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Q&A: Young Spanish writer

News Stories, 9 November 2007

© C.Cañete Leyva
Lucía Etxebarria at the recent launch of her book Cosmophobia which scrutinizes the issues of racism, xenophobia and intolerance.

MADRID, Spain, November 9 (UNHCR) Lucía Etxebarria has made waves and picked up major prizes in her native Spain with novels, poetry and essays on a range of topical subjects. She recently published a book called "Cosmophobia," which looks at the growing problems of racism, intolerance and xenophobia, which all effect refugees and asylum seekers. The young writer and journalist shared her thoughts with UNHCR External Relations Officer Francesca Fontanini. Excerpts from the interview.

What exactly is Cosmophobia?

Fear of the world. It is a modern pathology. Since the strategy of political leaders in the West is to use terrorism as an excuse as well as a smokescreen to justify their militaristic strategies, what they are creating in the population is a sense of "fear of the world," which, indeed, includes fear of others.

Why do you think people have this feeling?

I think that people are afraid of diversity. Humans, by instinct, are afraid of the unknown, and some political speeches use that fear to justify the reduction of liberty. The most extreme example of such manipulation in the Western world has been Nazism. But it is a very old strategy Nicolo Machiavelli [1469-1527] preached it in [his seminal work on political theory] "The Prince."

Where did you get the inspiration to write Cosmophobia?

From stories that I picked up in my neighbourhood, Lavapiés, which is a very special place [suburb of Madrid]. In just two square kilometres, you will find people from places like Senegal, Nigeria, Guinea, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ecuador and Colombians co-existing ... and Spaniards of course, such as myself. I did not want to talk only about immigration or multiculturalism; I wanted to talk about co-existence and links between very different people.

How can you get people to embrace multiculturalism?

I think that people [from different cultural and ethnic groups] appreciate each other when they get to know each other. Only those living in exclusive ghettos like La Moraleja or Salamanca, where residents are served by immigrants, cannot see the real world. They always see the world from an upstairs, downstairs or master, servant perspective.

Those who live in neighbourhoods where everyone is at the same level are more likely to mix and understand each other and, above all, to understand that which unites us is much greater than what sets us apart.

Should immigrants, including refugees, hang onto their culture and customs when starting a new life overseas?

Yes, as long as they do not clash with those of the society in which they are integrating. For example, I do not think that a Moroccan girl attending a regular school in Spain should wear a veil. But, I think that it is fine for Muslim girls in [Spain's North African enclave of] Melilla to wear a veil because it's long been the custom there. So you cannot change rules overnight.

How can refugees and other immigrants in Spain get over the shock of starting a new life in an alien environment?

Usually, immigrants take refuge in a support network set up by their compatriots before they reach our country. Actually, this is a lesson for a society like ours, where the value of solidarity among family has been lost. That also applies to people who dub themselves "defenders of the family," because they think only in terms of a nuclear family parents, children and grandparents. They don't think of extended family, which includes cousins, aunts and uncles and distant relatives.

Do you think the Spanish understand the concept of a refugee? Can they distinguish between refugees, immigrants and terrorists?

They do not know. The Spanish media has, unfortunately, corrupted the information that many Spaniards have. So now, Muslim means terrorist or abuser of women. However, Spain and Islam are closer geographically, emotionally and historically than Spain and the United States. I work with language, and our language comes largely from Arabic. Even our numbers are Arabic and much of our philosophy and our religion. San Isidro, for instance, was a Sufi philosopher.

But I see racism towards the immigrants everyday, all the time.

Do you think the difference in the definition of refugees and economic migrants is important?

The economic migrant is political from the moment his political system has caused an unfair sharing of the riches and has forced him/her to leave the country. Morocco, for instance, is not a poor country, it is a rich country. The problem is that wealth is concentrated in a very few hands. We could say the same about places like Ecuador or Colombia, where there are corrupt political parties and drug trafficking networks.

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Sighted off Spain's Canary Islands

Despite considerable dangers, migrants seeking a better future and refugees fleeing war and persecution continue to board flimsy boats and set off across the high seas. One of the main routes into Europe runs from West Africa to Spain's Canary Islands.

Before 2006, most irregular migrants taking this route used small vessels called pateras, which can carry up to 20 people. They left mostly from Morocco and the Western Sahara on the half-day journey. The pateras have to a large extent been replaced by boats which carry up to 150 people and take three weeks to reach the Canaries from ports in West Africa.

Although only a small proportion of the almost 32,000 people who arrived in the Canary Islands in 2006 applied for asylum, the number has gone up. More than 500 people applied for asylum in 2007, compared with 359 the year before. This came at a time when the overall number of arrivals by sea went down by 75 percent during 2007.

Sighted off Spain's Canary Islands