Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Spain - Franco is back

As British expatriates are abandoning the Spanish sunshine due to the devaluation of the pound against the Euro, Spain, predominantly dependent on tourism, is sinking deeper into recession. With the economic downturn comes a rise in right-wing politics, as is also the case in other countries of Europe. Whilst some countries view this development and its concomitant racism as a threat, Spain seems to embrace it with open arms. For the erstwhile dictatorship where fascism lingered another three decades after the end of the second world war, being a police state seems only too natural. For foreign visitors to Spain the arrogance of the Guardia Civil, the Spanish paramilitary police, and the deference showed to them by civilians and officials alike are becoming more evident.

Case study Girona airport: an airport entirely dependent on Ryanair who fly to numerous European destinations as well as Morocco from there. Many come here for the sun, but many are transit passengers on a stop-over to another Ryanair destination, since in spite of the substandard service, queuing system and hand luggage checks bordering on harassment, Ryanair flights, heavily subsidised by the regions to which they fly, remain the cheapest way to get around Europe at the moment. Whereas most airports in Europe only have X-ray machines for departure check-in, Spanish airports also feature X-ray machines for arrivals, which are used discretionary. Discretion always leaves room for abuse, and where nationalist tendencies prevail, this takes the form of racial profiling.

From observation it appears that travellers of Moroccan appearance (and for the Spanish police that includes all manners of Asians) stand a much greater chance of being asked to put their hand luggage through a scanner on arrival. So far, this is only a minor inconvenience, but the scanning, although showing that no contraband is being carried, is frequently followed by a passport check after which the inspecting officer walks off with the document to a security office room where he photocopies the passport and enters details on his computer for a purpose undisclosed to the perplexed passenger. Any attempt to question the purpose or even legality of the move is swiftly followed by the questioner being subjected to prolonged questioning (exclusively in Spanish and often deteriorating into being shouted at) before he is eventually released without explanation. There have been cases where police locked the door of the examination room from the inside before intimidating the "suspects". Demands for an interpreter are regularly ignored.

A similar treatment is sometimes also meted out to passengers on departure check-in, although it is less serious since the passenger wants to leave Spain anyway and non-cooperation could hardly have the more damaging result of being denied entry to the country. Nonetheless, it is disruptive and may eventually turn the visit to, or stop-over in, Spain into an experience the weary traveller does not want to repeat. One should think that Spain can hardly afford turning people away who might help save the Spanish economy by spending their money there, but the police at least have no such scruples.

On an occasion, when I challenged their inappropriate behaviour, they responded by subjecting me to the very same treatment of running off with my passport and subjecting me to questioning, the process being prolonged by the fact that the examining officer was unable to operate his own computer equipment! I did manage to arrange for an interpreter who, however, seemed clearly awe-stricken by the police officers and more intent on arguing their case than translating between the parties. What I was repeatedly told was that when you are in Spain, Spanish police can do whatever they want, basta. A reminder that Spain was a signatory to numerous European conventions cut no ice.

Officers with the following badge numbers currently have an official complaint filed against them with the municipality of Catalunya or the airport authority: 2510, 84613, 88336, 99142. It remains to be seen whether they are at all accountable and effective checks on an abuse of police power exist in Spain - the historic evidence is not encouraging.