I spent the month of May 2016 at the Deusto University in Bilbao, Spain teaching in the Erasmus Mundus Master’s in International Migration and Social Cohesion (MISOCO) program. It was a delightful experience. While my students were learning from me about the U.S. refugee resettlement system, the challenges facing Central American children and adolescents fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and debating the trend to medicalize human suffering, I was learning about international migration and immigrant integration in the Basque Country.
The foreign-born population in Spain hovers around 11%; only 2.1% of the 4.4 million immigrants reside in the Basque Country. The highest percentage of immigrants settled in the Basque Country come from Columbia (11.8%), Bolivia (9.7%), Romania (8.8%), followed by Morocco, Portugal and Ecuador (7.5% each). They are virtually invisible in the city center, however, in neighborhoods such as San Francisco immigrants—especially immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa—constitute as much as 20% of the residents. Because of the presence of immigrants San Francisco gets a very bad rap. Some of the Spaniards I talked to—highly educated and well-travelled people—often mentioned that they would not venture into the neighborhood of San Francisco for the fear of the alleged crimes—drug-dealing, prostitution, and theft–propagated by immigrants. Popular tourist sites such as tripdvisor.com or virtualtourist.com feed these fears.
The onset of the economic crisis in 2008 further affected the negative attitudes towards immigrants as native workers faced many challenges in the Spanish labor market. Of course, immigrants faced the same challenges, but the perception that foreigners threaten the economic well-being of locals began to feed the rumor mill: the number of immigrants—especially from Africa and Roma from Romania—are on the rise; immigrants take away from Spaniards not only jobs, but are depleting the pool of money available for the basic minimum income scheme for the poor. In order to squash these rumors, Bilbao—following Barcelona—has launched a clever public service campaign to dispel misconceptions and the prejudices that many local people held about minorities and immigrants. The campaign dispatches the Anti-Rumor Network members to different neighborhoods, places where people gather informally, local civic centers, and the homes of their own family members to fight fiction with fact and a lot of humor.
For those who understand Spanish, you can see a sample of the Anti-Rumor Campaign here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pNEZTQ7u-0