LISBON, PORTUGAL - AUGUST 09, 2017: Everyday Life In Busy Downtown Lisbon City Of Portugal.
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Immigration or bust – a sobering report

Portugal’s foreign nationals save sectors from collapse; boost demographics – but at what cost?

International Migrants Day this week saw the release of a sobering report which showed how much Portugal has ‘benefited’ from the increasing arrival of work-age foreign nationals, but also what this ‘boon to the country’ is costing, in terms of human suffering, on various levels.

UN Secretary General António Guterres insists that migration is a “force for good” because, he says, it promotes the exchange of knowledge and ideas and contributes to economic growth, “as well as allowing millions of people to seek opportunities and improve their lives”.

But the reality for the streams of people arriving in Portugal is that they face precarious lower-paid jobs, they are invariably required to work longer hours than Portuguese citizens, they earn on average 5.3% less, live in the main in overcrowded homes, suffer twice the risk of unemployment than resident counterparts and have far less recourse to Social Security.

“The same goes for access to healthcare”, considers ‘Immigration in numbers: Immigration Integration Indicators 2023’ released by the Observatory on Migrations, which highlights the iniquities at play.

For example, last year immigrants paid into Social Security more than €1.86 billion. Of this amount, benefits were paid out of around €257,000. Immigrants make up 7.6% of the population (they made up 5.7% four years ago) but 13.5% of Social Security contributors. There are 87 immigrant contributors for every 100 residents, while the Portuguese have a ratio of only 48 to 100.

Another stark detail is that one in three foreign nationals in Portugal is at risk of poverty and/ or social exclusion – 11% more than Portuguese nationals. In percentage terms, this translates into 31% of foreigners living in Portugal being at risk of poverty/ social exclusion, with the problem “particularly acute among those from outside Europe”.

The report, directed by Catarina Reis Oliveira, outlines a pattern of immigration that is essentially labour-intensive and ‘active’ – contradicting the argument so often made in other European countries “that immigration has the imminent objective of maximising public support and thus eroding the public accounts of host societies”.

Indeed, the report’s conclusion is that “without immigrants, some economic sectors would collapse” – namely those of civil construction, domestic service and hospitality (all of which remain notorious for their poor salary levels and often parlous conditions).

Thus this is the Catch-22: Portugal is seemingly being ‘saved’ by immigration; but at the same time immigrants find themselves supporting the continued existence of sectors of the economy where workers are exploited and so remain ‘unattractive’ to Portuguese job-seekers.

LISBON, PORTUGAL - JUNE 13, 2017: The Rua Augusta Arch, a triumphal arch-like, historical building in Lisbon, Portugal, on the Praca do Comercio.
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Incoming nationalities

The report differentiates by nationality. The largest community is the younger Brazilian, with 239,700 – far more than the second most represented nationality, the British, of which almost 63% are over the age of 50.

According to Pordata (Portugal data), Brazilians make up 29.3% of all migrants in Portugal, the British 6%, Cape Verdeans 4.9%, Italians 4.4%, Indians 4.3% and Romanians 4.1%.

In terms of income, differences between foreign nationals are also considerable. There are several nationalities that earn well above the average Portuguese: citizens of the USA (140% more), Belgium (+112%), Spain (+95.4%), the United Kingdom (+92.5%). On the other hand, nationals from Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, Pakistan, Cape Verde and India earn almost 30% less than Portuguese nationals.

In terms of territorial presence, the Algarve and Metropolitan Area of Lisbon stand out.

In Greater Lisbon, for instance, the percentage of immigrants in relation to the total population is 41%.

In the Algarve/ Alentejo, municipalities such as Vila do Bispo and Odemira have the highest percentage of immigrants in relation to the total population (42.2% and 39% respectively). Large proportions of these are employed by ‘agricultural explorations’ that have become the bane of local people’s lives for the dramatic changes they have wrought on the environment, irrespective of the changes that are happening to local communities.

In terms of gender, there is a slight majority of men coming to Portugal – but here too the difference in nationalities is striking: for example, 81% of people coming from Nepal are men.

Pordata also shows that Portugal is the 10th country in the EU with the lowest percentage of foreigners, but the 4th when it comes to the “most precarious labour conditions for foreigners” (after Croatia, the Netherlands and Poland).

2022 saw highest ever number of immigrant foreigners settle in Portugal

Just in 2022, “118,000 immigrants entered Portugal, the highest figure since records began”, Pordata announced in a press release to mark International Migrants Day.

At the same time, 31,000 people left the country, translating into “23,000 fewer (-43%) than in the year with the highest number of departures, 2013”.

Last year, there was a total of 798,480 foreign nationals living in Portugal legally or in the process of having their residence made legal by State services.

“In the last 15 years, Portuguese nationality has been granted to around half a million foreigners (468,665), both resident and non-resident in Portugal,” said Pordata, pointing out that in the last two years the majority of these grants were given to non-resident citizens with as many as one third going to descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews in 2022.

The number of immigrants decreased between 2010 and 2015, but since then there has been a very large increase and, as an example, between 2018 and 2019, the growth in the number of resident foreigners was more than 110,000.

“Compared to the Portuguese population, the foreign population in Portugal has a higher proportion of men and is younger,” notes Pordata, adding that the median age is 37, or seven years less than the median age of the Portuguese population.

This increase in the foreign population is reflected in the education system, with the number of immigrants enrolled doubling in five years to 105,955 in the 2021/22 school year.

In primary schools, one in 10 children is a foreigner and a third of doctoral students at universities are immigrants. In certain areas, however – particularly the Algarve/Lower Alentejo – the ratio of foreign children to Portuguese has become so high that teachers have reported problems with learning/integration.

All in all, details emerging from International Migrants Day show that since 2019, the number of immigrants to Portugal has been three times higher than the number of emigrés, “contributing to positive migratory balances”. The emigrés, however, have been leaving the country in the main with higher education levels (and, therefore, good earning/employment prospects), while incoming migrants tend to be at the opposite end of the scale, and have stayed there.

By Natasha Donn
[email protected]