In photos: Fleeing violence in Latin America they run into a bureaucratic wall in Spain
MADRID – “I was leaving school with a friend and around a corner came two young guys who stopped me and told me, 'Look, the gang wants you, so you have to join.' They pulled out a pistol and pointed it at me, saying that if I didn't join they would hurt my father, my mother, my sister.”
With tears in his eyes choking back his emotions, that's how Alex*, 16, recalled the moment that led him and his family to flee El Salvador and seek asylum in Spain.
Before leaving, they moved several times in El Salvador in a failed effort to find safety. But far from putting distance between themselves and the gang, they ran into more extorsions and death threats. Alex and his 10-year-old sister witnessed the gang's threats to their grandmother's hair salon.
His father, Jorge, still cries and falls silent when he recalls the two times he felt a pistol pressed to his skin when he worked as a taxi driver. He had to move to an area he believed was safer, but lost his job. Although he left behind the violence that marked their lives in El Salvador, starting a new life in Spain has not been easy.
“We don't come to beg for anything or to depend on the government. We're only looking for the opportunity to survive,” said the father, drying his tears as his wife and children look on.
Facing a string of bureaucratic barriers and with few alternatives, the family was taken in by a church in Madrid.
They are just one of the many families who go to Spain in search of asylum, part of a wave of immigrants that is less visible but just as large as the caravans of Central Americans that cross Mexico to try to reach the United States.
Most of the asylum seekers in Spain say they managed to buy their airplane tickets and three-day hotel reservations – required for tourist visas – with the help of relatives, scraping together whatever they could gather from the sale of their homes and belongings or whatever they could earn from illegal jobs in countries along the way, such as Costa Rica or Chile.
Spain's Interior Ministry reported that between January and the end of September this year, nearly 5,000 Central Americans – most from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – applied for asylum.
A bureaucratic wall
But while President Donald Trump's anti-immigration policies are attracting much attention, those who go to Spain in search of refuge also run into roadblocks in the asylum application process.
Just to get an appointment to submit their petition for asylum, the immigrants must stand in lines for days and nights, suffering through cold and rain, outside the Madrid office that handles foreign citizens.
A prior system to request appointments by telephone was shut down in May. Officials are now seeing about 80 applicants per day and scheduling interviews for 2020 – leaving immigrants in a lengthy limbo, without government assistance or protection.
The situation improved after about 50 families seeking asylum submitted complaints to the 'People's Ombudsman', forcing the government agencies to take steps to end the long waiting lines on the street and speed up the processing of the asylum requests.
Despite the improvements, however, many families with children seeking asylum are all but living on the streets of Madrid.
The Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Social Security, in charge of assisting asylum applicants, has failed to provide emergency shelter and basic necessities for those who don't have housing until they can be transferred to longer-term shelters run by entities such as the Red Cross and the Spanish Commission for Help to Refugees.
Madrid's municipal government has no direct responsibility for refugees but can help when it perceives a social emergency. But its resources are overwhelmed, and several families from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia and Venezuela were evicted from the city's central emergency services office on November 16.
That day, eight families totaling 30 people, including 11 children and a pregnant woman, accompanied by volunteers from the Solidarity Welcome Network and the Neighborhood Coordinator, walked to the St. Charles Borromeo church in the Vallecas neighborhood.
“Welcome. This is your house,” the parish priest, Javier Baeza, told them.
Already in the church were Alex and his family, who had arrived days earlier and got busy cooking a hot meal for the new arrivals. His mother Carolina* later declared that “it was beautiful, to have the opportunity to help the families that came later.”
Since then, the church has continued every day to receive families with children who don't have a place to live or legal or social counseling.
Spanish government reports show that the highest number of asylum applications come from Venezuela, Colombia, Syria, Honduras and El Salvador, in that order. That's about the same makeup of the more than 100 immigrants who have passed through the St. Charles church in the past two weeks.
Among them were Gerardo González of Colombia, who was staying there with his wife, children, grandson and mother in law. He said he left the province of Buenaventura, one of the hardest hit by the country's violence, “to save our lives.”
Another church resident, Anielka, escaped the repression unleashed by the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega and had been living on the streets with her children, three and nine years old. Estela, a Venezuelan who is six-months pregnant, slept for 10 nights in a Madrid subway entrance with her husband and two-year-old son before making her way to the church.
All face a tough road ahead, but now they are united in the embrace of citizens who aim to provide charity and defend the immigrants' human rights by providing the care that others do not.
(*) Some names were changed to preserve the anonymity of the asylum seekers.