Portugal: Emigration – a beautiful mirage

19 March 2012
Público Lisbon

A street in Lisbon, Portugal.
A street in Lisbon, Portugal.

Along with a lost generation of young people in low-paid and insecure jobs, the crisis is now pushing couples with families to seek work elsewhere in Europe. Unfortunately, arriving in foreign countries ill-prepared, not speaking the language and low on funds, they often end up in the streets.

“Silly emigration” [Emigração parva] is how Eduardo Dias, the representative of the Council of Portuguese Communities in Luxembourg, describes this new wave of Portuguese flowing into the Grand Duchy: couples between 35 and 50 years of age, arriving with children who are still minors, with no prospect of a guaranteed job, without speaking any of the local languages (French, German or Luxembourgish) and their only luggage the (mistaken) notion that finding a job will be easy.

This new and growing wave of Portuguese emigrants, adding to Portugal’s young graduates also trying their luck abroad, is overflowing elsewhere into Europe too: into England, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and, particularly sharply, into Switzerland. It was in Switzerland where the alarm was first sounded after Portuguese were found sleeping in the street in freezing winter temperatures. The general view is that the situation is not going to get better.

There is no shortage of statistics, and they all point in the same direction: more and more Portuguese are leaving the country. Late in 2011, the Secretary of State for Portuguese Communities, José Cesário, acknowledged that this year alone between 100,000 and 120,000 Portuguese had departed. On EURES, the European Union’s job mobility portal, Portuguese applications more than doubled between 2008 and 2011. And in just two years, from 2008 to 2010, Portuguese consulates abroad have seen 324,000 migrants come in to register.

Sleeping in a car

In Zurich, where he lives, Manuel Beja, the chairman of the Commission on Migration of the Council of Portuguese Communities, continues to see his compatriots pull up by the busload. The phenomenon began to grow in 2008, he recalls, and he passed the first alerts back to Portugal in 2010. “The José Sócrates government reacted very badly, and even accused me of being irresponsible, which was unfortunate. For sure, the outflow is hard to stop, but it could have been handled differently.”

In recent months Manuel Beja has witnessed a “total change” in the social makeup of newcomers to the big Swiss cities. This time it’s families, couples that are still young and unskilled and who have financial commitments in Portugal that have left home “in desperation”. Some arrive with a local telephone contact that often does not exist. Others come with nothing. “Since the scandal of the Portuguese sleeping in railway stations and homeless shelters erupted, things have calmed down. With good weather on the way, though, others will start to come again”, he worries.

Ending up in dramatic situations – no money for food, shelter or even to pay for a return ticket home – some have had to knock on the doors of Catholic missions established in various European countries. “They started showing up at the mission in Switzerland,” confirms brother Francisco Sales, Director of the Obra Católica das Migrações. “This is something new for us. We were not ready for it, and the phenomenon is very fresh. We are trying to build bridges to help these people.” It is in Switzerland, he said, where he has found “the most glaring example” of this migration that defies the usual patterns.

For Francisco Sales, those Portuguese who still believe in a Europe paved with gold should find out more about what to expect before they leave home. The churches, he assures, will pass the message along.

Another tale of poor Portuguese who have no money to return home after their failed attempt to emigrate came in from England last week. After leaving for London in January and failing to find jobs there, a foreman aged 54 and his wife were found sleeping in a car. According to Luís Ventura, president of the Portuguese Centre for Aid to the Portuguese-Speaking Community, “the situation is becoming alarming” in England too.

“They soon find themselves in a tough spot”

He has been observing “a very palpable and steady increase in the number of people” arriving there over the last two years. Domingos Cabeças, from the Neto employment agency in London, backs him up with figures. “We used to receive 20 or 30 job applications per day. Today we are getting from 80 to 90, from inexperienced people who don’t speak English and have almost no money. It's very difficult to find work for them. I’m convinced that many are looking for work just to get enough money to head back home.”

Their lack of preparation (combined with the deepening crisis in Portugal) is what Luis Ventura finds most worrisome – “We have an outflow of graduates, but also plenty of people who do not even speak the language, who arrive without any propsects and with no qualifications, and they soon find themselves in a tough spot. About a month ago we had a man who had landed at the airport with 50 euros and a phone number that didn’t work. He found himself alone in London, without being able to speak a word of English, and with just 50 euros in his pocket.”

If no one can provide an accurate number of the Portuguese who have left for another country in Europe in the past year, however, says Jorge Malheiros, a researcher at the Centre for Geographical Studies of the University of Lisbon, the numbers continue to point to “an outflow of more skilled and younger Portuguese.”

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