"Speak to me, speak here!"

Linguistic support for helping integration of migrants in Barcelona
Photo © V. Krebs
Photo © V. Krebs
Irene Amodei & Maria Vila, English proofreading: Sarah Webborn, version française: Rabah Tounsi, versión española: Tahona Santana Naranjo
16 January 2007

Like some of its neighbours in the South-West of Europe, Spain evolved from being a country of emigration to a country of immigration at the end of the Nineties. In fact, if one looks at the numbers, today Spain could be presented as one of the leading countries of immigration in the European Union. ICVoluntarios-Barcelona is developing a project responding to this need.

This situation is extreme during the summer time, when thousands of people risk their lives trying to travel from different African countries in "Pateras" or "Cayucos" (rudimentary boats) to the Canary Islands. Every year the number of migrants rises and there were more than 15,000 of them in 2006. Some of them die en route if there is bad weather, they get lost or have any other problems, while the condition of the travellers who do arrive is dreadful. Some of these people are sent back to their countries of origin. The rest are spread out all over Spain.

Nevertheless, immigration being a recent phenomenon in Spain, the legal instruments available in the country are inadequate. Hence, there is a substantial lack of technical, political, legal and social training. The recent massive "regularizations" of immigrants (involving a total of 934,702 individuals since 2000) demonstrates the difficulties the Government is facing in controlling the massive flow of people.

Despite the fact that the debate around immigration is today on the political agenda, it has not really matured and integration is still a marginal, secondary and partial concern in it. Many studies have confirmed that Spain is a country with an emigration culture, an extensive experience in internal mobility and a tendency to accept immigration as a legitimate process deserving respect and support. Yet, the "cultural difference" does not form part of this experience. As a host society, Spain advocates assimilation of immigrants, encouraging both their cultural and linguistic absorption, while relegating the use of "other" languages and beliefs to the private realm. Assimilation is not an explicit policy, but a sort of social demand. It is easy to imagine that this attitude towards the immigration phenomenon tends to generate tensions and raise challenges.

Barcelona, the capital of the Federal Region of Catalonia, has received a large number of migrants who have entered Spain elsewhere. In 2001 there were 74,019 recorded, but by 2006 the number had risen to 260,000 according to the Statistical Department. This has caused a number of cultural frictions.

So, looking at the facts and figures above, it is not hard to imagine that immigration is one of the top concerns both for civil society and policy makers. Thus, it is constantly on the agenda of politicians and non-governmental organizations.

This is the framework in which ICVoluntarios-Barcelona is operating, with a project called "Speak to me, speak here" (Parla amb mi, parla aqui). This project benefits from the important collaboration with Linguamón - The House of Languages - and the Immigration Focal Point of the Federació Catalana de Voluntariat Social. ICVoluntarios-Barcelona is also in contact with the Immigration Secretariat of the Generalitat de Catalunya, the Cabinet Technico d'Immigracion.

The aim of the ICVolunteers' project is to carry out an inventory of entities providing linguistic assistance to foreign immigrants and refugees in need of primary care services who are hampered by the fact that they do neither understand nor speak the local language. "Our idea," explains Maria Vila, ICVoluntarios-Barcelona co-ordinator, "is to support Associations that are already working in the field of immigration, mostly offering linguistic services, like translations of legal documents, simultaneous interpretation during daily interactions and assistance during the legalization process. Strongly believing in a capacity building approach, we are planning to train and collaborate with immigrants, who are already integrated into the society, transforming them into cultural bridges between newcomers and Spanish society."

The project also intends to give a new vision of migrants, an image that shows these citizens as people who are fully integrated into the Catalan society and capable of giving their time volunteering like anybody else.

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