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integration in spain

Some foreigners’ departments are much newer than others but they all have the same aims: to help residents deal with the authorities in their new home and encourage integration
12.03.09 - 13:52 -

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Looking after the foreigners
NERJA. Jacky Gómez with Foreign Residents’ councillor Emma Louise Hall. / EUGENIO CABEZAS
The mid 1980s marked a turning point for the Costa del Sol. More and more people from other European countries, especially the UK, were deciding to reside for all or part of the year in southern Spain. The numbers were growing and with them the need for more services in different languages. In 1984 SUR in English was born and just a year later Mijas Town Hall opened the Costa del Sol’s first Foreign Residents’ Department.
Over the years more town halls in the province of Malaga have followed suit. Now residents arriving from other countries have it much easier than those who made the move in the seventies. They have an office where someone will provide information about everything from local taxes to health care and consumer issues in their own language.
However most of the local authorities agree that the existence of this service in different languages ought not give residents the idea that they can sit back and not make an effort to learn Spanish. In an attempt to prevent that attitude taking over, over the years town halls have started organising events and activities aimed at encouraging greater integration, including perhaps the most important of all: Spanish classes for foreigners. As Fuengirola councillor Suvi Kauranen points out, their ultimate aim is that residents no longer require their services.
Mijas - Since 1985: A pioneer service
Located in the new Town Hall building in Mijas Pueblo, the Mijas Foreign Residents’ Department is more than just an advice bureau. As well as dealing with queries about Town Hall procedures, taxes, building licences, social security, driving licences and much more (in seven languages) the department organises cultural events, trips, information days, talks and classes and even translates at civil weddings. Anette Skou, who has been at the department since it first started, points out that now there are residents from 120 different nationalities in Mijas, although the majority of foreigners are British followed by Scandinavians.
The department staff give advice to residents of Mijas (and often other municipalities) regarding dealings with the administration in Spain from the Town Hall to the central Government. “We help them fill in their forms and tell them where to go but we can’t do their business for them; we’re not a ‘gestoría’”, she points out.
Nevertheless Anette adds that they “always listen to people” and that a lot of older residents who live alone appreciate having someone to talk to.
Like the other foreign residents’ departments, Mijas has noticed that the economic downturn has taken its toll on many foreigners and the falling pound has sliced into British pensioners’ incomes. Anette and her colleagues have seen an increase in enquiries about services such as home help and how to apply for aid through the Ley de Dependencia. In fact this will be one of the issues on the agenda at the department’s next information day in April.
Mijas was also the first Town Hall to organise an International Day (now in its 21st year).
Fuengirola - Since 1997: A helping hand
Suvi Kauranen is the Fuengirola councillor responsible for the local Foreign Residents’ Department. She stresses that the service should be a “crutch for foreigners for when they arrive in Spain and can’t yet speak Spanish but have to deal with the administration”. Advice is given, in one of seven languages, about everything from social security to enrolling children in local schools as well as municipal issues.
However the ultimate aim of the department is to encourage foreigners to integrate and in order to do that, to learn Spanish.
“If they don’t speak Spanish they are missing out on the wealth of culture to be enjoyed in this country”, says Suvi who adds that when people get the impression that the Spanish are not friendly it is normally because they haven’t tried to speak their language.
Like all Town Halls Fuengirola campaigns hard to encourage residents to join the local population census, the ‘Padrón’, as the larger the official population the more money the town receives from the state. The councillor stresses that there are no negative consequences of joining the register, only positive ones, such as discounts on municipal taxes, something that many foreigners are not aware of.
Estepona - Since 1998: Friendly atmosphere
Francine Pompas has been responsible for the Foreigners’ Department in Estepona for ten of the eleven years it has been open. Her department helps a majority of British, but also a lot of French-speaking and Scandinavian residents in six languages. Their enquiries range from NIE numbers to social security and how to apply for the pensioners card for the over-65s. Every three months the department meets up with local foreigners’ associations, a good way of getting the message across about events and services offered by the Town Hall. “There’s no need to make an appointment; we like to offer a friendly service”, finishes Francine.
Benalmádena - Since 2008: A new venture
Joanna Drozdowska has been at the helm of the foreign residents’ department at Benalmádena Town Hall since it opened in June last year. There she deals with residents’ enquiries in her native Polish, as well as English, Spanish, Russian or French, although as in the rest of the municipalities the majority of users are British. Joanna explains that while a lot of people ask about the ‘padrón’ and local taxes, she also gets a lot of enquiries about planning, dangerous dog regulations and tree pruning.
Joanna describes her role as an “intermediary” when it comes to Town Hall business.“I accompany the residents to the right department and help them communicate”.
All of the foreign residents’ departments have stressed the importance of local clubs and associations. Joanna, just like other members of staff from other municipalities, makes a point of visiting clubs every so often to pass on information from the Town Hall.
Nerja - Since 1994: Presence on the council
Nerja was one of the first Town Halls in the province of Malaga to have a foreigner on the council. Emma Louise Hall first won her seat in the 2004 elections and has been the councillor responsible for the Foreign Residents’ Department ever since.
The Department, run by Jacky Gómez, is now busy organising this year’s Foreign Residents Day due to take place in the square behind the Town Hall on April 19th.
CoÍn - Since December 2008: Once a week
Dani Hendrikx, originally from Belgium, is the councillor responsible for Tourism and Integration at Coín Town Hall. Since the end of last year he has been running a foreign residents’ service at the tourist office every Friday morning between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. After just a few months Dani has realised that they had underestimated the demand for a service of this kind in Coín and the office will soon be open more often.
He explains that he receives enquiries from foreign residents, not just from Coín, but from all over the province of Malaga.
BenahavÍs - Since 2008: Information online
Compared to some of the Costa’s giants Benahavís is a small Town Hall. Peter Letters is responsible for coordination and communication and, being British, he plays a vital role in the communication between the local authority and foreign residents. While there is no Foreign Residents’ Department as such, Peter points out that there is always someone at the Town Hall who can speak English.
Peter liaises with the presidents of local communities of owners to help pass on information and sends out emails to some 400 addresses on his mailing list.

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