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Portugal’s Catholic Church to open its doors to 15,000 refugees

As the Portuguese government works on plans to take in more than 4,000 refugees, the country’s bishops have pledged “total support” to the weekend appeal by the Pope that every parish, sanctuary, monastery and religious community in Europe open its doors to at least one family of fleeing migrants.

In practical terms, this means Portugal could be set to receive at least 19,000 refugees in the relative short-term – and that’s before private offers of accommodation and relief flooding as a result of the escalating humanitarian crisis are quantified.

The Resident takes a look at what is happening in Portugal, and finds both the heartwarming and the underwhelming.

By Natasha Donn

First to the heartwarming, as this is the response that the hundreds of thousands of fleeing families so badly need.

Portuguese bishops were reported to be right behind the appeal made by the Pontiff after his Angelus prayers on Sunday morning (September 6).

“May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe host a family, starting from my diocese of Rome,” said Pope Francis.

In Portugal, the Catholic Church has 2o dioceses made up of 4,418 parishes along with “more than 200 religious sanctuaries”.

According to a report in Correio da Manhã, many of the parishes and “even some of the communities” are not in a fit state to receive any families – but there are others, said the bishops, that are “equipped to receive various”, and so the Pope’s appeal “certainly stands to be met”.

Explaining its estimate of 15,000 refugees in total, CM says this is the likely number of people making up the 4,000-odd families that stand to be taken in.

A source for the Portuguese Episcopal Conference meeting with the Pope on Monday, September 7, confirmed: “Almost all the bishops have said they want to contribute to the national effort to give shelter to these people. Complying with the Pope’s appeal is just one more link to the feeling of solidarity among our faithful.”

Government agrees to up its initial quota to as many as 3,000

The government too has intimated it will be opening its doors to at least double its initial concession to welcome 1,500 refugees.

Talking to the press last week, Regional Development Minister Poiares Maduro said much depends on a meeting to coordinate the various groups that will need to be involved, but Público was already talking of “around 3,000 refugees” arriving on national soil within the next few months, and this week that number has increased to 4,775.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Rui Machete told Expresso last Friday that Portugal was prepared to be bound by obligatory quotas coming from Brussels, but these are unlikely to be completely clear before next week (September 14).

In the meantime, the international press is full of the relentless humanitarian crisis that has already pushed “welcoming countries” like Germany and Austria to “tipping point”.

Citizens groups respond to Algarve Red Cross plan for refugee camp in Fuzeta

While Olhão council is reported to be against the local Red Cross plan for a refugee camp in Fuzeta “for tourism reasons” – suggesting its relocation further inland -, two separate citizen groups have started up in the Algarve, and both are adamant that it is time for everyone to get involved.

“This is about integration,” explained the prime mover behind Bem Vindo Refugiados Algarve, a Facebook-led initiative that was flooded with offers of help and support almost the minute it began.

“What has been missing so much in all the coverage of this crisis here is that these people are individuals, just like you and me,” Loulé sculptress Toin Adams told the Resident. “It is hard to see refugees en masse as humans, but that is exactly what they are.

“Right now we are being blown away by the number of people who want to get involved. We have a lot of expats who want to be part of this, as well as local Portuguese.”

What Bem Vindo Refugiados Algarve wants to do is create a network of people willing to take refugees into their own homes, as well as help with teaching and integration.

“It is when you get eye to eye with another human being across your kitchen table that this whole desperate situation comes into focus,” she explained. “Now it is just someone who needs help and who could be you if the tables were turned.”

Also coming in with practical ideas for help is a group of German residents in the western Algarve borough of Aljezur.

Raban von Mentzingen may be 80 years old but he still has contacts from his years working in the German embassy in Lisbon, and a burning desire to make a difference.

“I’ve already spoken with over 20 German-speaking families and have found many people willing to help,” he told us. “We’re now planning to get in touch with German institutions in the Algarve, as well as the embassy and chamber of commerce.

We are also looking for any other initiatives that we can join forces with. Our plan is to create a catalogue of how people can help out. Not everyone has to offer their home for accommodation.

Some people can offer themselves as teachers, for example. It all depends on what we think we can do to help these people,” he added, stressing that many incoming migrants will be “well-educated and motivated”. “They can help develop Portugal, which has an increasingly older population,” he said.

It is an attitude that has been developing since the Portuguese High Commissioner for Migrations declared last month that migrants could be “part of the solution” for a country that is rapidly becoming “extinct”.

Talking to Jornal de Notícias, Pedro Calado explained: “We lack labour, we have a problem with birth rates and migrants could be part of the solution.”

Socialist leader António Costa has continued the train of thought, suggesting only last week that the refugee influx could be used to recover Portugal’s neglected forests.

“When I see the state of our forests and I see the owners and local authorities complaining about the lack of manpower to keep them in order, why is it that we don’t recognise the great opportunity here,” he queried. It is a question that sadly many are answering on two public petitions, one of which went underground almost as soon as it began.

Petition says “no” to Algarve refugee camp

The mystery petition is still gathering signatures, while its introductory text and origin have been blocked on the Petição Pública site.

But while Jornal i claims 700 people had signed before the petition “went underground” last Friday, the truth is that a petition like this has sprung up in the UK too.

One of the many stumbling blocks in people’s minds is the parlous state of national economies, and the ever-present threat of terrorism.

This particular petition did have a proviso, however. According to Jornal i, it said: “If the EU creates mechanisms to investigate and check on the origins and effective necessities of these refugees, as well as their reputations, this petition will be annulled.”

It is issues like these that will be discussed in Brussels in the coming days, and determine eventually how many migrants each European country receives.

For the time being, anyone wishing to offer any kind of practical help to local organisations can contact Bem Vindo Refugiados Algarve via its Facebook page, or Raban Mentzingen by phone (282998532) or e-mail: [email protected]

*with additional reporting by Michael Bruxo.