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Immigrants seek aid to flee Spanish economy crisis

MADRID, Aug 7 (Reuters) - The number of immigrants seeking government aid to leave Spain has doubled in 2008 as unemployment soars following the collapse of a decade-long economic boom, official data show.

Spain's Socialist government received 2,100 requests up to July from immigrants who say they cannot afford to return home, compared with 1,184 during all of last year, and this year's funds for the subsidy scheme are exhausted.

"We've already spent our budget because there's a flood of requests during the economic crisis," said a spokeswoman for Spain's department of immigration and emigration.

Over 4 million immigrants, mostly from Latin America and eastern Europe, have flocked to Spain since around 2000 looking for work in construction and jobs like cleaning and child care.

They are among the first workers to be laid off as building firms go bankrupt and companies and households cut back staff in a country teetering on the brink of recession.

A total of 457,000 workers have lost their jobs over the last 12 months, giving Spain the highest unemployment rate in the European Union as the end of its housing boom coincides with the global credit crisis and inflation at a 13-year high.

Spain has some 5 million immigrants, about 11 percent of the population, and unemployment is rising three times faster among immigrants than in the wider workforce, increasing 69 percent in the past year to 266,458 registered jobless, government data show.

Bolivians, Argentines, Colombians and Ecuadoreans are leaving Spain in the greatest numbers, the government said.

The travel subsidy scheme, with a 1.7 million euro budget, is only one government programme to encourage immigrants to leave Spain rather than join the ranks of jobless which swelled to a 10-year high of 2.43 million in June.

The government has also said it wants to tighten requirements for family reunification to restrict immigrant flows.

More than 100,000 immigrants are expected to leave Spain from September onwards, taking advantage of a separate programme to pay jobless immigrants the equivalent of two years unemployment benefit if they go home.

The travel subsidy scheme is operated by Spanish non-profit groups and gives each immigrant between 50 and 400 euros ($77.50 and $620) to journey home, plus 400 to 1400 euros per family.

Groups such as the International Organization for Migration, the Spanish Red Cross and the Spanish Catholic Commission Association for Immigration say they have more than 2,000 immigrants on waiting lists seeking funds to return home. (Reporting by Andrew Hay; editing by Tim Pearce)

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