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Locating citizenship: Pakistani immigrants in Oñati, Basque Country


A view of Oñati in the Basque Country. Picture by the author.

In the autumn of 2016, whilst embarking on my studies in the rustic town of Oñati at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law (IISL), I became immersed in stories of identity and belonging. It should be understood that Oñati is a truly unique town in the Basque Country; a place livened by its passionate communities, linked together through a rich and vibrant history, that, in turn, creates an extraordinary way of life. Yet, the Basque Country has suffered periods of political strife and violence. In this context, in Spain, where a state-wide legal and political framework is meant to regulate the control of migration, communities in the Basque Country are able to navigate around these rules through social programmes and policy measures. Splitting my time between the Palacio Antia, Oñatiko Unibertsitatea, and the town itself, I investigated the increasing number of Pakistani migrants.

To be Oñatiarra is to be a member of the town, to be encultured to its way of life. This also means to be Basque, a part of the larger Basque community within Spain and France. In this context, communities overlap, interact, and influence each other. Reflecting on these notions, I undertook an ethnographic study of Pakistani migrants in 2016. In the town of Oñati, I attempted to understand how they integrated and their feelings of belonging. I believed the Pakistani case in Oñati to be of interest because it had far-reaching implications for understanding the complex nature of constructing, performing, and negotiating identity at the local, regional, and state level. 

I met Afraz during one of my first weeks at the Palacio Antia; as someone who he could practice English with, it was a perfect fit. Afraz was middle-aged, 31, living in Oñati for the past six years, moving previously from the United Kingdom where he studied hospitality management, and had left his small village near Islamabad in Pakistan to make a better life for himself. Months later, during our first interview,

I asked, ‘So Afraz, how did you end up in the Basque Country?’

Afraz responded, ‘I came here on the reference of my brother’s friend who lives here in the Basque Country. He told him to send his brother to me and he will take care of everything. Then I moved here, I lived in another town, Zumarraga. I stayed there three months and then they moved me here to Oñati. They did not want me to be social, to make some friends and to go out with them. It was hard for me, they wanted to have control on my, nothing else. I started going out, I ended up here. I didn't want to move from Zumarraga, but now that I came here, I don't want to go anywhere else. I don't to go or leave.’

I asked, ‘How are towns in the Basque Country different?’

Afraz responded, ‘Well, British community. They were not friendly. They are type of racist maybe. People I met in England were not friendly. I didn't have any friends in England. When I came here, everyone has fears. When they get to know you, they are more supportive, they are more friendly.’

In our contemporary world, citizenship forms a complex package of rights tied to political and national membership, and a marker of identification advising nation-state institutions of whom you belong. In Europe, the rapid influx of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers fills an important need for unskilled labour in their host countries, but Europe's new minorities have experienced considerable resistance from native populations. With this logic, it is believed “the migrant ‘adulterates’ the nation-state”. Migrants are seen as having a different set of moral and religious values contrasting those held by citizens. This can be seen in European migration stories, such as in Hungary and Italy, where citizens often characterise non-citizens as opportunistic, supplying the rationale of ‘deportable foreigners’.

In Spain, since the 1970’s, Pakistanis have shaped the human labour landscape in several cities. Due to the United Kingdom’s hardening stance on immigration, many Pakistanis took advantage of policies adopted by the Basque Country in the early 2000’s. During this time, the Basque Country’s immigration strategy offered economic incentives to foreigners, as well as to people from other regions of Spain. This was done at the local level, such as in Oñati, by empowering communities to organise and maintain social programmes. As Sanjay Jeram puts it,

‘The Basque immigration plan [is] that of an inclusive citizenship distinct from the Spanish concept of citizenship... in a nutshell, the nationalists wanted to send this message: if you live in the Basque Country, you should receive all the rights and privileges of being Basque.’

In Oñati, regional organisations, political stakeholders, and local community members worked together to enable non-citizens to integrate and receive Spanish citizenship. For Afraz, this meant he could marry a local Oñatiarra and find a job with a local business. Even though he became a Spanish citizen, he felt deeply connected to the local Oñatiarra identity. When I spoke with him last, 

Afraz said, ‘I feel myself kind of Oñatiarra. I am from Oñati, feel from Oñati.’

In this way, Afraz’s initial role in Oñati’s society was confusing, as he did not have prior cultural or linguistic connection and had to acquire this knowledge through experience. But the community provided him with the means to re-conceptualise his identity and to control his future in Oñati, Spain, and Europe.

Notes and references: 

Beltrán Antolín, Joaquín, and Sáiz López, Amelia. 2008. 'La comunidad pakistaní en España.' CIDOB, 402–416.

De Genova, Nicholas. 2013. 'Spectacles of migrant "illegality": the scene of exclusion, the obscene of inclusion'. Ethic and Racial Studies, 36 (17), 1180–1198.

Hindess, Barry. 2000. 'Citizenship in the International Management of Populations.' American Behavioural Scientist, 43(9), 1486–1497.

Iraola Arretxe, Iker. 2013. 'Citizenship, Immigration, and the Basque State.' Ipar Hegoa Foundation, 22–35.

Jeram, Sanjay. 2013. 'Immigrants and the Basque Nation: Diversity as a New Marker of Identity.' Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36(11), 1170–1788.

Marshall, T. H. 1950. Citizenship and Social Class. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Schlueter, Elmar; Meuleman, Bart, and Davidov, Eldad. 2012. 'Immigrant Integration Policies and Perceived Group Threat: A Multilevel Study of 27 Western and Eastern European Countries.' Journal of Social Science Research, 1–39.

Weldon, Steven A. 2006. 'The institutional context of tolerance for ethnic minorities: a comparative, multilevel analysis of Western Europe.' American Journal of Political Science, 50, 331-349.

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Patara McKeen

Patara is a first-year MA in Sociology at the University of British Columbia. He studies life course and family connections, focusing on issues of migration and trauma. Previously, he studied at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in Oñati and at Carleton University in Ottawa. Before coming to Vancouver, he served as a Communications and Advocacy Officer as part of the Government of Canada's International Youth Internship Program, a role intersecting with his past work as a parliamentary assistant for Member of Parliament Don Davies. As an avid traveler, Patara enjoys discovering new and exciting places when he gets the chance.

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