Xenophobic attacks on North African immigrants in Spain

By Vicky Short
21 July 1999

African immigrants living in Spain were subjected to three days of attacks last week. Skinheads displaying fascist symbols and carrying knives were amongst the violent assailants.

Wednesday, July 14, some 1,300 people held an anti-immigrant demonstration in the streets of Terrassa, Barcelona. During the rally a 23-year-old African man was stabbed three times in the chest and beaten around his head and body. A further seven people were said to have been wounded. Police reportedly stood back whilst the attacks took place, and no arrests were made during the incident.

The following day, immigrants from the Maghreb, the region of North Africa which includes Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, were singled out for attack by crowds of several hundred people in a square near a newly constructed mosque. Maghrebi-owned cars and shops were also destroyed. Later, the Spanish national government, the Catalan regional government and the local council responded by reinforcing the police presence in the area.

North African residents complained that the authorities were using the disturbances as an excuse to harass and drive them out of the area. Mustafa Abajtour, president of the Association of Moroccans in Terrassa, said, “There is a lot more than fear.... What we are living through is neighbourhood aggression and now we are confronted with police aggression, because some high-up authorities are demanding that the national police closely control whether people have their papers in order.”

Eleven skinheads were subsequently arrested, including one accused of the stabbing and another who had made death threats against the Maghrebi community in front of television cameras. But the square that had previously been a focal point for Maghrebi youth has now been taken over by skinheads wearing track suit trousers bearing the Spanish flag and the green T-shirts of the Spanish army. Arab signs in the district have been removed and replaced with ones saying, “Moors—No” and “Skinheads for Catalonia”.

Residents from the nearby district of La Farga, Bañolas have presented the local council with a 300-signature petition demanding that a mosque, presently functioning with a provisional licence, should not be granted a permanent one. The local mayor denies this is a case of xenophobia, saying it is merely an “objection to inconvenience caused by large crowds”.

While the present attacks are on an unprecedented scale and have acquired a particularly ugly character in Terrassa, they are by no means isolated occurrences. The latest incident arises from the atmosphere of mistrust, resentment and division promoted by the national and regional bourgeoisie, and encouraged by all the main political parties.

In the last few years, there has been a noticeable growth of anti-immigrant propaganda across Spain. The right-wing Popular Party government of José María Aznar has appointed itself the southernmost gatekeeper of “Fortress Europe”, against those from Africa seeking to “illegally” cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Last year, the government constructed a fortified border around the Spanish enclave of Melilla, on the north African coast, to prevent desperate migrants from entering Spain and Europe via Spain's colonies in Morocco. The two steel walls—4 metres high, 4 metres apart and 7 kilometres in length—were fitted with visual and acoustic sensors, turrets and 70 closed circuit cameras. Of those who try to cross the Gibraltar strait in small unseaworthy boats, several hundred Africans have already lost their lives.

This year, the Aznar government pledged to spend a further £100 million to strengthen the southern border of Spain. Described as an “Integrated System of External Vigilance” (its Spanish acronym is SIVE), it utilises the latest technology in long-distance radar systems, thermal cameras, night viewfinders, infrared optics, helicopters and patrol boats.

In order to make these inhumane measures acceptable, the general public is bombarded daily with a deluge of propaganda alleging the country being “overrun” by immigrants, who are “stealing” the homes and jobs of Spanish people, bringing “diseases and drugs” into the country. This is compounded by reports that employers seeking to cut costs are replacing their permanent Spanish staff with temporary workers, drawn from the pool of illegal immigrants. Such immigrant workers are generally paid a pittance and have to live in constant fear of being handed over to the authorities.

In the last few years, more people from Latin-American countries have moved to Spain to escape the intolerable poverty and unemployment there. They also have been the object of racist abuse and attacks.

These divisions are further intensified through the encouragement of inter-regional conflicts between Spain's 17 autonomous regions. The bourgeoisie in Catalonia—where the present racist attacks are centred—is engaged in a campaign of nationalist and separatist hysteria that even treats Spanish residents as second class citizens, who are often referred to as “foreigners”. Schools are now forced to conduct lessons only in the Catalan language, although many people from Castille and the south of Spain, as well as Africans and Latin Americans, do not speak it. Television and radio programmes are in Catalan, as are signposts and road guides.

The Social Democrats and the trade unions are playing a central role in this. They have adopted the same regionalist attire and are competing against the right wing with their own brand of nationalist propaganda.

Catalonia is home to many workers who have previously migrated from the poorer regions of Spain, particularly Castille and Andalusia. Terrassa, in particular, is a district where workers from the South of Spain settled during the 1950s and 1960s. It has always been a working class area, where many anti-Franco struggles took place in the past. The square where the racist assaults took place is popularly known as "Red Square".

Paco Sánchez, a local shop owner and socialist militant, said that after the fiesta two groups of youths confronted each other and the residents spontaneously came out onto the streets. “We were all surprised. People here are very solidarity conscious, fighters, who fought in the past in this very square. Something is wrong. But it has to be stopped because we can't have what happened yesterday; a Moroccan boy of nine or ten coming in this shop full of fear. We are all part of the same social class, Moroccan or Spanish.”

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