After the 700 year reconquista of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors, modern Spain became a more or less homogenous nation state. In 1492 Ferdinand defeated the last Muslim rulers of Granada and demanded the conversion or departure of all Jewish and Muslim Iberian settlers to Christianity. Those who did not convert were forcibly removed to North Africa, Italy and the then Ottoman Empire. Spain went on to conquer much of the new world and would, up until the 1970s, remain a nation of emigration, with a relatively high fertility rate—about 3.0 per woman in the 60’s and 70’s—that kept its population growing and spreading abroad.
In 1975 Franco, Spain’s dictator of 40 years, died, and in 1977 Spain underwent a transition to democracy. Spanish society and economy were liberalized and the fertility rate of Spaniards began to take a steep dive that would not bottom out until 1997 when it hit 1.15 per woman, the second lowest world-wide at the time and almost half the necessary rate for population stability (2.1). In 1975, foreigners had made up less than one half a percent of the population and still, by 1997, there were only about 600,000 of a total population of 40 million, or 1.5% of the population. At the same time, Spain was undergoing an economic boom and would soon face a shortage of workers and population decline. Spain then began abruptly to pursue an open borders policy begun under the People’s Party, then headed by President Aznar who invited thousands of Ecuadorian workers to work in construction and Moroccans to work in farming. By the year 2000 foreigners grew to 2.28% of the population and numbered less just under 1 million—a significant increase but still much lower than European countries such as France, Germany and Britain. Illegal immigration also began to increase.
The open borders policy would continue, accelerating, along with the property boom, when president Zapatero of the Socialist Worker’s Party was elected in 2004. By the year 2005, the number of foreigners living in Spain had surged to 3.7 million, or 8.5% of the total population. The number of foreigners then leaped to a further 5.7 million in 2010, or 12.2% of the total population, a 500% increase over 10 years. The total population of Spain nearly reached 47 million in 2011, but the number of foreigners showed no significant increase from the following year due to the deepening economic crisis. Without immigration, Spain’s population would have likely gone into decline in the mid 2000s.
Although 12.2% of the population is now made of foreign residents, the total number of non-ethnic Spaniards is estimated to be much higher. Children born in Spain are naturalized as Spanish citizens and non-Spaniards tend to have higher fertility rates; additionally a large number of residents have been naturalized. It’s probable that approximately 8 million Spaniards are foreign resident or foreign-descended, making up 17% of the total population. The largest groups are Romanians, Moroccans, British and Ecuadorians. The majority of the others come from a diverse medley of South American, European and African countries.
Lately, some South Americans and Eastern Europeans have understandably returned home, given that the estimated unemployment rate of foreign residents is now 30%. Spain also embarked on a program of paying some foreigners to leave and not return for three years to help ameliorate their chronic unemployment. And some Spaniards, especially the young, educated and unemployed, are beginning to move abroad in search of opportunity.
Despite the fact that Spain’s immigrant population has leaped from being one of the smallest in Europe to one of the largest, ethnic tensions and xenophobia remain low compared to other European countries and, though they certainly exist, most Spaniards are relaxed and positive about immigration. In a recent poll, 91% of Spaniards under 30 had an overall positive view of immigration and 69% said they had one close friend who was an immigrant. Crime, however, has increased, but less so than in other European countries of mass migration.
Since the beginnings of mass immigration to Spain, the fertility rate has risen from the dismal 1.15 per woman of 1997 to 1.47 in 2011 and the population has continued to grow steadily. At the same time Spain has transformed quite rapidly, especially in the last 10 years, from a strongly Catholic, mostly homogeneous nation to a secular, largely non-religious, multicultural nation. As of yet, there has been no rising anti-immigrant backlash or nativist political parties like those which are growing fast in Northern Europe.