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Unassisted, Barcelona´s refugee services strain under increasing arrivals

Written by Laura

As the number of refugees seeking aid in Barcelona continues to rise, local reception services grow more and more overwhelmed. According to the Ignasi Calbó Troyano, head of the Barcelona, Refuge City Plan, numbers from these services already show a huge projection for the total number of refugees arriving in the city this year, with over 3,589 refugees just in the first semester of 2018 compared to the total of 4,405 treated in 2017.

These number depicts the number of refugees treated specifically by Barcelona municipal program SAIER (Servicio de Atención a Inmigrantes, Emigrantes i Refugiados), the city´s main reception service for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. This year´s influx is a continuation of drastic growth from the past three years. SAIER data shows that the 4,405 refugees received by the program in 2017 is nearly triple the amount of 1,374 that was treated in 2015, and the growth for this year suggests at least 8,600 refugees by the end of 2018. 

With still no money coming from the central Spanish government to help with municipal reception, integration or housing services, Barcelona´s city government has to foot the €5.5 million bill for all municipal services and resources related to refugee and migrant care. Currently, most of this budget designated for post-reception integration services for refugees is instead going into mass emergency housing in the city to assist the over 200 refugees and migrants arriving per day.

“We provide 217 accommodations daily only to migrants and refugees. Added to the Red Cross shelter program covered by the state, and added to the shelter that is provided by the Social Services of the state of Barcelona, you have to add 100 more, at least,” Troyano said. “It’s a lot of people every day, and 90 percent of it is paid for by the municipality. Its crazy. It’s really crazy.”  

Infographic showing the number of refugees attended to yearly by SAIER. The first five months of this year suggest a projection of almost double from last year by the end of 2018 / made by Laura Place

These arrivals are now being grouped into pensions and shelters throughout various districts in the city, making up around 15 percent of city´s shelter population. This week, the Barcelona, Refugee City department within the Ayuntamiento de Barcelona teamed up with the Spanish Red Cross to provide 150 more accommodations throughout the city as well as more emergency medical services to the large number of vulnerable families. However, these resources are still not enough.

“We do not have the capacity”
On June 20, also recognized as World Refugee Day, the Social Work College of Catalonia denounced the current State system regarding processing of refugees and migrants, and demanded sufficient resources for social workers in first reception services to meet this influx, warning of the danger of the system´s collapse if more training and resources are not given to workers in these offices.

Soazig Noirault, Coordinator of First Reception Services at SAIER, said that their services are completely overwhelmed, leaving many visitors to the office, a mix of migrants, other refugees and asylum seekers, without the care they need as a result.

“The service is completey collapsed,” Noirault said. “We attend to more than 3,000 people each month at SAIER and 1,000 people are left unattended because we do not have the capacity.” 

A majority of the 3,589 refugee arrivals this year have been displaced individuals and families coming principally from Venezuela, Ukraine, Colombia, Honduras, and El Salvador, according to Calbó Troyano. Venezuela was the largest group received by SAIER in 2017, making up 27 percent of the year´s total refugees. 2017 was also the second year in a row that Venezuela submitted the most petitions for asylum status in Spain with 10,350 applications, according to data from CEAR (Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado).

When a petition for refugee or asylum status is rejected by the central Spanish government, the person is considered to be in the country under a status known as “irregular migration”, where the person is no longer qualified for state aid. Spain rejects 65 percent of asylum applications leaving refuge cities like Barcelona and Valencia with only their own municipal money to provide assistance.

“The problem is that funds from the EU and Spain are only able to be invested in regular migration, and regular migration is the exception to immigration in Barcelona. The refugees here are irregular.” Calbó Troyano said.

The memorial at Barceloneta Beach commemorating the drownings in the Mediterrean Sea. The number on the meter now reads over 950 deaths for 2018 / Photo by Laura Place

Along with arriving via methods such as train or plane, people arrive via irregular means such as dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean Sea. According to the Missing Migrants Program, 960 people have drowned this year in the Mediterranean Sea as of June 25. The rising number of deaths is also commemorated through a memorial on Barceloneta Beach, which keeps track of the number of drownings in the Mediterranean Sea through a ¨shame counter¨.

There are services in Barcelona available to people of irregular status who still cannot return to their home country, although they are similarly understaffed and underfunded. Nausica is a municipal reception program that provides services to vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers such as psychological and professional support and assistance with integration and job searching to help with the transition to an autonomous and independence. However, the current city budget also does not allow for hiring more employees to meet the refugee demand, and Calbó Troyano said Nausica´s 100 employees should be closer to 400.

An invisible problem
Much of the recent focus within the region on refugees has been on last week´s arrival to Valencia of Aquarius, a boat of 629 refugees that was rejected entry into Italy last week. Around half have been permitted to seek refuge in France, and those staying in Spain have been given 45 days by the Spanish government to figure out their situation as non-irregular migrants. While a desperate situation, Calbó Troyano said this arrival of Aquarius, which received international media and government attention, is not unlike the steady stream of migrants and refugees arriving regularly to Spain and to Barcelona. Just earlier this month, nearly 500 refugees were rescued trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar in small boats to seek aid in Spain, putting a huge strain on reception services in Tarifa.

“Aquarius is just the tip of the iceberg of this huge problem we have in this country with migrants and refugees,” he said.. “We are in a trench, and there are no resources from the central government.”

Despite heavy influx, there still exists an “invisibility” of refugees within Barcelona, he said, that can also be attributed to the dispersion of the refugees throughout the city, an effort to prevent prejudice towards “ghetto” neighborhoods that ends up being a double-edged sword.

“They are scattered among all districts of Barcelona, which is something that I am proud of…. but the problem is that it´s then invisible,” Calbó Troyano said. “It’s good in terms of social policy, but people still believe that there are no refugees and migrants coming into the city.”

A large number of Barcelona´s refugees come from Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America. While this makes their integration into Spain easier, Calbó Troyano worries that it also lowers the visibility of huge populations of vulnerable people in the city.

“Because they speak Spanish, they are easily integrated. And nobody sees that they are here.” he said.

Demanding change
With the recent implementation of a new prime minister in Spain, it’s possible that things will start to change, but there ultimately needs to be an upheaval of the current status quo, Calbó Troyano said.

“The whole system needs to change – it´s centralized, it infantilizes the whole refugee experience, and its not driven to the autonomy of the refugees, but as a tick in the box in how to treat a migrant. It´s not going to support the real integration as a migrant.” Calbó Troyano said.

Calbó Troyano said is he hoping for a budget increase from the Barcelona City Council that would raise the current €5.5 million by another €0.5 million to contribute to local services. 

Main photo: SAIER offices / photo via the Ayuntamiento de Barcelona 

About the author


American journalist living temporarily in Spain. Her passions include news and feature writing, Spanish language and culture and the outdoors.

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