The truth about how Spain is changing

Immigrants and rape in Spain

Aug 06, 2019, 7:40 pm
Analysis: Spain needs more logic and reality and less alarmist xenophobia

Immigration and sexual assault are very contentious public issues independent of each other. Mix them together and explosive rhetoric and strong emotions are guaranteed. The controversial wolf-pack gang rape case in Pamplona—in which five Spaniards were given 15-year jail sentences—became an international story, and since then the BBC, the New York Times or the Guardian have picked up on other cases around Spain as well. It is not easy to move beyond the horrifying, tragic details of individual crimes to understand what is happening in the country as a whole, especially when our brains pick up simple alarmist narratives more readily than spreadsheet statistics that describe complex subtleties.

Spain's new ultraconservative party Vox (24 MPs in Congress) put out an inflammatory, xenophobic press release on Saturday about a new rape case in Bilbao, describing a country in which cowardly "lefty policies" are leaving the nation's borders unprotected and allowing "savage" illegal immigrants in, especially from North Africa, to rape Spanish women, who need protecting. The "media and political establishment"—except Vox, of course—is covering up the stories, said the statement, and the party's recommended policy solutions include deporting all illegal immigrants, especially those convicted of serious crimes. Vox also misquoted a report on the sexual crimes by the Institute of Forensic Sciences and Autonomous University in Madrid. Deportation for immigrants convicted of serious crimes has been part of the Spanish Criminal Code since 1995.

Again and again, a look at the different data sets available from different serious sources shows not only that individual women in Spain are not in imminent danger of being raped as soon as they step out on to the street today or tomorrow—Spain is one of the safest countries in the world for women—but that more than 99% of men—and this is true for Spaniards and foreigners—are not subject even to a police complaint about some form of crime against a woman that a judge decides is worthy of a temporary restraining order, never mind being sent to trial, convicted or jailed for rape.

Where there is a small difference, statistically, is in the rates at which the complaints, trials and convictions occur for Spaniards and foreigners in Spain as groups. The official adult male immigrant population in Spain was 10.26% of the total on average between 2013-2018. Over that period, there were 11.47 complaints requiring temporary restraining orders per 10,000 men for Spaniards, but 48.65 per 10,000 men for foreigners in Spain, four times as many. In the other three data series analysed (trials and two classes of convictions), the difference in rates between the two groups was approximately triple.

A common response to such numbers has been that "10% of the population commits 40% of the sexual assaults", but that is wrong. The correct version is "0.03% of 10% of the population is convicted of 23.73% of sexual assaults". The crimes of a small number of immigrants should not taint the whole group, just as the actions of a small number of Spaniards should not either.

It is likely, upon further study, that such statistical differences may be reduced even further if age, income, jobs, education levels and other references are taken into account. There is also the suggestion that the immigrant population figure should be increased because the National Statistics Institute number does not take into account either illegal immigrants or tourists. Court figures do, though, reflect the nationality of those processed through the criminal justice system.

Another notable aspect is the trial and conviction rates in each phase compared to the initial police complaints made against each group. If the same criminal justice system is applied to all, why—even if the rate for foreigners is slightly higher—are 77% of Spaniards versus 50% of foreigners sent to trial? Why are 60% convicted versus only 43% of foreigners? Logically, part of the answer must be that after analysing the initial complaints, prosecutors and judges find less sufficient evidence to send foreigners to trial or later convict them.

Last summer saw another media frenzy over illegal immigrants arriving from Africa on small boats, exploited by Vox and the PP at the time, and the barrage of left-wing or feminist comments about violence against women in Spain is more or less constant, because of the individual tragedies, of course, but despite the different tale told by the figures for the nation as a whole. Every few weeks, a new big case is picked up by the TV channels and pundits hammer it into the national consciousness. This year, those two issues have become one. The analysis of data related to foreigners and sexual assaults in Spain shows—as did the two separate analyses last year—that media-fuelled ideological rhetoric beneficial to politicians and lobbies alike is far from what is really going on in the country as a whole.

In all three cases—if some things are to be done to fix the situation with illegal immigration, or to reduce the number of crimes against women still further, or to investigate the small differences between Spaniards and foreigners as groups in the sexual assault statistics— a systemic approach would be better, with specific realistic ideas based on real numbers, in line with how the country's traffic authorities have reduced the numbers killed in traffic accidents over the past two decades, for example. Spain certainly does not need political and public debate to become even more divided, enraged and removed from reality.

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