Most of whom arrived illegally. And with 20% unemployment, Spain does have a real problem

The food bank in Vic, 40 miles north of Barcelona, occupies an old bakery in a side street. Each day hundreds of unemployed stream in to collect handouts of bread, milk, pasta and other necessities. The overwhelming majority are immigrants, predominantly Moroccans and sub-Saharan Africans who flocked to Vic in the past few years to work on building sites or in the huge pig farms and meat factories that surround the town and give it its distinctive smell.

At least 10,000 came, swelling Vic’s population by a quarter. They did the hard, dirty work and were welcomed. Not any more. Half lost their jobs when Spain’s construction bubble burst in 2008 and brought the good times to an abrupt end.

A deeply unpopular €15 billion (£12.7 billion) austerity package rushed through parliament yesterday will make life even harder. On top of that, the immigrants are now the target of Platform for Catalonia, Spain’s equivalent of the BNP, which is based in Vic. “Control immigration — stop the crisis,” its leaflets proclaim.

“They insult us. They say maybe we’re the cause of the crisis, that we take their jobs. It’s not fair and it’s not nice,” said Mercy Omoroagbon, 30, as she collected her handout. She arrived from Nigeria in 2002, lost both her cleaning jobs last year and now lives off the charity of friends.

“They say the Spanish can’t work because of the immigrants. It’s not true. We did the work the Spanish didn’t want or wouldn’t do,” said Joy Ekechukwu, 33, another Nigerian who came to Spain 11 years ago, lost her factory job and now struggles to support her two young children.

Our previous stop was Bergamo, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. An early-morning flight from Milan took us to Vic, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, but the similarities end there. Bergamo is a rich city waiting for the hard times to begin. Vic is already in deep distress.

Unemployment is 16 per cent, which is better than the national average of 20 per cent because meat is Vic’s biggest industry and people have to eat. Property prices have slumped 30 to 40 per cent, 500 homes have been repossessed and new houses and apartments stand empty.

“The economy here is pretty dreadful,” said Xavier Troy, a bar manager.

The new austerity measures will cut the pay of Vic’s 400 civil servants, stop the council taking out bank loans for building projects and freeze state pensions. The town’s revenues fell 10 per cent in 2009 and were set to fall another five points this year even before this latest belt tightening.

Locally and nationally, trade unions are planning strikes and demonstrations, saying that Spain must reduce its 11 per cent budget deficit, but that the rich should bear the burden.

“It’s class war here. Those who earn more should pay more in taxes,” said Miguel Sánchez, leader of the Workers Commission in Vic.

More ominously, the Platform is using the crisis to foment hostility towards immigrants, threatening Spain’s reputation for tolerance.

“We call it an invasion,” says Josep Anglada, 50, the Platform’s president, a snappily dressed former property salesman who is one of his party’s four councillors in Vic and one of nineteen across Catalonia.

He does not mince his words. Sitting outside a bar in Vic’s elegant old Plaza Mayor, he blames immigrants for rising crime, drug trafficking and delinquency, and for all manner of antisocial behaviour because “they are used to living in the jungle.

“Immigrants bring nothing positive. They receive much more than they contribute to the State,” he says. All illegal immigrants should be expelled and the long-term unemployed repatriated.

Spain has had little time for hard-right parties since General Franco’s dictatorship ended in 1975 but the Platform’s foes admit that it is gaining strength. They will stage an anti-racism demonstration in the Plaza Mayor tomorrow.

“There’s been a rise in tension and there’s potential for xenophobic confrontation,” said Antoni Iborra, a lawyer working with Vic’s immigrants who says they have been barred from some bars and discos.

Josep Burgaya i Riera, Vic’s deputy mayor, said: “They’re using the crisis to try to whip up anti-immigrant feeling. They throw petrol on the fire. There’s no violence on the streets but there’s a sense of bad feeling.”

The economic crisis is acute. The unions are mutinous. Racial tensions are rising. In every sense Vic, like Spain, faces a long hot summer.