“It’s not easy to be away from your country. At times one only comes to suffer, to withstand mistreatment, hunger - and economically things aren’t good.”

Spain's undocumented Latin American minorities are experiencing challenges in one of the hardest hit countries - where reportedly 21.6 percent of the population are at risk of poverty, the largest in western Europe.

“We had to leave our country due to forced displacement. My father was killed by the guerrillas.” says a 53 year old Colombian, Maniny.

“One night hooded people came and beat us up. They wanted my oldest son,” said the mother of four.

“They told us to leave and if we did not, they would kill us.”

After receiving threats, the family packed their bags. They left Colombia’s countryside - an area known for armed-conflict and forced displacement. Conflict between paramilitaries, rebels and governmental forces vying for control lasted for over 50 years - before the peace accord was reached in 2016.

The family moved around several cities in Colombia. At first they felt safe in the capital, Bogota. But back home in the countryside, more fears were raised over safety when Maniny’s brother was displaced. 

Despite the peace accord being in place, illegal armed groups drove around 139,000 displacements in Colombia in 2019. The Pacific coastal departments of Nariño and Chocó were the worst affected areas.

The family then briefly moved to Ecuador, before relocating close to Valencia in Spain.

“It has not been easy. We have been fleeing as if we were criminals to safeguard our lives, causing emotional damage to the whole family,” she said.

Maniny says arriving in Spain with limited funds and on tourist visas, was challenging. She applied for asylum before Covid-19 went on to affect the country in the ferocious way that it did, and crucially, before the government implemented a strict lockdown. 

Now, as parts of the country enter different phases of reopening, there are new challenges.

“The impact of Covid hasn’t only brought health consequences but also economic and social consequences,” said Miguel Rodriguez, part of the Red Cross’ Communications team in Spain.

Paying rent and bills

While waiting for a decision on her asylum, Maniny is unable to work and generate an income. This has inevitably caused great economic difficulties.

“Now we have problems paying rent and bills,” she said.  

Maniny is two months behind on her rent payments. She fears this could in fact extend to 3 months, along with facing the prospect of losing the roof over their head. Their ultimate worry is being forced onto the streets with her children.

Rent is causing issues for both Spanish nationals and migrants alike, according to Georgina Lara, Operations Assistant at The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) part of the UN.

With financial difficulties mounting, Maniny has had to rely on help from the Church and food donations from the Red Cross in order to feed her family.

“We can only thank God for all the people with good hearts who help us”, she said.

Rodriguez says the Red Cross has helped around 1.5 million of the most vulnerable. Their efforts focus on health, emergency and social inclusion.

Maniny hopes to find work and that her children might be able to one day attend school.

“This pandemic makes us more vulnerable being without papers, without work and without being able to count on anyone,” she said.

According to Lara,“the number of asylum seekers has increased in the past 3 years - especially migrants coming from Colombia and Venezuela and also from Central America - Honduras, El Salvador”.

Hardening of asylum procedures

Spanish Governmental data says 80 percent of the 118,264 asylum requests originated from Latin America in 2019, and that 34.5 percent of them were from Venezuela, 24.8 percent from Colombia, and less than 6 percent each from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Lara says the asylum procedure has become “less flexible” compared to last year. Asylum seekers used to receive a red ‘rights’ card, showing they were “in the system for protection”. Now, she says, they are simply given a white one.“It’s like a step before applying for asylum. It’s not so easy to get asylum,” she said. 

In addition to the social and economic consequences of Covid-19, those awaiting these monumental decisions about their residency, face other obstacles. 

At the start of 2020 before the Pandemic hit, Spain received around 3,500 asylum requests per week, according to El Pais. But only 5 percent of those requests were approved. The EU average as per the newspaper then was 30 percent approval for asylum requests.

Susana is another Latin American dealing with the economic and social impact of Covid-19. Abuse by her partner, teamed with economic instability, drove the 26 year old to migrate from Honduras to Spain. She facilitated this by acquiring a 2,000 euro loan. In doing so, she had to make sacrifices. Her mother is raising her young child back home. She says this way she hopes “to provide a future to my child and mother”.

The Honduran mother and member of the Garifuna, an Afro-indigenous community, arrived on a tourist visa shortly before the pandemic hit and applied for asylum. For now though, she cannot work. 

“Now with this crisis, the situation has become more difficult,” said Susana.

The Spanish government has said that it will “not leave anyone behind” in its social emergency plan, pledging to spend 3 billion euros on a scheme to provide for the poorer citizens - and with a minimum income to bring down poverty levels.

“Unfortunately irregular migrants would be out of the system - the budget that is available from the government,” said Lara.

Vox, the Spanish right-wing populist party, recently held protests against the government’s handling of the pandemic, and at the start of the period, called for undocumented migrants to pay for their medical consultations. 

“We have not seen any acts or actions of xenophobia, but it could be an impact for migrants,” according to Lara. She suggests that if it did take place, it could potentially “damage co-existence of people living in Spain” and “the integration process for migrants”.

Susana’s recent experiences have led her to reflect deeply.

“It’s not easy to be away from your country. At times one only comes to suffer, to withstand mistreatment, hunger - and economically things aren’t good.”

How to buy food

Without an income, she has turned to food donations from The Red Cross. 

According to Rodriguez, demand for the Red Cross’s help has shot up. They are seeing those once considered middle class, now access the services with 68 percent new users registered. Rodriguez says the organisation is trying to help those hardest-hit back onto their feet - working on “employability” between workers and businesses.

But for those without work permits or awaiting asylum decisions, there is some growing support for their cause. Local reports say over 200 NGOs and 40,000 citizens are advocating for formalisation and regularisation of informal migrants and those seeking asylum.

As Susana awaits a decision, she wishes to work and contribute to Spanish life by taking care of its elderly and becoming a care worker.

According to Lara, Spain’s economy needs migrants to work in sectors like tourism and agriculture.

“We hope that the current government is still focusing on migration and if it’s possible to open a way to regularise migrants,” she said.

For 36 year old Ernesto, the issue of regularisation is important for undocumented migrants in Spain. 

The Latin American didn’t see a future for himself and his partner in Cuba. When they came to Barcelona in late 2018, they overstayed their visa allowance. Without any official documents, the couple worked informally, something which they did not find so hard to do before the pandemic paralysed Spain and the world. Ernesto taught languages, while his partner babysat. But as the lockdown began, work became sparse and their money consequently dried up. His main worry now is about how to keep paying the 460 euros for their monthly rent. "The issue is that as we don’t have papers, we don’t qualify for any of the help by the government"

Before coronavirus took hold, Lara says, the income of irregular migrants in Spain was not very large. “So with the pandemic and lockdown, they (irregular migrants) lost their jobs and they did not receive any income, not even from the state. As you can imagine irregular migrants are outside of the system - the protection system. They do not have the permit to work or to receive social assistance. At the moment they are not receiving income. Of course there is a network of NGOs who are working - covering this necessity.”

Ernesto hopes to gain a work permit but sees bigger challenges for those undocumented in Spain. “The government has its interests. The parties - each party has its interests and we’re in the middle of this struggle."

Source: TRT World