The Problem With Spain's Plan to Pay Migrants to Go Home

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Jon Nazca / Reuters

People wait to enter Spain in the border area which separates Spain from Morocco in Nador, northern Morocco August 18, 2010.

For the first few years that he lived in Spain, Nexar Sambrano seemed to be living the immigrant dream. Leaving behind a near-subsistence existence on a farm in Ecuador, he had moved to Barcelona in 2005 and found a good delivery job with the local beer company. After 18 months he had set aside enough money to think about bringing his children and girlfriend over to join him. But then the recession hit, and Sambrano lost his job. He took odd jobs painting or doing masonry, but in the end, it wasn't enough. "I was relying on my friends for food," Sambrano, 38, says. Which is why, when the Spanish government offered him money to go home, he took it.

It's been over two years since Spain enacted its Voluntary Return Plan for immigrants, which grants legal residents who lose their jobs the right to receive their entire unemployment benefit in two lump sums — one upon departure, and the second after arriving in their country of origin. By now, some 17,000 documented migrants from the U.S., Eastern Europe, and Africa have signed on to the plan, part of a successful effort, says the government, to reduce the pressure on the Spanish economy and spark development in other parts of the world. Yet because that number falls far short of the government's own predictions of 87,000 when the program launched in 2008, some immigrant organizations have labeled it a failure. And many of those who have been its supposed beneficiaries, like Sambrano, aren't sure what to think.

"The reason behind the plan is simple," says Secretary of State for Immigration Anna Terrón. "In this situation, it helps everyone if those who want to return to their country of origin are able to." She means, of course, the economic situation: Spain's already astonishing unemployment rate of over 20% skyrockets to 30% among documented migrants, many of whom arrived during the boom years and took jobs in Spain's thriving construction industry — the very industry whose collapse has sent the economy plummeting.

Terrón points to the fact that the number of immigrants inquiring about and signing on for the plan has continued to grow as proof that it is having the intended effect. And it's true that, for the first time in a decade, the number of non-E.U. immigrants in Spain began dropping in the last quarter of 2010. But organizations who work with immigrants aren't so sure that the Return Plan is the reason. "I know of very few Peruvians whom it has helped," says José Luis Garcia, president of an association for Peruvian immigrants living in the northern region of Asturias. "There aren't many who have signed on, and for those who have, they've actually lost more money returning than they gained. After all, the situation in Peru is a worse than it is here."

The quantities distributed have, for many, turned out to be significantly less than the "average 30,000 euros" originally predicted by the government. When he left for Ecuador, for example, Sambrano's 20 months with the beer company netted him only 1,500 euros, the amount that the government calculated he would have received in unemployment benefits had he stayed in Spain. "I had thought maybe I'd be able to start my own business," he says by phone from El Carmen, Ecuador. "But I'm back working on the same farm as before I left."

Although some have been able to use the money to successfully start a new business in their country of origin, most, according to a study released in February by the Association for Cooperation between Bolivia and Spain, have struggled economically. Prior to leaving Spain, 89% of the departing Bolivians interviewed said they expected to find a job or start their own business. But after just six months in Bolivia, a full 74% reported that attempts to rejoin the workforce at home had been "negative."

Insufficient funding, along with inadequate promotion and explanation, are some of the reasons that Carlos Giménez, Director of the Institute for Migration, Ethnicity and Social Development at Madrid's Autonomous University, believes the Return Plan hasn't had more adherents. But the real problem, he suggests, is the provision that requires departing migrants to surrender their residency permits, and agree not to return to Spain for at least three years. "You're asking people to give up something they've worked hard to earn," he says. "I understand why the government is concerned about ... a scenario where someone takes the money, and turns around and comes back. But there are things they can and should do to protect against that, while still protecting people's juridical status."

Recently, the Spanish government has begun working an amendment to the Return Plan that would grant preferential treatment to those immigrants who wish to come back to Spain once their three years are up. It's a change that Sambrano would like to see implemented. From his farm in Ecuador, he says he misses the beach in Barcelona, and pauses when asked if he thinks he made the right decision in returning. "It's not either/or. Economically, I didn't have any options at the time," he says. "And I'm happy to be back with my children, with my family. But it's a hard life here. If I had the chance to go back, I would."

Just before he gets off the phone, Sambrano makes one request. "If you hear of any work in Madrid, let me know."