By Maria-Paz Lopez
“They are invading us”, “They don’t respect the rules”, “They don’t pay taxes”, “They don’t want to integrate”, “They get special subsidies to open businesses”, are just a few of the often repeated accusations against immigrant communities in Spain.
To deal with rising prejudices, Barcelona City Council is now beginning its second training season of volunteer citizens, nicknamed anti-rumour patrols, whose job it will be to counter rumours or stereotypes about immigrants.
The volunteers take free courses to acquire skills to tackle prejudice. For example, in everyday situations at work, in the neighbourhood, in the supermarket or at the gym, an anti-rumour agent who might overhear someone saying, “You know, Moroccan immigrants are collapsing the Health system, they are always queuing for a doctor, with their many kids …,” could step in and counter with fact. “You know, actually, according to the authorities, immigrants go to the doctor 50 per cent less than natives, and their healthcare costs are only 4.6 per cent of the total in Spain”.
According to 2012 census data, the largest national minority groups in Barcelona are Pakistanis (23,281 individuals), Italians (22,909), Chinese (15,875) and Ecuadorians (15,551), in a city with some 1,630,000 inhabitants.
The promoters of the programme, which began two years ago, could have opted for an ideological, philosophical or human rights’ approach. Instead, they have chosen a down-to-earth, factual one.
“It is more effective” says Miquel Esteve, Town Hall commissioner for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue. “The programme strategy always uses accurate and objective information to deactivate false perceptions such as the belief that immigrants monopolise social aid, do not pay taxes, get subsidies to start businesses, collapse emergency rooms or abuse the health system.”
Using factual data and statistics, the anti-rumour agent seeks to invalidate the rumour right in front of the person who is disseminating it.
Last spring, 436 citizens received the free Town Hall trainings. A new course starting this month includes workshops that analyse how rumours, stereotypes and prejudice are created and divulged, and how they contribute to constructing an overwhelmingly negative opinion within the host community of what diversity means.
Citizens enrolled in the courses also learn to deal with their own prejudices, something that, as the trainers say, they never think they have.
Among the most frequently repeated rumours that affect the whole foreign population, the most dreadful one may be “They are invading us”. To fight it, anti-rumour agents respond: “It is actually the opposite. The foreign population in Barcelona remains very stable. Foreign residents as of 1 January 2012 totalled 282,178, or 17.4 per cent of residents, and that number in January 2011 was 278,320, 17.3 per cent of total residents. That is not fast growing”.
Another typical stereotype about immigrants – “They don’t respect the rules” – can be invalidated by saying, “You know, from 2006 to 2010, only 18 per cent of fines due to violations of the local Ordinance of Civility were for foreigners residing in Barcelona”.
Even if the economic crisis in Spain is causing municipalities to drastically cut budgets, not one Town Hall official in Barcelona – now led by a conservative nationalist mayor – has suggested cancelling this programme.
There is wide consensus of its importance for social cohesion in the city. “When we started…we discovered that false rumours about immigrants were something pretty widespread, that they harmed conviviality, and that it was something we definitely had to address”, explains Daniel de Torres, who was the Town Hall commissioner for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue when the programme started.
Good “rumours” are spreading about its success in the region. Other municipalities in the Barcelona metropolitan area have shown an interest in establishing similar programmes, and they are getting the advice and materials to do so.
It’s a powerful way for civil society to become involved in improving respect for diversity in an urban context, and it’s an idea that can travel.
Barcelona-based author Maria-Paz Lopez is Senior Religion Writer at the Spanish daily La Vanguardia and chairs the steering committee of the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ).