Who is a refugee?
A refugee is someone who flees their country because their life is in danger and looks for protection in another country. The Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, to which the Spanish State is a signatory, includes race, religion, nationality, political opinions, belonging to a specific social group, gender and sexual orientation among the reasons for persecution
People fleeing from armed conflicts or situations of generalised violence are also regarded as refugees.
What is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?
The difference is legal. A refugee is someone who has already obtained international protection. An asylum seeker is someone who has applied for asylum but not yet received an answer, so all refugees must have been asylum seekers before.
And what is the difference with a migrant?
Refugees and migrants alike have left their country of origin or residence in search of safety. There are various reasons for their doing that, ranging from armed conflicts, internal violence and human rights' violations to natural disasters and poverty. And there are various activities that contribute towards it too, such as the plundering of natural resources, environmental pollution and predatory trading policies.
The main difference is that refugees have been forced to flee their countries of origin and cannot go back, short of an improvement in the situation that forced them to leave. Migrants have left in search of a better life and future but they are free to return.
But many so-called “economic migrants” would be unable to guarantee their family's subsistence if they went back to their own country. They should therefore have access to a system of international protection.
How many refugees are there in the world?
The UNHCR calculates that at the end of 2014 there were 59.5 million forcibly displaced persons around the world, which is equivalent to the population of Italy. Of these, 38.2 million were displaced in their own countries, 19.5 million were refugees abroad, while 1.8 million had applied for asylum in another country and were waiting for a reply.
In all, nearly 14 million people were forcibly displaced in 2014; a figure which represents another 11 million internally displaced persons and another 3 million refugees. A further 5 million fled their homes in the first quarter of 2015, of whom 4.2 million were displaced within the borders of their own countries and 839,000 abroad.
The main country of origin of refugees at present is Syria. Of the 23 million people who lived there at the start of the conflict in March 2011, 4.7 million have sought refuge abroad. Syria is followed by Afghanistan (2.59 million) and Somalia (1.11 million). But, worldwide, the main refugee population is still the Palestinians, 5.1 million of whom are split between the autonomous Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East and the Gulf.
Leaving aside the Palestinian refugees, the main regions that refugees come from are Asia, with 8.7 million, and Africa, with 4.6 million.
Where are they?
Most are hosted in neighbouring countries and developing regions, though one in four are in the least developed countries. More than 40% live in countries with a GDP per capita of nearly 4,500 euros, more than six times less than the figure for Catalonia.
The region with the most refugees and displaced persons in the world is Africa, with 15 million in total, as a result of wars, human rights' violations and hunger.
Practically half of the 14.4 million refugees under the UNHCR's mandate around the world survive between Africa and the Middle East. In 2014, the main host countries were Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan. Russia, Germany, the United States, Turkey and Sweden were the countries that received the most requests for international protection.
As regards Syrian refugees, there are 2.5 million in Turkey; 1.1 million in Lebanon; 637,000 in Jordan; 245,000 in Iraq, and nearly 117,000 in Egypt, according. Between April 2011 and December 2015, nearly 900,000 applied for asylum in European countries.
A country as small as Lebanon, a third the size of Catalonia and with less than half its GDP per capita, today hosts one refugee for every four inhabitants.
Where do the people arriving in Europe come from and what is the European Union doing to help them?
Most of the people arriving at the European Union's external borders or requesting asylum in the EU come from countries in conflict, mainly Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea, but some also come from European countries, such as Kosovo, Albania, Serbia and Ukraine.
From January to September 2015, more than 800,000 people asked for international protection in one of the 28 member states, especially Germany, Hungary and Sweden. That represents 200,000 more than in the whole of 2014.
Rather than receiving refugees and establishing safe legal passage, the EU has prioritised the control and securing of its borders. That is forcing refugees to take dangerous routes to get here. The UNHCR estimates that more than one million people made it to Europe via the Mediterranean in 2015 and that 3,771 drowned or disappeared en route.
The European Commission proposed two mechanisms for involving member states in hosting refugees: relocation quotas and resettlement quotas.
The former relate to people that have already managed to reach the European Union and are currently in Italy, Greece or Hungary. The latter refer to people who have sought protection in countries sharing borders with others in conflict, especially in refugee camps. The European countries have agreed to share 160,000 between them in the case of the former, and 20,000 in the case of the latter. All that in two years.
But they only relocated 232 in 2015.
Does the Spanish State host many refugees? And how many more will come?
The Spanish State hosts very few refugees compared to other EU countries, despite the fact it is one of the four biggest countries.
According to the UNHCR's figures, there are 5,798 refugees and 7,535 asylum seekers living in Spain. With an estimated population of almost 47 million inhabitants, that represents 1.2 refugees per 10,000 inhabitants, and 2.8 refugees or people seeking international protection per 10,000 inhabitants. Sweden and Malta, which host 150 and 140 refugees per 10,000 inhabitants respectively, are the two countries with the highest ratio per capita in the European Union.
Spain should receive between 15,000 and 19,000 people over the course of the next two years under the European programme to relocate 160,000 refugees from Italy, Greece and Hungary. Only 18 arrived in 2015.
The central government also made a commitment to host another 854 as part of the resettlement programme with the ’UNHCR, 130 of whom should have arrived in 2014.
Is it easy to obtain asylum status? Who decides?
Asylum policy is the sole responsibility of the State and falls within the remit of the Ministry of Interior. Asylum has to be applied for and applicants must undergo in-depth interviews and wait a month before they can find out whether their application has been accepted. The process may drag on for a period between one and three years, though the Spanish authorities should make a decision within six months.
As with the number of applications made, the figures for granting international protection in the Spanish State are very low compared to the average for other European countries with similar-sized populations and GDP.
What are the benefits of the State care system?
Asylum seekers with no resources of their own can turn to the state care programme once their application has been accepted.
This programme consists of six months in a centre, where all their basic needs and psychosocial care will be covered. After that they will be entitled to a work permit. Such support may be extended for a period of 18 months and for a maximum of 24 months in the most vulnerable cases.
Refugees have some advantages compared to other migrants living in the country: for example, automatic authorisation to work and a right to apply for nationality in five years rather than ten.
And what happens if the State denies asylum?
Many people seeking international protection cannot return to their countries of origin because their lives would be in danger. Just because applicants are refused protection does not mean it is safe for them to return. Refusals turn applicants into immigrants in an irregular situation, denied any legal protection unless they some kind of residence permit.
What can the City Council do?
The City Council has no jurisdiction in asylum matters, though the Care Service for Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees (SAIER) run by the City Council and a number of city social organisations has been offering refugees help and advice since 1989. It also fills the gaps in the State's reception programme; for example, it takes responsibility for the basic needs and care of the most vulnerable people until they can use that programme.
Faced with the current humanitarian crisis, the City Council launched the "Barcelona, Refuge City" plan to gear up the city to receive and assist refugees, provide them with the necessary services and guarantee their rights. The plan also involves actions abroad and support at source and en route
While we wait for the central government to honour its commitments, the plan already has a comprehensive care programme for all refugees now living in the city who, for various reasons, have been excluded from the state-wide care programme. The programme has led to the creation of 25 temporary accommodation places that will benefit nearly 50 people a year.
How many people have already taken refuge in our city and how many more are to come in the future?
The SAIER service dealt with almost 1,400 refugees in 2015, individuals and families who arrived in Barcelona on their own account. The trickle is constant and it has quadrupled in the last three years. Most are from Ukraine and Syria, but there are a lot of other nationalities too.
What we don't know yet is how many people will arrive in Barcelona as a result of the commitments acquired by the Spanish State. It will be the central government that decides, though it is still not clear under what criteria, let alone the number places that are going to be available in the state-wide temporary accommodation network.
Will they have to be housed in private flats?
People who come to Barcelona will not need to be housed with families from the city. The state-wide reception programme ensures that all asylum seekers and people who arrive as a result of the European commitments will have their basic needs (accommodation and upkeep) covered for the first six months at least. But the City Council has also started up a complementary comprehensive care programme for anyone who may be excluded from that cover.
The Council is grateful for all the offers received in this regard. What will be really useful are vacant flats, should a lot of people arrive who are already at the integration stage. In that case, those flats would be put at the disposal of the organisations dealing with those people. If you have any resource you wish to offer, please do so by getting in touch with the "Barcelona, Refuge City" plan.
Where will they be housed?
As the State has exclusive jurisdiction over asylum, it is responsible for attending to the refugees and funding their social care. It does that via three organisations: the Red Cross, the Spanish Catholic Migration Commission Association (ACCEM) and the Spanish Refugee Aid Commission (CEAR). So, even if they submit their asylum application in Barcelona, refugees cannot choose their destination and will be housed where the combined state-wide network of hostels and flats has places available.
Catalonia has always had a deficit of temporary accommodation in relation to the number of asylum applications submitted. Up to last September there were only 28 places, mostly divided up between Sant Feliu de Llobregat and Sabadell. To meet its European commitments, the government awarded a subsidy last September to the three management agencies, which led to the creation of another 90 places.
What impact will the arrival of more refugees in Barcelona have?
The "Barcelona, Refuge City" plan has been launched precisely to gear up the city and make sure all those who arrive here are received with dignity and respect for all their rights, though not to the detriment of other groups in the city. That explains why the social network is being strengthened, but without creating a parallel structure, something that will be to everyone's benefit.
The plan is gearing the city up for any eventuality, hence the emergency procedure that will be triggered should a massive number of people arrive in one go or in large groups on a regular basis.
The plan favours spreading people around. Barcelona has 10 districts and 73 neighbourhoods, so the impact in each area won't be high.
Are refugees guaranteed access to public services, such as education and health?
Barcelona guarantees the rights of all non-EU residents, regardless of their legal status, and facilitates their registration with the city residents' register as a means of accessing municipal services.
All minors living in Barcelona must go to school if they are of compulsory-education age. Far from having a detrimental effect on its quality, their incorporation into the education system will promote diversity, a positive value that helps to improve the education of children and young people.
Anyone seeking international protection is entitled to immediate access to an individual health card (TSI) and to general health-care cover. Being a refugee is not synonymous with being ill, so health care for refugees will not undermine anyone else's.
What is the associated economic cost to the city?
Accepting refugees has no economic cost for the city as long as the state care programme looks after them. The costs arise when the state network is saturated and it takes longer to get on the programme or when some people, for different reasons, are excluded. The City Council spent nearly 500,000 euros in 2015 on temporary accommodation for the most vulnerable cases, especially families with children and people with health problems.
In fact, the Council allocated 10.5 million euros from the 2015 surplus to the "Barcelona, Refuge City" plan and policies offering support to refugees. This expenditure went towards expanding the Municipal Housing Trust's social housing network, giving the SAIER service more resources and starting up the comprehensive care programme for refugees living in the city.
Because the refugees that were expected from the State's commitments have not yet arrived, 2.5 million euros have been reallocated to the Barcelona Education Consortium for school-meal subsidies.
How can I help?
I want to do volunteer work. How can I do that?
Refugees and people seeking international protection are in a highly vulnerable situation that requires specialised, individual care and attention. So volunteers will need to be directed towards tasks that help people who have just arrived in the process of adapting to the city and everyday social life.
The "Barcelona, Refuge City" plan has a civic space for coordinating public-participation activities and the offers of resources and services received with the city's voluntary groups and organisations.
And humanitarian visas? Could they apply for one?
Only a few European countries issue asylum-related humanitarian visas. Such is the case of France, for example, and its “asylum visa”, which its diplomatic representatives abroad may grant to individuals in need of protection, so they can reach the country legally and apply for asylum there.
Humanitarian visas are not regulated in the European Union, although the legal foundations to do so exist under the Schengen Visa Code. Article 25(1) of the Code provides for “limited territorial validity visas" (LTV), a type of temporary visa that gives access solely to the territory of the State that issues it and which may be granted exceptionally, where the State deems it necessary for humanitarian reasons, questions of national interest or its international obligations.
Article 19(4) of the Code also provides for the possibility - for humanitarian reasons or questions of national interest - of relaxing the conditions for admissibility that are required for obtaining a visa, which could otherwise be hard for refugees to satisfy.
Limited territorial validity visas may be applied for at consulates located in third countries in the European Union and at its external borders. Spain issued close to seventeen thousand of them last year, according to Eurostat data. The statistics do not give a breakdown of the reasons.
I know refugees who would like to come to Barcelona that I can and want to help. How can I do that?
In theory, it will be very hard for you to help them come to Spain and apply for asylum. It all depends on where they are from, their personal situation, their resources and the help you can offer them. Your best bet is to discuss it with the SAIER' legal services.
If your friends have already reached European territory and are in Greece or Italy, it is those states that are responsible for processing their asylum applications, and if they manage to get to Spain on their own, they could be turned back. If they are Syrian, Iraqi or Eritrean nationals they could resort to the European relocation mechanism, but that is working very slowly, is fraught with difficulties and does not allow any choice of destination country.
Refugees who are not in the European Union only have three legal channels of entry: family reunification in the country resided in by immediate family members who enjoy refugee status or have applied for asylum; resettlement from the first country they have found protection in and humanitarian admission, whereby vulnerable refugee populations in third countries are offered temporary protection.
Spain's asylum legislation provides for the possibility of its ambassadors abroad being able to decide on whether a person may enter Spanish territory to apply for asylum, but this is a discretionary power and it only applies to people who are outside their own national country and claim their physical integrity is at risk. The rules for applying the Act, which have not yet been approved, will determine applicants' conditions of access to embassies and consulates and the process for assessing their requirements for entering Spain.
If they have resources, the alternative is to try to get a temporary visa for travelling to Spain and then apply for asylum once they get here.