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Migrants, memory and rights: Spain’s battle against the far-right narrative

The rise of Spain's far-right Vox party is exploiting fears of migrants and unaccompanied minors, but civil society is fighting back with pro-migrant legislation and efforts to preserve historical memory against Francoist nostalgia, as well as LGTBI rights.

In the lexicon of Spain‘s populist right, there is a word that concentrates all the dreads of identitarian nationalists: mena, an acronym for menor extranjero no acompañado (unaccompanied foreign minor). This legalese refers to migrants under 18 who arrive in Spain without their families and for whom the state has to take responsibility. 

Extremist circles are pervaded by rhetoric about mena, which even appears in posters in the street and on public transport. The minors in question are accused of being violent, of intimidating their peaceful neighbours, of draining welfare assistance to the detriment of the natives. In short: they are a nuisance and should be expelled.

The talking points are spurious, but they resonate with a certain segment of the population. According to the latest data (April 2024) from the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, a public body in charge of polling society’s preferences, 10% of Spaniards would vote today in a general election for Vox, the far-right party that emerged just over a decade ago from a split in the Partido Popular (PP), Spain’s mainstream conservative party. Vox already sits in the coalition governments of several Spanish regions. In a country whose geographic location makes it a gateway to Europe from Africa, Vox has made the demonisation of underaged migrants one of its main political trump cards.

Faced with this rhetoric of racial animus, Spain’s civil society has responded with a successful campaign that has managed to practically drown out Vox’s thesis. The Esenciales movement, supported by more than 900 NGOs, last month got Spain’s lower house of parliament to accept a legislative initiative to enact precisely the opposite of what the extremists advocate: it would regularise more than 500,000 undocumented migrants. The bill passed its first reading with an overwhelming majority: 310 votes in favour and 33 against. And the whole episode has provoked very little media controversy. How was this possible?

According to Gonzalo Fanjul, research director of the porCausa Foundation and one who spoke in defence of regularisation in Congress, the strategy has been to “generate a narrative that replaces that of the far right” without responding to its postulates. “We have no interest in arguing with those who believe that the Earth is flat”, says Fanjul.

‘A part of society has understood that it is not reasonable that political parties should get us caught up in collective hysteria for electoral purposes’ – Gonzalo Fanjul, porCausa Foundation

The initiative, which emerged from migrant communities themselves, garnered more than 600,000 signatures from ordinary Spaniards. It appeals not just to solidarity but also to economic motivations, such as the promise of migrants’ tax contributions. Even the Catholic church and business organisations ended up supporting the bill, which still has to face legislative hurdles but may well pass into law.

“A part of society has understood that it is not reasonable that political parties should get us caught up in collective hysteria for electoral purposes”, argues Fanjul. He believes that Vox and the far right “have not understood anything because they have an essentialist and hyper-identitarian idea of Spain that reflects a country from a century ago that no longer exists”.

Defending historical memory

The story of the Spanish Civil War, whose 90th anniversary will be in 2026, is still unfolding today. Almost five decades after the end of Franco’s dictatorship, the memory of the defeated side remains in many cases literally buried. Recent centre-left governments led by the Socialist Party (PSOE) have been ready to finance the exhumation of the thousands of mass graves across Spain that hold the remains of Republicans who died in battle and from reprisals. But the far right, and even mainstream conservatives, are torpedoing these efforts.

“In Spain there was no denazification like in Germany because here they won”, says Enrique Gómez, president of the Asociación por la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica in Aragon. This region in northeastern Spain enjoys extensive self-government, in line with the country’s decentralised constitution.

After last year’s regional elections, a coalition of PP and Vox came to power in Aragon for the first time. Among the first measures taken by the new government was the repeal of Aragon’s law on historical memory. The effect was to make it more difficult to exhume mass graves or even to give informative talks to children in schools. “They legislate against the law”, says Gómez. He recounts how his organisation was even denied chairs at a routine event to pay tribute to the fallen of the anti-fascist side in the Civil War.

The answer from Spanish civil society has been to redouble efforts at education and to establish links with associations in other regions. “Oddly, we are more active than ever,” says Enrique Gómez. Commemorative exhibitions abound, while school principals are defying the ban and introducing the issue into the school curriculum. He is pleased with this response: “There are people who understand that we just want to bury our dead, and they are taking a stand.”

LGTBI rights at risk

Even in Madrid, one of Spain’s most welcoming places for the LGBTI community, far-right discourse is on the march. Two laws aimed at the transgender community have been approved by the regional PP regional government. In an election last year, the PP won an absolute majority that allows it to govern alone.

One of the laws removes the concept of “gender identity” from the law and so, according to Amnesty International, reopens the door to the application of conversion therapies repudiated by numerous international bodies. Spain’s national government has criticised the law and is considering appealing it for violating the constitution.

But the first response has been on the streets, where activists have demonstrated in the centre of the capital. And their movement will, in all likelihood, be a conspicuous part of the gay pride parades in July.

Víctor Honorato

Translated by Harry Bowden

With the support of the Heinich Böll Stiftung European Union
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