My interest in South Asia, and specifically Pakistan, started when I finished my degree in Islamic studies in Madrid.

It was not easy to pursue South Asian studies as a Spanish scholar; unlike other European countries such as the UK, Spain still does not have a university department for this area.

I moved to India for PhD research for two years (2001-2002) when 9/11 clearly marked a change. Islam came to the forefront of international academic and non-academic interests, often for the wrong reasons.

When I returned from India, I observed that my friends in Barcelona often talked about the increasing presence of Pakistanis and other people of South Asian origin in the city.

To the delight of the British nationals in town and other more adventurous citizens, the proliferation of curry houses was a reason to celebrate the formerly less diverse culinary scene.

It was clear that the Pakistani community in Barcelona had become a talking point. Their presence was unavoidable, particularly after the prayers on Fridays. And nowhere were they more visible than in the neighbourhood of El Raval.

Many wondered where these men were from, why they dressed like that (shalwar kameez), and why they were seldom accompanied by their womenfolk.

In 2008, Casa Asia, an institution of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs that promotes knowledge of Asia in Spain, awarded me a grant.

My project was to conduct a piece of research that would be called Atlas of Pakistani Migration in Spain.

I took this opportunity to visit Pakistan and travel around Spain to go to the different places where Pakistanis had settled.

More than half of all Pakistanis in Spain lived in Catalonia, especially Barcelona, which is why I moved there in the summer of 2008.

Pakistanis in Spain

Compared with other European countries, Spain has not always been a country of immigrants.

Pakistanis, for example, have traditionally preferred to migrate to the UK, USA, Canada, and the Gulf because of the better economic prospects in those nations.

Spain has a population of approximately 46.5 million, of which 9.5% are foreigners. The main foreign nationalities represented in the country are Romanians, Moroccans, British, Italians and Chinese.

Pakistanis are 1.2% of all foreigners and barely 0.1% of the population in Spain. How have they managed, then, to attract so much attention?

One of the explanations can be found in their local concentration, in terms of both origin and destination.

Gujratis make up 44% of all Pakistanis in Spain, while in other destinations in the European Union, they are about 11%.

As for destination, more than half of all Pakistanis in Spain are in Barcelona.

At their peak, in 2012, there were about 68,000 Pakistanis in Spain, although the Spanish Institute of Statistics only accounts for those legally resident.

Several thousand others are thought to have resided there illegally.

The Pioneers

The first Pakistanis to arrive in the country were a group of about 300 Gujratis who migrated from other European countries in the 1970s and landed initially in Barcelona.

Some of the migrants had experience working in mines elsewhere in Europe and Pakistan; some had lost their jobs in factories or mines in the UK where the industrial crisis had begun; others had working experience in oil refineries in Libya.

Those were the last days of Franco’s dictatorship and Spain’s industrial labour market was small. Some migrants opened shops and boarding houses; others looked for jobs in industry or manufacturing.

Those who had no previous experience in mining had to learn from scratch. The main mines where they began to work were El Bierzo (coal) and Linares (lead), and others in La Rioja and Teruel.

Most of the Pakistani newcomers were men between 20 and 28 years old from Gujrat, predominantly from the village of Puran.

Map of origins of Pakistanis in Spain. Source: Spanish Institute of Statistics, 2008.
Map of origins of Pakistanis in Spain. Source: Spanish Institute of Statistics, 2008.
Map of destinations of Pakistanis in Spain. Source: Spanish Institute of Statistics, 2008.
Map of destinations of Pakistanis in Spain. Source: Spanish Institute of Statistics, 2008.

They are known among the wider Pakistani community in Spain as los pioneros (The Pioneers), being the first to venture into the Spanish labour market.

The Spain of those days was a very traditional country with only basic infrastructures. One of the Pioneers told me they found themselves in quite familiar surroundings in the 1970s:

“We came from a place where there was also a dictatorship, where you would not talk about politics and you knew you had to keep your mouth shut.”

Many were surprised to find that people in Spain hardly spoke any English and that they had to learn Spanish if they were to be understood by the locals.

Not surprisingly, traditional Pakistani codes were misinterpreted. The shalwar kameez attracted unexpected attention in the villages near the mines, with many old ladies believing that the men were wearing dresses.

Pakistanis working in the mines in Linares. Photo credit: Blas Torralbo
Pakistanis working in the mines in Linares. Photo credit: Blas Torralbo

Photo credit: Blas Torralbo
Photo credit: Blas Torralbo

While it was acceptable for Spanish couples to walk hand in hand, Pakistani men doing the same was misunderstood as homosexuality.

Blas, a teacher at a high school in Linares, told me that as a child their only entertainment was playing in the streets.

The sight of Pakistani men walking hand in hand was an amusement for naughty kids who would follow them around and scream “Mariquitas! Mariquitas!” (Pansies! Pansies!)

Most of these Pioneers worked for about 15 or 20 years. The majority had to retire due to work-related illnesses, mainly respiratory ones such as silicosis. They usually worked as drillers and explosive experts and did the night shifts.

There was a death in a mine in June 1977 of a Pakistani worker named Abdul Razaq. The whole village of Bembibre joined the funerary court and the company helped send his body back to Pakistan.

The funeral of the Pakistani mine worker. Photo credit: El Diario de León
The funeral of the Pakistani mine worker. Photo credit: El Diario de León

In those early years, the economic situation was better. Spain had just joined the EU (in 1986). Job opportunities increased and the welfare state was at its most supportive.

Some of those who had secured their retirement pensions travelled back to Pakistan and spread the idea that Spain was a land of opportunity. As proof of it, they had their big houses to show off.

But at the same time, these migrants were exponents of a myth that others could not fulfil. When the mines started closing in the 1980s and 1990s, many lost their jobs and had to change occupations or moved to different towns.

Destination Barcelona

The main question everyone asks is why most Pakistanis are concentrated in Barcelona.

To begin with, while the first wave of Pakistani migrants largely worked in mines and industry in other parts of Spain, the next generation of migrants preferred cities as they offered job opportunities in occupations that Pakistanis have become specialised in: the services sector and self-employment.

We must also consider the fact that Barcelona has a more buoyant economy than other Spanish cities. Furthermore, the kinship networks developed by the migrants themselves provide an important degree of social security for the newcomers.

The migrants, typically men, would bring over their brothers, then their cousins and uncles. After establishing themselves, it would be the turn of wives and children.

El Raval was the main point of arrival for most of the Pakistani migrants and it was here where their initial experience in Barcelona took place.

Formerly known as El Barrio Chino (Chinese quarter), El Raval was at that time a tough working-class neighbourhood where drug trafficking and prostitution were rife, turning it into a no-go zone for locals and tourists.

When Pakistanis arrived, they were attracted by El Raval’s central location, low rents and affordable business premises, where shops and restaurants could be established. Some more adventurous entrepreneurs bought flats there.

The flow of immigrants turned El Raval into one of the most international neighbourhoods in Barcelona. The primary and secondary education institute Miquel Tarradell is proof of this.

I used to live just across the street and loved to see from the balcony how Pakistani, Moroccan, Senegalese, Latin American and Catalan parents, all with their different attires and languages, would drop their kids off.

Pakistani kids would arrive speaking Punjabi to their parents, only to instantly switch to Catalan or Spanish at the school gates.

When Barcelona staged the 1992 Olympics, El Raval became a tourist hot spot, even more so with the economic boom of the early 2000s. Like most neighbourhoods in the city, El Raval also became increasingly gentrified.

The area’s Pakistani population has decreased over the years. Many have remained in Barcelona but have taken their families to other locations.

Some Pakistanis I talked to mention that they like their new neighbourhoods and prefer their children to grow up here, but they miss the feeling of proximity and neighbourliness they had while in El Raval.

Many can still be seen on the Rambla del Raval boulevard, where they meet on Fridays after prayer at the nearby mosque run by the Minhaj-ul Quran association, the one with the biggest attendance in Barcelona.

Pakistani associations

The religious and cultural associations are the main means through which the diaspora organises and presents itself to the local government.

These organisations help Pakistanis find their way through life, get guidance regarding bureaucratic formalities, and assist them with Spanish and Catalan language classes.

The vast majority of the Pakistani associations are religious in nature and are anxious to be seen as legitimately representing the whole community.

Entrance of one of the mosques in Barcelona. -Photo by author
Entrance of one of the mosques in Barcelona. -Photo by author

Survival of an association depends not only on the total number of its members but also on grants available from the local government, whose demands have to be complied with.

In Barcelona, these demands include speaking Catalan and expressing support for the region’s agitation for greater autonomy or even independence.

Pro-autonomy or pro-independence parties often see these associations as a useful source of votes and a means by which to spread their ideologies in the Pakistani community.

Although local politics is a topic of discussion at association meetings, members are mainly concerned with matters back home.

Pakistanis have their radio (Pakcelona), TV (Dia Tv online) and newspaper (Naqash online).
Pakistanis have their radio (Pakcelona), TV (Dia Tv online) and newspaper (Naqash online).
Here they've announced an event to celebrate independence.
Here they've announced an event to celebrate independence.

There are taboos that locals know cannot be discussed openly with Pakistani acquaintances. One is religion; another is the low visibility of women in public life; the last is the exploitation and abuse that occurs by some members in the Pakistani community towards the newly-arrived migrants from Pakistan.

Knowledge about Pakistan among the Spanish population is rather limited but it would be true to say that the country has had a very bad press. Interest is often limited to the presence of Pakistanis in Barcelona.

The academic world in Spain has paid the country scant attention; when it has done so, it’s only in the context of immigration. The press is seemingly obsessed with Pakistan’s role in the War on Terror.

Some of the Pakistani associations have worked to change the stereotypes, but it has proved to be a difficult task. However, there is a growing interest in Pakistani culture, albeit mainly in its English language manifestation (literature, cinema, music).

Writers such as Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie or Bapsi Sidwa have been translated into Spanish, thereby creating an impression far more positive than that given by the press.

Some of these authors have also visited the city and presented their work at different cultural centres.

Nadeem Aslam presents the Spanish translation of The Blind Man's Garden (El Jardín del Hombre Ciego) at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (interviewed by Ana Ballesteros). -Photo by author
Nadeem Aslam presents the Spanish translation of The Blind Man's Garden (El Jardín del Hombre Ciego) at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (interviewed by Ana Ballesteros). -Photo by author
Kamila Shamsie, accompanied by Ana Ballesteros and Judit Carrera, meets students from El Raval at the secondary institute Miquel Tarradell in a talk on writing and Pakistan. -Photo by author
Kamila Shamsie, accompanied by Ana Ballesteros and Judit Carrera, meets students from El Raval at the secondary institute Miquel Tarradell in a talk on writing and Pakistan. -Photo by author

The lives of women

From 2000 onwards, Pakistani women started to arrive in Barcelona, although in lower numbers than the menfolk. It is very striking to the Spanish eye to see the lack of participation of women in general.

Women from other migrant communities are out and about, taking part in all sorts of activities, and in many cases, acting as pioneers in the migrant experience.

######Even those from other Muslim countries like Morocco participate more actively than their Pakistani coreligionists.

This is no doubt the most controversial aspect when we deal with the Pakistani community in Spain.

Although many associations tend to organise family events, women participate in these in the traditional roles of mothers and homemakers, and account for less than 1% of those attending.

Some of the women have told me they had more freedom back in Pakistan, where they could visit relatives within their village, go shopping and roam relatively freely.

“Here,” one of them told me, “we are sometimes prisoners in our own houses. I sometimes leave home only to drop my boys off at school and pick them up. But if my husband can do it a certain day, not even that.”

Pakistani men in Barcelona usually explain that they will not allow their women to become ‘contaminated’ by local norms of behaviour. This vision is very pronounced in the case of daughters reaching puberty.

Under Spanish law, it is compulsory for all children to study until they are 16 years old. Some schools, however, complain that Pakistani girls sometimes disappear from their classes when they reach the age of 14 or 15.

This is a great shame as most teachers agree that Pakistani girls are usually among the best students.

Exploitation in the community

Starting in 2002 and 2003, there have been rumours that legal settlement is available more easily in Spain than anywhere else in Europe.

Some greedy elements among the Pakistani community have taken the chance to profit from the arrival of their compatriots from different countries in the EU seeking such settlement.

Compatriots with few qualms deceive the new migrants, charging them high rents for a bed in a shared room, a bed sometimes used only for a few hours.

In the first phases of the migration experience, newcomers minimise costs in order to save money to send back home and pay back the fees to those who brought them to Spain.

They are forced to accept long shifts in corner shops or any other odd jobs (12-14 hours) for a meagre €300-400 a month (if they are paid at all) while they are made to pay at least €100 per month for their beds.

One of those newcomers told me in 2009 that the owner of the flat where he lived, another Pakistani, took away his passport and made him stay indoors for weeks at a time.

The owner would do the shopping for the tenants and then make even more money by charging them exorbitant prices for it.

He and a friend, a fellow exploited flatmate, managed to leave, something that was only possible with the help of an NGO.

A great number of well-off Pakistanis have found a lucrative business in the exploitation of vulnerable compatriots, many of whom are family members or neighbours from back home.

In such a close-knit community with tight social control, it can be very difficult for those caught up to break the circle of abuse. Everything they do will be made known and the price of dissent is ostracism.


As is the case in the rest of southern Europe, austerity measures have badly affected the welfare state and the job market in Spain. Decreasing salaries and growing living costs paint a bleak future.

Some immigrant communities have decided to leave Spain and go back home. Others are moving elsewhere in Europe.

Pakistanis are part of Barcelona but it remains to be seen how the younger generations will respond to the new challenges.

Nonetheless, they fare better than other nationals: they are known to be resilient and their extensive, worldwide kinship network allows them a great deal of mobility.

I am sure they will get through these difficult times. As many of them say, “we’ve seen far worse than this.”

Are you a Pakistani who grew up in the diaspora? Share your experiences with us at



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