Spain occupies most of the Iberian peninsula and also includes the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands and small enclaves in Morocco: Ceuta and Mellila.


Main languages: Castilian Spanish, Catalán, Valencià (Valencian), Euskadi (Basque), Galego (Galician)

Main religion: Roman Catholicism

Minority groups include: Catalans 7 million (15.8%), Galicians 2.8 million (6.3%), Basques 1.2 million (2.7%), Roma/Gypsies 650,000–800,000 (1.5–1.8%), Ecuadoreans 479,978 (1.1%), Moroccans 468,797 (1.1%), Romanians 308,856 (0.71%), Colombians 268,144 (0.62%), Asians 176,290 (0.41%) and Jews 20,000 (0.05%). Other Latin Americans number 693,451 (1.6%) and other Africans 194,359 (0.45%). [1]

Catalans live in Catalonia in north-east Spain and in the Balearic Islands, Valencians south of Catalonia in Valencia, Galicians in Galicia in the north-west and Basques in the region on either side of the western Pyrenees, the majority in Spain.

Around 80 per cent of Spaniards state that their religion is Roman Catholicism.

New minorities

There are officially some 3.7 million non-citizens in Spain, with a further estimated 600,000 undocumented immigrants.

After Spain joined the European Union in 1985, industry, agriculture and services developed rapidly. Immigration became a problem from the 1990s and more particularly from 1999. Many of Spain’s legal foreign residents are retired citizens from other EU countries, but these have now been overtaken in numbers by Latin Americans, and increasing numbers from Morocco and Eastern Europe, especially Romania. Some Romanian immigrants are Gypsies.

New minorities work mostly in the service sector (59 per cent) and in agriculture (21 percent). Most Latin Americans and Asians are involved in the service sector, while 39 per cent of Africans are employed in agriculture, and 15 per cent of East Europeans work in construction.

New minorities are most numerous in Catalonia, Valencia, Murcia, Andalusia and Madrid. The Canary Islands have become a destination for African boat people. There is considerable illegal immigration through Ceuta and Mellila.



The North African Moors ruled most of the Iberian peninsula from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. In the far north, there arose powerful Christian local magnates with strong family alliances. From the eleventh century, during the period known as the Reconquista, these families gradually united against the Moors. In 1492 Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, rulers of the two most powerful kingdoms, ended the Muslim presence in Spain.

The expulsion of an estimated 800,000 Jews and 3 million Muslims, and the persecution of Roma/Gypsies, enforced national unification through religious belief and orthodoxy, but local institutions survived. Spain embarked on three centuries of conquest in the Americas, during which time the separatist claims of the northern regions – each economically linked to different colonial possessions – grew. From the sixteenth century the colonial wealth was dissipated in internal religious and dynastic power struggles and in external wars. In 1714, when Bourbon rule was established following the War of the Spanish Succession (a civil and external war), the state was centralized. Occupation by French forces in the Napoleonic era strengthened this.

In 1823 Spain was incapable of defending its American colonies against the United States’ Monroe Doctrine (that Latin America was a US sphere of interest). The Spanish-American War of 1898 against the United States, known as ‘The Disaster’, led to the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and a number of Pacific Islands to the United States. In the early twentieth century Spain took colonies in Western Sahara, Spanish Morocco and Equatorial Guinea. But a badly planned invasion of Morocco led to defeat in 1921.

The monarchy was discredited and General Miguel Primo de Rivera set up a military dictatorship from 1923 to 1931. In 1931 the Second Spanish Republic offered political autonomy to the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia and gave voting rights to women. However, regional autonomy was short-lived on account of the 1936–9 Civil War. The 1939 Nationalist victory was followed by rigorous centralization, the dismantling of regional authorities and brutal reprisals against dissent. The regime of General Francisco Franco banned every language and dialect other than Castilian, banned regional cultural manifestations, and imposed national unity in education and the media. Resistance turned violent after the Basque separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) was formed in 1959. Catalan demands for autonomy also grew, but with less violence. These movements and the government response helped discredit right-wing politics and prepared the way for reform once General Franco died in 1975. The 1978 Constitution created a decentralized structure with autonomy for regions and communities.

From 1850 until the 1970s Spain was a country of emigration. In the twentieth century 6 million Spaniards emigrated. Until the 1930s the destination of choice was Latin America, especially Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Cuba. From the 1950s three-quarters of emigrants left for northern Europe under guest worker programmes. Many were obliged to return on account of the oil crises and economic recession of the 1970s. Tourism and industrialization were increasing in Spain at this time. The Spanish economy rapidly modernized and strengthened after Spain joined the European Union in 1986. Then Spain became a destination for high-income immigrants from other EU countries and for migrant labourers from North Africa and Latin America. In 1995 Spain applied the terms of the Schengen Convention, an open-border system between certain EU member states. Spain became a transit point for migrant workers wanting to enter the EU and travel north. The number of low-income immigrants increased rapidly from 1999, causing alarm among politicians, the media and the electorate.

The Franco era left a legacy of harsh policing. Spain has been criticized over the years by national and international human rights organizations for its police harassment of and brutality against Gypsies, new minorities, asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and Basque nationalists.



The 1978 Constitution proclaims ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation’, while recognizing and guaranteeing ‘the right to autonomy of the nationalities and the regions’. The ‘nationalities’ are Catalonia, Euskadi (the Basque Country) and Galicia, all of which had majority votes for autonomy under the 1931 Constitution. Together with Andalusia, they have achieved autonomy under Article 151 of the 1978 Constitution.

Other regions negotiated autonomy statutes under Article 143, which gave reduced powers in comparison with Article 151. The constitutional court plays a crucial role in resolving disputes and in shaping the nature of the relationship between the 17 autonomous regions and central government.

Autonomy under Article 151 devolves education and housing policy to the regions. Some regions, such as the Balearic Islands, whose autonomy statutes derive from Article 143, have been able to increase their autonomy to gain full control over education.

The constitution guarantees civil rights and equality before the law without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

The 1985 Law on Foreign Status sets visa, residency and work permit quotas for temporary immigrant workers. Family reunification was not encouraged. Work permits could be renewed but, in practice, it was difficult for foreign workers to do so. Penalties for employers who hired undocumented workers were not enforced, leading to an increasing number of illegal immigrants. The 1996 law recognized immigrants’ rights to equality, education and legal advice. It allowed regional governments to provide for the welfare of immigrant children. It established a permanent resident category and formally included family reunification within its framework.

Law 4/2000, adopted by the Socialist government, allowed for the integration of legal immigrants but it also allowed for the expulsion of illegal immigrants to their country of origin. It failed to address the difficulties for employers and immigrant workers in obtaining and renewing work permits. It also failed to take account of the difficulties of local authorities in establishing the country of origin of many undocumented immigrants. These problems remained, despite the more stringent Law 8/2000, passed without debate by the Popular Party government, and which came into force in January 2001. This made a clearer distinction between legal and illegal immigrants and withdrew education rights for the children of illegal immigrants. From 2001, agreements were signed with the governments of Ecuador, Colombia, Morocco, Dominican Republic, Nigeria, Poland and Romania to control immigration to Spain in the main sending countries.

Law 8/2000 and 4/2000 were both reformed in 2003, with measures making it easier to deport immigrants who committed crimes and giving police access to local authority records. The 2004 reform, effective in 2005, focused on reducing the black market economy and offered a regularization process for around 800,000 out of 1.2 million illegal immigrants.

Amnesties for illegal immigrants in 1986, 1991, 1996, 2000, 2001 and 2005 bear testimony to the ineffectiveness of immigration laws.

The autonomous regional and community authorities have set up departments to deal with immigrant affairs.

Children acquire Spanish citizenship automatically if one parent is Spanish, if they are born in Spain or one of their parents was born in Spain. Foreigners can take Spanish nationality if they have been living in Spain for 10 years, have adequate knowledge of the language, are integrated into society, have a certificate of good conduct from the police and renounce their previous nationality.

European Union Equal Treatment directives regarding race and employment were enacted in Spanish law in December 2003. The Observatory on Racism and Xenophobia was opened in March 2005 to track racism and propose measures against it. The creation of a Council to ensure the implementation of the EU directives was discussed in 2005 without further result.

The conservative Popular Party lost the general elections in 2004 partly because it blamed ETA for the March 2004 Madrid bombings, although initial evidence pointed to Al Qaeda. It had banned both ETA and the Basque separatist party Herri Batasuna in 2003, although party members kept their seats in the Basque regional parliament by changing the name of the party.


Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The Socialist government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero offered a peace process for Basque separatists if ETA would disarm, which it did nominally in 2005 (but this was followed by bombing incidents) and more convincingly until December 2006 when it carried out a bomb attack at Barajas airport in Madrid, killing two Ecuadorean immigrants. The Spanish government immediately declared the peace process dead although ETA still claims that the ceasefire is in place despite the bombing.

The different language minorities, Basque, Galician, Catalan and Valencian, are protected by the autonomous regions and cultural promotion has led to increased use in most cases. Questions have been raised in the European Parliament that, as these languages are official in their regions, they should also be official languages of the European Union, which they are not at present. However, some EU documentation is produced in these languages. As a result of translating the draft EU Constitution in 2004, a European Parliament committee decided that Valencian was not a separate language from Catalan, a result welcomed by some and rejected by others in Valencia.

Regional governments are pressing for greater autonomy. Some do not have control over education policy, and protection of language minorities is more difficult if teaching materials and the curricula are set in Castilian Spanish. Education programmes in the languages of new minorities settled in regions with established minorities are more difficult to organize on account of the existing requirements to learn official regional languages.

The autonomous regions most affected by immigration are pressing for control over immigration policy, which is directed by central government. The ineffectiveness of immigration policy to a great extent results from a mismatch between the ideas of the decision-makers and the reality in the community. Local authorities are responsible for delivering policies which are sometimes impossible to carry out, for example, returning undocumented illegal immigrants to their country of origin. The difficulty employers face in obtaining work permits for immigrants from the central government authorities, even when all conditions are met, and the continuing weak sanctions against employers of illegal immigrants, mean that regional governments will have to continue to grapple with the problem of undocumented foreigners. Some local administrations have refused to release information to the police as required by the 2003 law on foreign status.

In November 2006 it was reported that some 16,000 illegal immigrants from Africa had come to the Canary Isles in 2006. In July 2006, three African immigrants were killed when they tried to enter the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco, allegedly as a result of Spanish and Moroccan law enforcement officers using disproportionate and lethal force to prevent them entering; in 2005 at least 13 people were similarly killed. In October 2006, Amnesty International again expressed its concern about the allegations of ill-treatment and excessive use of force by the Spanish Civil Guard, including use of firearms and heavy rubber bullets at close range, when confronting migrants and asylum seekers attempting to climb over the fences into Ceuta and Melilla. Moreover, Amnesty asserted that, when people are intercepted by Spanish Civil Guards in the area between the two border fences, they are often immediately unlawfully expelled through one of the gates in the fence closest to Moroccan territory.

The central government adopted the Gypsy Development Programme in 1988 but funding has been constantly low and progress is slow. There are special education programmes for Gypsy children in many regions and communities. Local authorities have adopted housing policies which have often led to segregation and entrenched poverty of the Gyspy communities.

Discrimination and violent attacks against Gypsies and new minorities continue. They are documented to a certain extent, but the available data on minorities is insufficient to guide policy effectively. The Secretariado Gitano detailed 137 cases of discrimination in employment, education, housing, health care, legal procedures, the media and by the police in its 2005 report.

Spain is criticized by various organizations, such as the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), European Network against Racism (ENAR), Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, SOS Racismo and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF-HR), for human rights violations. These include documented cases and allegations of police harassment, brutality, racist violence, discrimination and censorship.

In 2005 the Catalan Parliament approved a new Audiovisual Law extending the powers of the Catalan Audiovisual Committee (CAC) to censor the publication and broadcasting of ‘untruthful information’ and impose fines and suspend operations of the media so accused. IHF-HR states that this is a unique body in Western Europe and the EU.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cited 13 cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in Spain from 2000–4. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concerns in his 2005 report on Spain that complaints of torture or degrading treatment were ‘not always investigated as swiftly and as efficiently as they should be’. Most allegations of such abuses were made by NGOs in connection with terrorist suspects. IHF-HR also warned of apparently false allegations of police abuse by ETA.

Spanish and foreign NGOs expressed concern that that the Spanish criminal law would permit and encourage ill-treatment under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Spain has not had to introduce special laws to combat terrorism since the constitution allows the suspension of some prisoner rights in suspected cases of terrorism.

ENAR, in its 2005 report on Spain, notes that in a recent poll, 50 per cent of Spaniards considered immigration a problem. The organization also criticized the media for hyping anti-immigrant attitudes.

Movimiento contra la Intolerancia has warned that anti-Semitism has increased against Spanish Jews following the actions of Israel against the Palestinians.

ECRI noted in its 2005 report the discrepancy between police reports of violent incidents of racism (maximum 100 a year) and those of NGOs (4,000 with the likelihood that the real figure is much higher). These incidents mainly involved African and Latin American immigrants.


[1] Data on new minorities and total population: INE 2005.


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