’t integrate in countries such as Spain will likely move further afield until they can secure a better quality of life elsewhere.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.