Guest post by Elisa García-España and María Contreras, Institute of Criminology, University of Malaga, Spain. Elisa is Associate Professor of Penal Law and Criminology and has extensive research experience on the criminality of immigrant populations. She’s on Twitter @Elisa_G_Espana. María is a PhD candidate in Legal and Social Sciences and conducts research on judicial response to crime committed by irregular immigrants. She’s also on Twitter @maria_maconro. This post describes why they have set up an Observatory about Criminal Justice Responses towards Immigration at the University of Malaga, and what they are studying.

According to official statistics, approximately 4.4 million foreign nationals were residing in Spain on 1 July 2015. This figure represents 9.5% of the total resident population, the lowest proportion since 2009. There are no statistical data, however, on the number of ‘irregular’ migrants. Such data would be useful for our work, as we’re especially interested in studying criminality and potential differentiation in terms of criminal motivations, types of offending, and responses of the justice system for Spaniards, legal immigrants, and undocumented immigrants. This classification is especially interesting considering that migration is relatively recent to Spain. The arrival of the first immigrants took place in the 1990s, and during the following years the administrative, judicial, and criminal justice responses were focused on migrants with an irregular status, as this was associated with their presumed lack of social ties or an increased threat of social risk. However, since the 1990s, things have changed, opening an interesting line of research to examine criminal policy responses to foreigners based on their differing social and legal roots in Spain.

Resident population in Spain by nationality (2015)

According to official statistics, 25% of all those arrested (n=107,999) in Spain during 2014 were foreign nationals. While this figure represents 13% decline on the previous year, even if we consider only the resident foreign population, non-citizens are significantly over-represented. This disproportionality is also evident in data on the prison population.

Data of foreign prison population in Spain. Evolution during the period 1996-2014

Although immigration is a highly topical issue amongst politicians, the public, and scholars alike, Spanish criminologists haven’t, to-date, given it much consideration. As elsewhere, negative stereotypes of immigration perpetuated in the media, affect public opinion about crime and migration. Public authorities draw on such stereotypes to raise concerns about security and offer solutions through restrictive, unjust, and/or discriminatory laws and interventions with foreigners. We know, from criticisms levelled by the Ombudsman and other civil society organizations that the authorities unfairly target immigrants based on facial features, the police intervene in the border of Melilla, that the rights and safety of unaccompanied young migrants are violated, and that there are terrible conditions in immigration removal centres. All the while, however, the invisibility of immigrant victims is maintained.

In response to this context and the above concerns, the Institute of Criminology at the University of Malaga, which has developed numerous projects in the field of criminology for more than 20 years, has decided to create a research institution that specifically studies this field: the observatory of the control system crime towards immigration (or OCSPI, its Spanish acronym). This project is run by a team of researchers led by Elisa and has the support of a network of experts including academics, practitioners, and those who have developed experience in some of the fields of observation in our country.

What are the main goals of the OCSPI?

In line with the general objective of developing scientific knowledge about the criminal justice system’s response to immigrants, the OCSPI has four specifics goals:

  1. The OSCPI aims to promote a platform of scholars, criminologists, and members of civil society that want to improve the response of the Spanish crime control system towards foreigners and racial minorities. We have already recruited over 20 collaborators eager to work in this unexplored field and contribute with new ideas in our context.
  2. The OSCPI works to develop criminological research. The Institute of Criminology has already experience in this field. We currently have a project, funded by Government of Andalusia, to study the criminal justice response to crime committed by immigrants. The new observatory will help us to contribute with further research in this area.
  3. The OCSPI provides training and information to criminal justice professionals, specifically in their relationships with immigrants. There are many police officers and lawyers among our students, and we want to take advantage of our privileged position to improve their knowledge of a field which has frequently been neglected.
  4. The OCSPI collects studies and provides best practices in different areas of observation, such as cultural diversity, the trafficking of migrant women, migrant minors, the treatment of migrants in prison, etcetera.

Which are the main fields of analysis of the OCSPI?

The OCSPI has special interest in the following nine fields and in each one we try to locate and interrogate unjust practices that we help to reduce or remove through the provision of knowledge, training, and increased awareness.

  • Police and Immigration. We are interested in potential differences between legal and irregular immigrants of all foreign detainees, and also identify racial bias in police stops and searches.
  • Justice System and Immigration. The themes analysed in this field include the renunciation of criminal proceedings when the accused is an irregular immigrant on whom weighs an expulsion order; the replacement of imprisonment penalty by expulsion; the racial bias in judicial decisions; and the application of article 318 bis of Spanish Criminal Law about crimes against immigrant workers.
  • Penitentiary System and Immigration. Here we’re especially interested in the reintegration of foreigners in general and immigrants in particular. Our research focuses on: the representation of foreigners in the Spanish penitentiary population and their quality of life compared with the native population; the system of grades progression for foreigners and prison privileges; and the impact of a criminal record on immigrant ex-offenders.
  • Youth Immigrants: Both children and young immigrants in vulnerable situations are the focus of attention in this section. Specifically, research in this area concerns unaccompanied minors in situations of risk and young immigrants in prison.
  • Immigration Removal Centres (CIEs): The administration of criminal law makes CIEs places that also house foreign prisoners while criminal deportation is pending. In this field, our lines of research are: the frequency of use of CIEs and policing protocols; descriptions of the interned population and their conditions and quality of life; and the efficient use of detention based on the number of ‘successful’ expulsions.
  • Victimization of Immigrants: Immigrants have a set of risk factors that make them more vulnerable to victimization than the native population for certain crimes that affect both groups, and especially for crimes for which only foreigners can be victimized such as smuggling of migrants or trafficking. We are interested in the victimization of all foreign nationals, with particular emphasis on immigrant victims of discrimination, racism, and xenophobia, and women and children victims of trafficking.
  • Criminal Motivations and Immigrants: The variables that explain the crime committed by foreigners differs significantly depending on whether they are immigrants or foreigners settled or in transit. Our current research centres on the criminal motivations of immigrants settled in Spain.
  • Media and Immigration: Media representations of foreigners who come from non-EU countries deserve special attention because they often tend to criminalize immigrants, generating stereotypes and rumours that have little to do with reality. Identifying this gap is our main aim here.
  • Public Opinion and Immigration: We are interested in collecting opinion polls on immigration and crime carried out by different agencies to assess existing beliefs and perspectives, as well as initiatives that have been launched to dispel harmful stereotypes and misinformation in this regard.

In sum, with the OCSPI we hope to demonstrate, with empirical data, the connections between the administrative sphere of immigration and the criminal justice system and how such overlapping functions may violate human rights principles and safeguards without meeting the aims of greater security and crime control. In particular, we want to question the presumed effectiveness of such measures for the control of migration flows. For more information, please see the OCSPI website (in English or Spanish).

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

García-España, E. and Contreras, M. (2016) Why an Observatory about Criminal Justice Responses towards Immigration in Spain? Available at: (Accessed [date]).