POLINYA, Spain (Reuters) - In a community hall in the Spanish region of Catalonia, two independence activists take the stage against a backdrop of red and yellow striped Catalan flags: a Syrian-born tourist guide and a Spanish member of parliament born in Uruguay.
With barely three months to go before an independence referendum called for Oct. 1, naturalized immigrants are taking on an important and prominent role in the campaign both as activists and supporters.
Catalonia has one of the highest percentages of immigrants in Spain, just under 14 percent of residents are foreign-born, and their votes may gain crucial votes for the independence movement in what is likely to be a close-run race.
Including them in the movement for nationhood is key says Catalonia’s deputy governor, Oriol Junqueras. “We want to be a very open and integrated society,” he told Reuters in Barcelona.
Campaigners are even encouraging migrants without the right to vote to ask work mates and friends to vote for independence and are advocating Catalan nationality for all migrants living in the region if it leaves Spain.
“All those who are officially registered as living in Catalonia will have the right to Catalan nationality from day one of independence,” said Uruguayan Ana Surra, Spanish member of parliament for Catalan pro-independence party ERC.
After a live performance by a reggae singer in the community hall, organizers handed out leaflets saying: ‘Wherever you’re from, it’s in your hands to secure a better future for you and your children. Sign up to the Catalan Republic!”
“I want to call on everyone here to stand with us and to vote ‘yes’,” said Zuhair Altayeb, who fled Syria in 2011 and has Spanish nationality by marriage.
With separatist sentiment on the wane from Scotland to Quebec, the pressure is on for Catalonia’s secessionists as they attempt to push through a second ballot after a symbolic vote three years ago which was not recognized by Madrid.
Madrid says the new vote is illegal and must not take place.
Unlike the 2014 ballot, non-Spaniards will not be able to vote in October because Catalonia wants to comply with national rules on voting to give the ballot more legitimacy. A majority of Catalans want to hold a referendum, polls show, with those in favor of a united Spain slightly in the lead.
Carles Puigdemont, the pro-independence regional governor, said in a televised debate in January that he supported giving Catalan nationality to migrants living in the region, although he said that would ultimately be decided when a constitution for the proposed new country was drawn up.
Catalonia, Spain’s second most populous region and home to major city Barcelona, has for centuries attracted migrants to work in its textile, steel and chemical industries.
In the 1960s, tens of thousands of Spaniards from the poorer southern regions of Murcia and Andalucia also moved to the region in search of work. Their descendents speak Catalan and are some of the most vocal supporters of an independent state.
During Spain’s boom years at the turn of the 21st century, a new wave of economic migrants came from Latin America and northern Africa. Catalonia was one of the biggest recipients of these migrants.
Migrants as a percentage of Catalonia’s population leapt to a peak of just under 16 percent in 2011, up from 4.1 percent a decade earlier, a bigger jump than in Spain overall.
Whereas the economic crisis of the last decade saw the number of migrants fall, that trend reversed in Catalonia last year and it was one of the few Spanish regions to register a net increase in foreign residents.
The Catalan regional government has worked to integrate migrants by providing free healthcare and education even to illegal immigrants registered as living in Catalonia.
Saoka Kingolo, who came to Spain from Congo in 1988 in search of work and to escape dictatorship, said his experience of Catalonia as an immigrant has been positive despite the big jump in the number of foreigners in recent years.
“At the most there have been one or two (xenophobic) incidents, but nothing serious,” said the 56-year-old independence campaigner who works to promote the Catalan language and advocate immigrant rights in the region.
However, back in the hall in Polinya, all is not plain sailing. Members of the audience express concerns about their eligibility to vote and what will happen to their Spanish residency papers if Catalonia gets independence.
“I don’t like the idea of independence. We are all one family aren’t we?” said one Senegalese audience member who did not want to give his name. “If Catalonia splits off, what if another region wants to go? Spain won’t be Spain anymore.”
(Fixes paragraph 16 to say Catalonia was one of the biggest recipients of migrants not the biggest.)
Additional reporting by Sam Edwards; Editing by Louise Ireland