Portugal has opened its heart and capabilities to traumatised Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.
The nation’s heart has no limits – as so many in desperate times have learned – but sadly its capabilities do.
That said, the government has pulled out all the stops to welcome Ukrainians who decide to come here, while municipalities, nationals, Ukrainian residents already living here, foreign residents, businesses, even lawyers have rallied to a collective effort that everyone recognises simply has to be.
There is no choice, explained PM António Costa, after a NATO meeting in Brussels last week: this is a fight for freedom; a fight for democracy – there is no way to go but forwards.
On the seventh day of fighting (Wednesday), Portugal was already supremely organised in terms of offering aid, accommodation, employment, legalisation for those arriving here – even crèches and school places for their babies and children.
Convoys of trucks laden with supplies (food, clothing, medication, essentials for hygiene, etc.) have already set off from various corners of the mainland headed for ‘friendly countries’ on Ukraine’s borders where hundreds of thousands of displaced people are now converged, simply waiting/hoping this horrific situation will be short-lived.
Here, there is no knowing how many Ukrainians will choose to join family members and friends already settled in Portugal.
Minister of the Presidency Mariana Vieira da Silva talked on Tuesday of Portugal already having places for 1,245 incoming Ukrainians. It could end up being 10 or 20 times that number.
There are already 30,000 legalised Ukrainians living in Portugal – possibly that number again not yet legalised. Reports suggest these could attract just as many refugees, as in spite of Portugal’s ‘limited capabilities’, it is not simply known as a welcoming country, but a country of peace.
Right now, businesses have banded together to offer work opportunities – and these are being coordinated by a government task force.
Talk earlier this week was of at least 2,000 jobs already being available. The majority in the area of technology, transports, the social sector, tourism and civil construction.
But as the Algarve tourism sector alone is continually lamenting its shortage of workers, there will be hundreds more jobs (even if only seasonal) coming on line.
Yes, the likelihood is that they won’t be highly paid. But at this point, food, shelter, work – even poorly paid – is preferable to living underground in sheer terror of Russian cruise missiles and military bombardment.
For the time being, Portugal’s welcome to incoming refugees will stay in place for the next 12 months, to be renewed for two further six-month periods, minister for internal administration and justice Francisca Van Dunem has explained.
Essentially, the country is open to taking Ukrainians until such time as it is safe for them to return home.
Who is helping and how:
In the Algarve, one of the most ‘pro-active’ initiatives is being run by Associação dos Ucranianos no Algarve, which is operating a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AssociacaodosUcranianosnoAlgarve) listing collection points and times for donations; giving phone numbers, even contact details of lawyers preparing to give services free of charge.
In the wider sphere, We Help Ukraine (https://www.wehelpukraine.org/) is a worldwide platform, started by Portuguese businessman Hugo Sousa, designed to harness support from all over the world (including Portuguese émigré ‘strongholds’ of Canada, the United States and UK).
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has already endorsed “We Help Ukraine”, stressing “The Portuguese are like this. They become aware of a cause; they mobilise forces and immediately start efforts of solidarity”.
‘We Help Ukraine’ is just one of many efforts, but it is exceptional as well because it seeks to bring together offers of help from across the globe, and is reported already to have gathered at least 5,000.
Add to this the network of ‘facilitators’ who want to offer their expertise to simplify any bureaucracy incoming refugees might face.
A leader column by the president of the Bar Association on Wednesday has given a telephone number (218823550) and email address: [email protected] designed to guide Ukrainians to the more than 800 lawyers prepared to lend their expertise free of charge.
“In this difficult moment, Ukrainian citizens know they can count on the support of Portuguese lawyers and their Bar Association in the intransigent mission of their Statute that requires them to defend the Rule of Law and the rights, liberties and guarantees of citizens” – all tragically tenets that are being ridden roughshod, over as we write, by Russian tanks.
In terms of military aid, Portugal has already agreed to take part in NATO’s dissuasive presence on countries bordering Ukraine. Close to 1,800 Portuguese military could be mobilised within hours of NATO’s say-so. All we have been told this far is that military participation will involve ‘rapid response intervention forces’ (making up just over 1,000 men), a Naval frigate, six F16 fighter jets, a P-3C plane, a ‘mechanised battalion’ involving 609 soldiers and 159 vehicles, Naval divers and what is described as a ‘civil military unit of cooperation’ (involving 11 people).
In what was earlier this week described as “a second phase” – again up to NATO – another 472 military could be dispatched, along with 36 tactical vehicles and two Naval war ships.
“Without a date defined, there would be another 207 military, four tactical vehicles and another Naval vessel” to be sent, while the possibility of the United States reinforcing use of Lajes naval base, in the Azores, doesn’t yet appear to be on the table.
With so much ‘in the air’ and unclear, SIC has reported on a number of Ukrainians resident in Portugal who chose to return home, making the journey by bus, earlier this week – simply to answer the ‘call to arms’ of the country’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Addressing the European Parliament on Tuesday, the 44-year-old who has inspired the world in his David versus Goliath stand against Russian oppression, admitted he has no idea if this was the last time the West would be hearing from him. “A lot of people will die today,” he said.
By NATASHA DONN