Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Monday, 19 june 2017 | POLITICO


The new catalans

They came for a better life. Now they could be the swing vote that tears the region away from Spain.


Gagandeep Singh Khalsa might seem like an unlikely name for a Catalan nationalist. And indeed, before he moved to Barcelona from India nine years ago, Khalsa didn’t even know the region’s inhabitants had their own language, culture and history — or that many of them wanted to break away from Spain.

Today, Khalsa is an independentista, part of a large migrant population whose views Catalonia’s separatists are hoping will prove critical if the region holds a planned referendum on independence on October 1.
The region is “always shortchanged,” says Khalsa, a spokesman for the Catalonian Sikh community. Catalonia, he’s convinced, doesn’t need Madrid. “We’ve got everything,” he says.
At a time of rising xenophobia across Europe, Catalonian nationalists have been remarkably welcoming toward migrants. That stance has the potential of paying off.

Between 2000 and 2010, the region’s population swelled by 20 percent to 7.5 million — an increase driven in large part by immigration. While many of those new arrivals can’t vote, a growing number can.

Between 2009 and 2015, some 220,000 people became naturalized Spanish citizens in Catalonia — equivalent to about 3 percent of the region’s population. Saoka Kingolo, an independence campaigner focusing on migrants, said that up to 500,000 foreign-born Catalans will be eligible to vote in the referendum.

That’s not a big number. But it could nonetheless be decisive. If Catalan’s independentistes are to eke out a victory, it’s likely to be a close one. A recent poll put the vote for leaving Spain at 44.3 percent, just over 4 points behind remaining at 48.5 percent (if the region is able to overcome Madrid’s resistance to holding a referendum at all).
Polls on Catalonian independence are notoriously volatile, but they show a few clear broad trends. Voters with Catalan parents are overwhelmingly for independence, while those with parents from other parts of Spain are cool to the concept.

Recent migrants lie somewhere in the middle, almost evenly split between those who would vote for independence, those who would choose to remain part of Spain and those who would abstain, according to a 2013 poll by the Institute of Political and Social Sciences of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

That makes them fertile ground for those seeking to break with Madrid, and independence campaigners have set out to win over the region’s new arrivals with welcoming rhetoric and promises of policies that would make it easier to obtain work permits and citizenship.
If every legal resident could be granted a vote and convinced to go to the ballot box, the unionists would suffer “a thrashing,” says Diego Arcos, a spokesman for Barcelona’s Argentinian community.

“We’re talking 10 percent of the electorate,” says independence campaigner Kingolo, who is leading a team of 12 people reaching out to migrants at the Catalan National Assembly, a pro-independence grassroots organization. “If they are motivated [to vote], the impact of their vote would be great,” Kingolo says.

Growing participation

Catalans separatists will tell you the independence movement began in the 18th century, when Catalan forces were defeated by the Spanish crown in the War of Spanish Succession in 1714. But as a cause it only really took off in the 20th century.

The region enjoyed a brief moment of autonomy in the 1930s before being brutally suppressed following the Spanish Civil War. The Catalan language was banned from schools and public offices until 1975.

Separatism has taken on new life over the last decade, as Catalans chafe at what they say is heavy-handed treatment by the central government.
In 2015, a coalition of pro-independence parties campaigned in regional elections promising to break away from Spain if they won — which they did. Once in power, they promised to hold a binding referendum on independence no later than September this year — a move Madrid says would violate the Spanish constitution.

The approaching vote makes the subject difficult to avoid, even for those who may not be well-acquainted with it.

“Nowadays, you have to say if you are for independence or not,” says Míriam Hatibi, a spokeswoman for Ibn Battuta, an NGO that helps migrants, primarily Muslims, integrate into Catalan society.

More and more recent arrivals are getting involved in politics, she’s noticed. “The first one [to get involved] was 10 years ago. Now you can’t count them, there are so many.”

And as migrants have gotten interested in politics, Catalan parties have sought to harness their participation, painting it as an opportunity to help create an ideal state in which they will be fully represented.
For Ana María Surra, the argument was compelling. Born in Uruguay, Surra moved to Catalonia to be closer to her son, who lives in Barcelona. She arrived in the city to celebrate her grandson’s first birthday in 2005, and never left.

Now an MP for the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party, a member of the ruling coalition, Surra also founded a group called Sí, amb Nosaltres (Yes, with Us) a pro-independence group of Catalan residents originally from elsewhere.

The (migrant) case for independence

The classic case for Catalan independence, Surra says, is based on two factors: identity and economics. Catalonia is a nation with a distinct language, history and culture. And since the region pays more in taxes to the national government than it takes out, it merits full control over its finances.

For migrants, the case for independence looks a little different. Its appeal lies the promises of employment, papers and dignity.

Free from Spain’s “plunder” of its resources, says Surra, the Catalan government would be able to provide migrants with better employment opportunities.

Under Spanish labor laws, many recent migrants are unable to secure proper contracts with paid holidays. That would be fixed in an independent Catalonia, she claims.

“When we can have papers, we are going to be citizens of the first category, like everyone else,” Surra says. “We will able to vote, we will be able to participate in public life, we will be giving a bonus to the future Catalan republic as migrants.”
Oriol Amorós, the Catalan government’s secretary for equality, migration and citizenship, says the ERC intends to grant immediate citizenship to all legal residents living in Catalonia when it becomes independent.

Even if legal residents can’t vote in the referendum, “they will be immediately added to the new Catalan electoral body to express their opinion in the, for example, the referendum for a new Catalan constitution.”

He also intends to provide visas for people searching for job opportunities, as well as group visas to help citizens and residents bring their families over — all within EU parameters — he added, since the region hopes to maintain its membership in the bloc after independence.

Catalonia is a ‘nation of immigrants’ much like the United States, Amorós says. “Catalonia has been built thanks to many waves of migrations.”

People come to Catalonia — and end up staying — “because it’s a country that doesn’t ask anyone to get rid of its own identity.” Instead, it encourages them “to be part of a diverse and shared society — that is, to become Catalan.”


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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Col·lectiu Emma is a network of Catalans and non-Catalans living in different countries who have made it their job to track and review news reports about Catalonia in the international media. Our goal is to ensure that the world's public opinion gets a fair picture of the country's reality today and in history.

We aim to be recognized as a trustworthy source of information and ideas about Catalonia from a Catalan point of view.
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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia