Main languages (mother tongues) among Spanish adults (18-64): Castilian Spanish (89.8 per cent), Catalan (11.1 per cent), Galego – Galician (5.5 per cent), Valencian (4 per cent), Arabic (2.2 per cent), Euskara – Basque (1.8 per cent)
Main religion: Roman Catholic (68.8 per cent), other (3.3 per cent)
In 2017, the total number of Spanish Muslims came to 834,000 – a number that rises to around 1.95 million when the additional 1.1 million Muslim migrants are factored in, predominantly from Morocco, Pakistan, Senegal and other countries.
Minority groups include (these minorities are calculated based on their main language, therefore it is possible to be counted as both Catalan and Spanish): Catalan speakers 5.3 million (2011), Galician speakers 2.4 million and Basques 896,000 (2016). (These are figures sourced from official statistical agencies within each autonomous region and so represent the number of speakers within these areas only: data sets also include a range of levels of comprehension from basic understanding to fluency. For instance, there are significant numbers of Basque speakers in neighbouring Navarre, where around a tenth of the population speak Basque.) Catalans live in Catalonia in north-east Spain and in the Balearic Islands, Valencians south of Catalonia in Valencia, Galicians in Galicia in the north-west and Basques in the region on either side of the western Pyrenees, the majority in Spain.
While the Spanish government does not record statistics on the ethnic and racial background of its population, it does record the foreign population in Spain, which amounted to 4.7 million non-citizens in 2018 (about 10 per cent of the population). Among the largest national migrant populations are from: Morocco 769,100, Romania 673,000, UK 240,900, China 215,800, Colombia 165,600, Ecuador 135,000, Bulgaria 123,700, Germany 110,900 and Ukraine 106,800. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has made multiple recommendations for Spain to amend its data collection process.
Spain has the largest Roma population in Western Europe, numbering approximately 725,00 – 750,000.
There is a very small Jewish community comprising approximately 40,000 people, living mainly in Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga as well in the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. A sizeable number are Sephardic Jews who have returned to Spain from Morocco, descendants of the vast number of Jews who were expelled from Spain hundreds of years ago. In October 2015, a law came into effect extending Spanish citizenship to descendants of those who were expelled. The timeframe was meant to have been 3 years, but in 2018 the government announced that it was extending the legislation for a further year. At the time of the announcement, 6,432 Jews had received Spanish citizenship. When the law was passed, the authorities estimated that approximately 90,000 people might apply, although there was really no means to arrive at a precise figure. While those applying need not be practising Jews, they do need to prove their heritage, which they can do with the assistance of their local rabbis or Jewish community groups in Spain.
After Spain joined the European Union in 1985, industry, agriculture, and services developed rapidly. Immigration became an increasingly important issue from the 1990s. Many of Spain’s legal foreign residents are retired citizens from other EU countries, but they have been overtaken in numbers by Latin Americans, and growing numbers from Morocco and Eastern Europe, especially Romania, some of whom are Roma.
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While Spain has long been dominated by the powerful influence of Roman Catholicism and Castile, where the Spanish monarchy was historically based, the country includes a diverse range of languages and regional identities, including autonomous regions such as the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia and Valencia. As part of the transition to democracy following the repressive rule of General Francisco Franco who died in 1975, the 1978 Constitution recognized the different ‘nationalities and regions’ of Spain and their right to self-government while also emphasizing the ‘indissoluble unity’ of the nation. This led to the process of creating the autonomous communities, and there are currently 17 autonomous regions and two autonomous cities in Spain. These autonomous regions gained jurisdiction over education in 1992 and health in 2002.
Yet the struggle for greater political autonomy has intensified in recent years, particularly in Catalonia, where significant sections of the population desire an independent state. Recent debates over autonomy were energized in 2012 when the central government rejected Catalonia’s request to sign a fiscal pact to collect and manage its own taxes, similarly to the Basque Country and Navarre. In recent years there have been two unauthorized independence referendums – one in 2014 and the other in 2017. In the latter, Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades, over 90 per cent of voters favoured independence; the turn-out was 43 per cent. Spain’s Constitutional Court deemed the referendum illegal, and peaceful protestors and voters faced a violent crackdown by Spanish police.
These events in Catalonia reflect the ongoing tensions between Spain’s central authorities and its regional and linguistic minorities. The government has made efforts to protect minority languages, particularly the official languages of the autonomous regions. However, many have demanded that the government goes further. There remain key challenges to be addressed, such as the issue of minority language usage in both official and health services. For instance, court proceedings cannot take place in a language other than Spanish unless both parties make a request, and not all staff at health centres in autonomous regions are fluent in the region’s language. In Galicia, no more than half of a child’s education can take place in the Galician language.
Spain also has the largest Roma population in Western Europe, numbering around 750,000 people, who despite some government measures to support their inclusion remain a marginalized and discriminated group in the country. Their exclusion is reflected in the community’s educational outcomes, for example, with 45 per cent completing compulsory schooling, 10 per cent secondary education and 2 per cent higher education. Roma also struggle with widespread social discrimination, with a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre showing that almost half (49 per cent) of respondents had unfavourable attitudes towards Roma. While their situation has improved significantly in the decades since Franco’s death in areas such as housing – for example, the rehousing of hundreds of families between 1999 and 2011 reduced the proportion of Roma living in inadequate housing from 31 per cent to less than 12 per cent – they continue to face the effects of social segregation, with significantly higher levels of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy compared to the majority of the population.
The historical presence of a Moorish kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula and the geographic proximity of Spain to North Africa is reflected in the long-established Muslim, predominantly Arab, minority that continues to expand through immigration. While Spain’s Muslim population has generally enjoyed widespread tolerance, with the country largely avoiding the development of far-right and xenophobic politics comparable to that in France or Italy, there have been reports of rising hostility in recent years, in particular following violent attacks in Europe. Two attacks in August 2017 by a number of Moroccan-born men in Barcelona and the nearby town of Cambrils that killed a total of 16 people and injured more than 100 others led to a spike in the number of reported anti-Muslim incidents. The Citizens’ Platform Against Islamophobia (PCI) recorded 546 Islamophobic incidents in 2017; the majority of them were media- and internet-based.
Like Roma, migrants contend with higher poverty levels, lower educational outcomes and a legacy of discrimination. Spain’s policy towards migrants – long characterized by prevention and containment, especially in the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, both enclaves of Spanish territory in North Africa with high walls and barbed wire separating them from the surrounding Moroccan territory – has also hardened in recent years as the number of migrants and asylum seekers entering the country has begun to rise. Nevertheless, Spain remains a relatively inclusive space for migrants and despite increasing levels of immigration, the country has yet to see the formation of a mainstream anti-migrant political party.
Spain occupies most of the Iberian Peninsula and also includes the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, and small enclaves in Morocco: Ceuta and Melilla.
The North African Moors ruled most of the Iberian Peninsula from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. In the far north, there arose powerful Christian local magnates with strong family alliances. From the eleventh century, during the period known as the Reconquista, these families gradually united against the Moors. In 1492 Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, rulers of the two most powerful kingdoms, ended Moorish rule in Spain.
The expulsion of an estimated 800,000 Jews and 3 million Muslims, and the persecution of Roma enforced national unification through religious belief and orthodoxy, but local institutions survived. Spain embarked on three centuries of conquest in the Americas, during which time the separatist claims of the northern regions – each economically linked to different colonial possessions – grew. From the sixteenth century the colonial wealth was dissipated in internal religious and dynastic power struggles and in external wars. In 1714, when Bourbon rule was established following the War of the Spanish Succession (a civil and external war), the state was centralized. Occupation by French forces in the Napoleonic era strengthened this.
In 1823 Spain was incapable of defending its American colonies against the United States’ Monroe Doctrine (maintaining that Latin America was a US sphere of interest and encroachment by other colonial powers would not be tolerated). The Spanish-American War of 1898 against the United States, known as ‘The Disaster’, led to the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and a number of Pacific Islands to the United States. In the early twentieth century Spain violently colonized Western Sahara, Spanish Morocco and Equatorial Guinea. But a badly planned invasion of Morocco led to defeat in 1921.
The monarchy was discredited and General Miguel Primo de Rivera set up a military dictatorship from 1923 to 1931. In 1931 the Second Spanish Republic offered political autonomy to the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia and gave voting rights to women. However, regional autonomy was short-lived on account of the 1936-9 Civil War. The 1939 Nationalist victory was followed by rigorous centralization, the dismantling of regional authorities and brutal reprisals against dissent. The regime of General Francisco Franco banned every language and dialect other than Castilian, banned regional cultural manifestations, and imposed national unity in education and the media. Resistance turned violent after the Basque separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) was formed in 1959. Catalan demands for autonomy also grew, but with less violence. These movements and the government response helped discredit right-wing politics and prepared the way for reform once General Franco died in 1975. The 1978 Constitution created a decentralized structure with autonomy for regions and communities.
From 1850 until the 1970s Spain was a country of emigration. In the twentieth century 6 million Spaniards emigrated. Until the 1930s the destination of choice was Latin America, especially Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Cuba. From the 1950s three-quarters of emigrants left for northern Europe under guest worker programmes. Many were obliged to return on account of the oil crises and economic recession of the 1970s. Tourism and industrialization were increasing in Spain at this time. The Spanish economy rapidly modernized and strengthened after Spain joined the European Union in 1986. Then Spain became a destination for high-income immigrants from other EU countries and for migrant labourers from North Africa and Latin America. In 1995 Spain applied the terms of the Schengen Convention, an open-border system between certain EU member states. Spain became a transit point for migrant workers wanting to enter the EU and travel north. The number of low-income immigrants increased rapidly from 1999, causing alarm among politicians, the media, and the electorate.
The Franco era left a legacy of harsh policing. Spain has been criticized over the years by national and international human rights organizations for its police harassment of and brutality against Roma, new minorities, asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, and Basque nationalists.
The 1978 Constitution proclaims ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation’, while recognizing and guaranteeing ‘the right to autonomy of the nationalities and the regions’. The ‘nationalities’ are Catalonia, Euskadi (the Basque Country), and Galicia, all of which had majority votes for autonomy under the 1931 Constitution. Together with Andalusia, they have achieved autonomy under Article 151 of the 1978 Constitution.
Other regions negotiated autonomy statutes under Article 143, which gave reduced powers in comparison with Article 151. The Constitutional Court plays a crucial role in resolving disputes and in shaping the nature of the relationship between the 17 autonomous regions and the central government.
Autonomy under Article 151 devolves education and housing policy to the regions. Some regions, such as the Balearic Islands, whose autonomy statutes derive from Article 143, have been able to increase their autonomy to gain full control over education.
The Constitution guarantees civil rights and equality before the law without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.
The 1985 Law on Foreign Status sets visa, residency and work permit quotas for temporary immigrant workers. Family reunification was not encouraged. Work permits could be renewed but, in practice, it was difficult for foreign workers to do so. Penalties for employers who hired undocumented workers were not enforced, leading to an increasing number of illegal immigrants. A 1996 amendment recognized immigrants’ rights to equality, education, and legal advice. It allowed regional governments to provide for the welfare of immigrant children. It established a permanent resident category and formally included family reunification within its framework.
Law 4/2000, adopted by the then Socialist government, allowed for the integration of legal immigrants but it also allowed for the expulsion of illegal immigrants to their country of origin. It failed to address the difficulties for employers and immigrant workers in obtaining and renewing work permits. It also failed to take account of the difficulties of local authorities in establishing the country of origin of many undocumented immigrants. These problems remained, despite the more stringent Law 8/2000, passed without debate by the Popular Party government, and which came into force in January 2001. This made a clearer distinction between legal and illegal immigrants and withdrew education rights for the children of illegal immigrants. From 2001, agreements were signed with the governments of Ecuador, Colombia, Morocco, Dominican Republic, Nigeria, Poland, and Romania to control immigration to Spain in the main sending countries.
Laws 8/2000 and 4/2000 were both reformed in 2003, with measures making it easier to deport immigrants who committed crimes and giving police access to local authority records. The 2004 reform, effective in 2005, focused on reducing the black market economy and offered a regularization process for around 800,000 out of 1.2 million illegal immigrants.
Amnesties for illegal immigrants in 1986, 1991, 1996, 2000, 2001 and 2005 bear testimony to the ineffectiveness of immigration laws.
The autonomous regional and community authorities have set up departments to deal with immigrant affairs.
Children acquire Spanish citizenship automatically if one parent is Spanish, if they are born in Spain or one of their parents was born in Spain. Foreigners can take Spanish nationality if they have been living in Spain for 10 years, have adequate knowledge of the language, are integrated into society, have a certificate of good conduct from the police and renounce their previous nationality.
European Union (EU) equal treatment directives were enacted in Spanish law in December 2003. The Observatory on Racism and Xenophobia was opened in March 2005 to track racism and propose measures against it. The creation of a Council to ensure the implementation of the EU directives was discussed in 2005 without further result.
The conservative Popular Party banned both Basque separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and the Basque separatist party Herri Batasuna in 2003, although party members kept their seats in the Basque regional parliament by changing the name of the party.
Spain ratified International Labour Organization Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in February 2007.
Asociación de Solidaridad con los Trabajadores Inmigrantes
HOEGOA [Basque] Centro de Documentación e Investigación, Facultad de Económica de la UPV
SOS Racismo Madrid
Movimiento contra la Intolerancia
International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights
[Umbrella organization for human rights NGOs in the OSCE area]
[campaigning organization for victims of terrorism]
Behatokia (Basque Observatory of Human Rights)
Torturaren Aurkako Taldea (Group Against Torture – part of Behatokia)
Etxerat (Association of Relatives of the Politically Repressed – part of Behatokia)
[Basque Solicitors Association – part of Behatokia]
Institut d’Estudis Catalans
Bloque Nacionalista Galego (Galician Nationalist Party)
A Mesa pola Normalización Lingüística,
Instituto da Lingua Galega
La Federación de Comunidades Judías de España (FCJE)
Asociación de Enseñantes con Gitanos
Asociación Nacional Presencia Gitana
Fundación Secretariado Gitano
Acadèmia Valenciana de la Llengua
[official standardization organization)]
Academia de Cultura Valenciana
Acció Cultural Pais Valencia
- Spain: The exploitation of migrant workers in the ‘Sea of Plastic’ (2022)
- Minority and Indigenous Trends 2021 – Spain: As the pandemic bites, growing numbers of refugees and migrants risk the dangerous Atlantic crossing to the Canary Islands (2021)
News and updates
- MRG condemns Spanish authorities’ excessive use of force during Catalan independence poll (2 October 2017)
- Catalans: a renewed nationalist movement (27 February 2013)
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