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Challenges to Integration in Europe

Andreu Domingo Valls on what we can learn from the Catalan case
Copyright: william87 (iStock)

Andreu Domingo Valls, Member of the Population Europe Council of Advisors, was awarded with the City of Barcelona prize last year. The prize honours his essay Catalunya al mirall de la immigració: Demografia i identitat nacional (“Catalonia in light of immigration: Demography and national identity”) as the best publication in the field of Social Sciences and Humanities.

In light of the ongoing discussion on migration, we reached out to Professor Domingo i Valls for some context. In this interview, he answers questions about his essay, the history of immigration in Catalonia throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and the challenges to integration in Europe in coming decades.


Population Europe: Your essay Catalonia in light of immigration: Demography and national identity is centred on how immigration has affected Catalan society and, above all, its identity. I think there is another story here as well: How Catalan society has integrated migrants. Briefly, could you share with us the history of immigration in Catalonia in the twentieth century and the argument you present in your essay?

Andreu Domingo Valls: During the 20th century, immigration became the principal driver of demographic changes in Catalonia. Catalonia’s population growth since the beginning of the 20th century, from barely 2 million inhabitants to today’s 7.5 million, and a historically low fertility rate has been marked by the economic circumstances that have energised immigration. The first wave took place at the beginning of the 20th century and lasted until the crash of 1929. A second wave took place during the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s until the oil crisis, most critically from 1966 to 1970, when some 425,831 people migrated to Catalonia and accounted for 62% of total population growth. These first two waves consisted of migrants from the rest of Spain.

PE: And in the twenty-first century?

ADV: The third wave had a more international character. Beginning toward the end of the 20th century, it has given way to the migration boom of the 21st. Though cut short by the 2008 economic crisis, this wave—most intense between 2000 and 2004—has seen some 702,000 more entrances than exits, accounting for more than 90% of total population growth. These trends are not an exception. Migration is a common feature of most developed countries’ population growth. What is exceptional about the Catalan case is its intensity and how early it took place.

PE: How has this influenced the development of a Catalan national identity?

ADV: The argument of the essay is that the persistence and intensity of those migratory movements in Catalonia have shaped a demographic system based on immigration that transcends demographics and permeates Catalan culture, society, and economy. Far from the eugenic fears of denationalisation and the disappearance of Catalan culture before immigration of the 1930s, immigration has actually fortified both Catalan national identity and culture, making itself one of their vertebral axes.

PE: There are figures indicating that some 70% of Catalans have immigrant roots from the twentieth century. Is this true? To what extent is this unusual?

ADV: The work of Anna Cabré, the synthesis of which was published in 1999 under the title "The Catalan System of Reproduction", demonstrated that more than 60% of the resident population in Catalonia in 1986 could be considered a direct or indirect product of exclusively 20th century migration (migrants, children, or grandchildren). Nearly 30 years and an international immigration boom later the figure could be closer to 90% in the first decade of the millennium. Surely, this proportion has reached 70% at least. Such levels can be compared to other regions and countries in Europe that have traditionally received many immigrants. What is exceptional is that Catalan culture has been strengthened throughout the process—and this during an antagonistic 40-year dictatorship (1939 – 1976) that persecuted any overt manifestations of Catalan culture, starting with the language.

PE: There is an oft-repeated story in Spain that the most fervent supporters of Catalonian independence are themselves second generation immigrants—that is, children of immigrants, especially from Andalusia. Is there a hint of truth to this popular conjecture? Or can it be dismissed as a politically motivated counter narrative to the Catalan independence movement?

ADV: Andalusia was the Spanish region that sent the most immigrants to Catalonia during the second wave of the 20th century, principally in the 1960s. Among descendants, just like among those from other regions, one can find supporters of Catalan independence – just like we find some opponents. The visibility those in favour of independence have garnered can be attributed in part to their high number and in part to how they clash with traditional "ethnicist" notions of national identity found in Spanish nationalism. However, the situation is not necessarily exceptional.

PE: Regardless, the story suggests that the integration of migrants from other parts of Spain has been extraordinarily successful. To what do you attribute this success?

ADV: Several factors contributed to the successful integration of immigrants in Catalonia. First is the early recognition of the need for immigration, which required the adoption of an already moderated discourse in the 1960s. In some ways, this discourse could be understood as avant la lettre a discourse in which the definition of Catalan national identity was developed in an open way, encompassing all those that lived and worked in Catalonia and anyone else that wanted to. Second, the immigration wave of the 1960s coincided with an era of fairly high social mobility. And third, during these years, migrants and natives alike joined the fight for better social conditions. Perhaps by incorporating immigration into its foundational myth, Catalonia was more predisposed to integrate international migrants—and to accept the change their integration inferred. In any case, it has completely delegitimised racist and xenophobic attitudes, positioning them opposite of Catalan national affirmation.

PE: Were there groups other than those coming from other parts of Spain during the twentieth century, and to what extent were they integrated?

ADV: The share of the foreign-born population remained small throughout the 20th century, always below 1% until the end of the millennium. In the last decades of the century, however, European immigration linked with retirement and the immigration of workers, mostly from Morocco and often because suddenly they could not enter France, began to arrive. This first group of African migrants have been entirely integrated, but the situation worsened as time went on due to the massive wave of immigration from Latin America starting in 2000 and the onset of tangible Islamophobia.

PE: How have immigration and integration changed in the twenty-first century in Catalonia?

ADV: Immigrants in the 21st century, in contrast to those in the 20th, have had to overcome a lack of rights inherent in not holding Spanish citizenship. This has resulted in the paradoxical situation in which international immigrants do not suffer from the spatial segregation and low quality housing endured by immigrants from within Spain, but nevertheless constantly face the isolation caused by the lack of rights. However, it is too soon to speak of the success or failure of the integration of more than a million foreign-born people living in Catalonia (17.7% of the total population) and their descendants.

PE: I’ll now ask you to speculate: What is the future of immigration in Catalonia? And, perhaps more importantly, the integration of migrants?

ADV: For Catalonia the absence of migration would be a sign that the economic crisis persists, and therefore bad news. We’ll have to wait and see in the medium term if it again increases. Regarding integration, like other European countries Catalonia faces two challenges. First is the fight against the growing inequality highlighted by Thomas Picketty, which threatens social integration capacity based on upward social mobility. The second is what I have come to call the “pigmenting temptation”—that is, that we end up socially stratifying Catalan society, and the societies of other European countries, according to prejudices based on the origin, phenotype or religion of our citizens.

PE: Thank you!


Andreu Domingo Valls, is Deputy Director of the Centre for Demographic Studies (CED) and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Geography at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB).

This interview was conducted by Patrick I. Dick for Population Europe.