Many countries in the European Union have been receiving massive media coverage for the high volumes of refugees crossing their borders, but one country has mysteriously remained out of the spotlight: Portugal. Unlike countries such as Sweden, France, and Austria, where xenophobic voices have recently been gaining political power, right-wing nationalism is not well-represented in Portugal. In fact, both the Portuguese government and the country’s two most prominent political parties have stated that they are willing to accept large volumes of asylum seekers. Yet Portugal received only 872 asylum requests in 2015, while countries on the shores of the Mediterranean, like Greece and Italy, received thousands of refugees every week. The few immigrants Portugal does receive come primarily from Portuguese-speaking countries like Brazil. The reasons Portugal receives fewer migrants than it is willing to accept and is not viewed as a viable option for asylum by both the international community and refugee populations are myriad. However, they are likely related to Portugal’s current economic crisis, which is characterized by an intense brain drain and high unemployment rates. Boosting the number of immigrants and refugees coming to Portugal could actually mitigate these economic woes and stabilize the country.
Not only does Portugal have an issue attracting immigrants, it also has had problems cajoling its own population to stay. The financial crisis of 2008 sent shockwaves through its economy that contracted labor markets and disrupted economic growth. To say that nine years on Portugal is still struggling economically would be an understatement; its economy is caught in a “vicious cycle” of “high debt, low growth and stalling economic reforms.” The economy is projected to grow by a mere 1.7 percent in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund. This is not a promising situation for someone looking to immigrate to Portugal, even compared to similar European countries like Spain. However, unlike these countries, an influx of immigrants could substantially help the economy in Portugal.
Portugal’s unemployment rate is lower than that of other southern European countries, including Greece, Spain, and Italy; Portugal’s overall unemployment rate is at 10.9 percent, while Greece is at 23.4 percent, Spain at 19.6 percent, and Italy at 11.4 percent. While the general unemployment rate is relatively low in Portugal, the youth unemployment rate, defined as the unemployment rate among people under twenty-five, is very high, reaching an astounding 28.4 percent last September, which has led to a “brain drain” as the country’s future generations leave to seek work elsewhere. This problem has become prevalent in the past five years; between 2011 and 2014, “a total of 485,000 people left … including almost 200,000 as permanent emigrants.” In fact, more than 20 percent of Portuguese citizens live abroad, which makes Portugal the European country with the highest proportion of emigrants. The main motivation to emigrate from Portugal is economic, with demand for low-skilled jobs being high in the more prosperous nations of Western Europe such as the UK, France or Germany. These low-skilled jobs are desirable, as a mere 19 percent of Portuguese emigrants have professions requiring higher education. Portuguese people working abroad keep in touch with their country of origin and send remittances. Seeing their family members struggling abroad to find low-skilled jobs makes Portuguese people who remained in the country more understanding of the obstacles immigrants face and gives them a more positive attitude towards refugees.
In order to remedy the apparent shortage in Portugal’s skilled labor market, the government has taken concrete actions to encourage immigration. Portugal's prime minister, António Costa, announced a plan in February 2016 to enroll two thousand Syrian students in Portuguese universities to encourage skilled labor migration. Additionally, he has made clear an initiative “to recruit Middle Eastern farmers and forestry experts” in an effort to repopulate rural areas depopulated by Portuguese emigration. This effort seeks to stimulate Portugal’s economy by achieving a net increase in immigration. In a 2015 study by the Migrant Integration Policy Index, Portugal’s integration policies for migrants were rated the second best in the EU after Sweden.
Portugal has been even more welcoming than its neighbor Spain. Both countries have had more positive attitudes towards refugees than most other European countries. Portugal has agreed to take in ten thousand refugees, more than double the number allocated by the EU relocation program. Spain has agreed to take in fifteen thousand refugees, but only after people in Madrid and Barcelona protested the government’s initial agreement for 2,379. It seems that while Spanish people from large cities are willing to welcome refugees, there is little political will and politicians consider addressing the high unemployment rate a priority over taking in refugees. To explain this difference between Spain and Portugal, two neighboring countries with similar democratic systems, we first have to look at their economic incentives. While both countries have had low GDP growth rates in the past years, Spain’s situation seems to be improving, with a 3.2 percent growth rate in 2015, compared to Portugal’s 1.5 percent. The Spanish government does not view immigration as an answer to its economic problems to the same extent as Portugal. Yet, Spain has been receiving more asylum applications than Portugal, with 10,295 in 2015, coming mainly from Syria and Ukraine.
Across the EU, few other nations are currently trying to attract more immigrants. In fact, many countries are experiencing a rise in nationalism and seeing far-right parties surge to power on anti-immigrant platforms. However, Portugal has seen little to none of these turbulent changes, even at a time where one out of five Portuguese citizens live below the poverty line. Portugal’s main far-right party, the National Renovator Party, received only 0.5 percent of the national vote in 2015 and currently has no seats in the national assembly.
To be fair, a possible explanation for why Portugal is not seeing a rise in nationalism like that seen in other European countries is that few refugees are attempting to apply for asylum there. Anti-refugee sentiment is the primary driving force behind the far-right's resurgence in countries like Sweden, where public support for refugee resettlement fell by 40 percent in just one year. It is possible that an influx of immigrants could elicit a xenophobic response.
However, such a response seems unlikely in Portugal, given that its current political climate is very promising for refugees and immigrants. In Portugal, many of its diverse political parties, some of which disagree on nearly all social and political issues, find themselves in agreement on immigration policy. Indeed, Portugal welcomed a new political phase in 2016 with the election of independent Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, following a constitutional crisis in 2015. De Sousa has been stressing the need for cross-party cooperation and national consensus. This cooperative executive branch will strengthen both the promotion and the enforcement of such policies. Between these immigrant-friendly political changes and initiatives and Portugal’s worker-deprived labor market, the stage is set for immigrants and refugees to enter Portugal’s economy; the question is whether immigrants can begin to see Portugal as a viable option for settlement or asylum as they seek a stable, sustainable, and safe environment to resettle their lives. If they do, they may just ensure Portugal’s long-term prosperity.
Researchers for this article include: Isabelle Charo, Halle Friedman, Pierre Gratia, William Linde, Noah Maclean, Claire Ren, Angela Seeger, Antonia Stefanescu, Sean Uribe, and Yunhan Wen
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