Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

In Spain, young migrants fall between cracks in an overburdened system

The country is struggling to accommodate thousands of youngsters who arrived alone on rickety boats or hidden in trucks from North Africa over the years

Moroccan migrant Najib Benyaala, 21, walks on the streets of Barcelona. Mr Benyaala, who survives thanks to black-market jobs and charity, lashed out at the stigma Moroccans are subjected to in Spain. AFP
Moroccan migrant Najib Benyaala, 21, walks on the streets of Barcelona. Mr Benyaala, who survives thanks to black-market jobs and charity, lashed out at the stigma Moroccans are subjected to in Spain. AFP

Spain is struggling to accommodate thousands of young migrants who over the years arrived alone on rickety boats or hidden in lorries from north Africa, some of whom ended up on the streets or even became involved in crime.

The government said there are about 14,000 unaccompanied young migrants in Spain, up from just around 4,000 in 2016.

In regions like Catalonia in the north-east, which has a large Moroccan community that attracts the youngsters after they arrive in the south, reception centres are overwhelmed.

In Barcelona, dozens sleep rough on benches, in parks or in makeshift camps hidden in the hills that surround this Mediterranean seaside city.

"They're damaged, many sniff glue. And they're very vulnerable on the street, criminal gangs take advantage and get hold of them," Peio Sanchez, a priest in charge of the Santa Anna church where young migrants sleep regularly, said.

In front of the church in a small, hidden square near the popular Ramblas avenue in Barcelona, two teenagers shared a cigarette as they played on their mobile phones.

One of them sleeps in a juvenile centre. The other, Sofiane, lives on the street.

His child's body – thin and short body – contrasts sharply with his hard appearance, his cheek scarred.

Orphaned when he was 10, he emigrated from Morocco to Spain hidden underneath a lorry . He was sent to various centres far from Barcelona, but always ended up coming back to the city.

"My friends are here, my life is here," he said.

Adria Padrosa, a social worker at the church, said they persuaded Sofiane to go to a centre several weeks ago, but he returned the following day.

"He's a complicated profile, very used to living on the streets," he says.

The majority of the migrants the church tends to are no longer underage.

They were when they came to Spain, but when they turned 18 they were no longer given protection or support.

Spain automatically gives minors a residency permit but not a work visa.

They can get a work permit after five years in Spain or if they get an annual full-time contract, which is hard to come by in a country with 32 per cent unemployment among under 25s.

"You turn 18 and that's it. They give you your suitcase, they kick you out and bye, bye," says Najib Benyaala, 21, from Moroccan, who has dyed his curly hair blonde.

"From one day to the next, you find yourself on the streets."

Athletic and with a cheerful countenance , Mr Benyaala boxes at a gym in Barcelona for vulnerable people, a haven of peace after years on the street.

"The street is tough, it's bad," he said. "If they gave us work permits, we wouldn't all be on the street."

In Catalonia, just one per cent of unaccompanied minors have a work permit when they turn 18, says Georgina Oliva, who is in charge of childhood matters in the regional government.

"Without this, it's very difficult," Ms Oliva said.

Catalonia tends to 4,200 unaccompanied young migrants, a large chunk of the total in Spain.

Despite a decrease in 2019, arrivals in the region rose tenfold between 2015 and 2018, from 350 to 3,700.

That caused scenes of chaos, with some youngsters sleeping on the floor in police stations for lack of room in reception centres.

Authorities have since opened 3,000 new places for unaccompanied minors.

"We've been warning [authorities] about this for years but until the bubble burst, nothing was done," said Axel Roura of the Casal dels Infants, an NGO that looks for housing for homeless youngsters.

The presence of these young migrants has been sharply criticised by Spain's far-right, which described them all as delinquents after some were caught robbing tourists, at times violently.

But the Catalonia region's Ms Oliva maintains that over 80 per cent of young migrants have never committed any crime, and only "a very small percentage repeatedly commit crimes."

"The huge majority wants to get training, work and send money home," she says.

Mr Benyaala, who survives thanks to black-market jobs and charity, lashed out at this stigma.

"I'm sick of [hearing] 'go back to your country'," he said.

"They say Moroccans are bad. They're not bad, they just don't have food or work.

"I'd like to be like everyone else, go get a coffee in the morning, sitting with my mobile, working, with a house, a family... But it's complicated."

Updated: September 8, 2019 04:58 PM

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