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Immigrants bear the brunt of Spain's economic crisis

First Posted 12:58:00 01/31/2010

MADRID, Spain?Alexandra, a 39-year-old Ecuadorian mother of three, lost most of her income when she lost her job as a cleaner last year.

She now lives on 420 euros (580 dollars) a month, 380 of which goes to pay a mortgage on her flat, and is forced to get lunch at a soup kitchen for immigrants to survive.

"I don't have a lot of work and I'm in debt," she said at the center run by the Madrid regional government. The soup kitchen "helps as we spend more on food than anything."

Alexandra is among many immigrants across Spain who have found themselves struggling to cover basic necessities after the country's once-booming economy slumped into recession at the end of 2008.

Spain has around 5.5 million immigrants, most of them from Latin America, out of a total population of 46 million, up from 500,000 in 1996.

Many came to work in the construction industry, the driver of more than a decade of economic growth in Spain but which collapsed when the bubble burst on its credit-fueled property market.

Spain's National Statistics Institute said Friday that the country's unemployment rate soared to almost 19 percent, or about 4.326 million people, in the fourth quarter of 2009, up 1.12 million from a year earlier.

But the rate among immigrants was 29.7 percent, compared to 16.8 percent for Spaniards.

Now many of the jobless immigrants, like Alexandra, have joined the queues at soup kitchens, bringing shopping trolleys and tupperware containers to collect food for the family.

Manager Pedro Calvo says he serves 500 meals a day, 20 percent more than last year.

"We are now getting more families coming back, who were here three or five years ago," he said.

Most, from Latin America, have children and being unemployed are unable to support their families. Many are also from sub-Saharan Africa.

The soup kitchen is not open to everyone. They must first receive a card from the Red Cross certifying that they are in desperate straits.

"My wife is here legally in Spain but she still can't find work," said Angel Salinas, a 46-year-old Bolivian who has been out of work for seven months.

He said returning to Bolivia is not an option for him, even though Spain's Socialist government launched a program in late 2008 to compensate jobless immigrants if they return to their country of origin,

"It would be a huge failure to go back with nothing," said the former driver.

Ecuadorian Miguel Angel Rodriguez, 36, who came to the soup kitchen with his two-year-old daughter, has been out of work for three months since his company, which supplied parquet floors for the construction industry, closed down.

His compatriot Elizabeth, 19, brought her one-month-old baby to pick up food for the five people in her family. Her mother works for 800 euros a month and her two brothers are students.

The government said the number of immigrants in the country plummeted in 2009 due to the economic slowdown, marking "the end of a long cycle" of high numbers.

Spain received about 10,000 legal immigrants last year compared to 136,000 in 2008 and 178,000 in 2007.

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