Portugal, like the rest of the world, has also experienced the flow of refugees in the past century and recent years. This article takes a fascinating journey through the history of refugees in Portugal. It covers different times and places, like the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Carnation Revolution, and the recent arrival of refugees driven by geopolitical shifts.

“No one leaves home 

Unless home is the mouth of a shark”

These lines from Warsan Shire’s poem “Home” remind us that being a refugee is often not a choice, but an unexpected and daunting challenge. Shire’s words highlight the tough reality faced by millions of refugees worldwide, where the idea of ‘home’ can be as perilous as facing a shark.

As we look at these past events, we’ll discover the difficulties refugees faced when they came to Portugal. But we’ll also learn about how they stayed strong and contributed to Portuguese society. Join us on a journey that crosses different countries and shows how people from diverse cultures can live together and find a safe place for each one.

Picture of Praça do Comércio in Lisbon, Portugal
Photo by Claudio Schwarz

Refugees’ History in Portugal

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Portugal became a place where many Spanish Republicans came to escape the fighting. Portugal’s leader, Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar, supported the Nationalists in Spain. Because of this, Portuguese authorities found and sent back many Spanish Republican refugees. However, some villages near the border didn’t agree with this and gave shelter and help to protect the refugees from being sent back.

Soon after, World War II (1939-1945) started. Lisbon became the port of departure for refugees seeking safety and better lives in the United States and Latin America. During WWII, an estimated 100,000 to 1,000,000 refugees passed through Lisbon’s ports.

Then, in April 1974, the Carnation Revolution happened. This marked another wave of refugees as Portugal ended the Portuguese Colonial War. This caused problems in former colonies like Angola and Mozambique, leading to hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly “returnees” or settlers who had never been to Portugal before.

More recently, in 2021, NATO left Afghanistan, and in 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, causing another wave of refugees. Portugal welcomed around 50,000 Ukrainian refugees with temporary protection status and continued to host approximately 900 Afghan refugees. Today, the largest refugee communities in Portugal are Ukrainian and Afghan. 

Picture of a sign saying "Refugees Welcome"
Photo by Maria Teneva

Refugees in Portugal Nowadays

Portugal is smaller than many other European countries. But it did a kind thing by welcoming refugees during the Syrian war and later when NATO left Afghanistan and Russia went into Ukraine.

In 2015, Portugal’s leader, Antonio Costa, said they’d take in up to 10,000 people who needed a safe place to live, with over 1,600 of them being refugees. When these people arrived in Portugal, they got help like residence permits, freedom to move around, and access to education and healthcare.

Still, many refugees left Portugal. Some said it was because they couldn’t find good jobs, didn’t have people from their home country to be with, or felt lonely, especially if they lived in the countryside.

For those who stayed, how have they adapted to life in Portugal?

A picture from Cabo da Roca in Portugak
Cabo da Roca (Photo by Shreyas Nair)

Challenges Refugees Face When Adapting to a New Environment

Moving to a new country means adjustment, according to cross-cultural psychologist Colleen Ward. This involves two aspects: psychological adaptation, which means finding contentment despite cultural differences, and sociocultural adaptation, which is about learning local customs and fitting in.

Refugees face different challenges compared to migrants. They often involve violence and human rights violations, forcing them to flee for their lives. Their journey is perilous, with risks like trafficking, border violence, and even hunger or thirst in deserts or jungles. These experiences drain their mental and emotional energy, crucial for learning new languages and adapting to new cultures.

Leaving behind belongings, relationships, and homes makes refugees feel powerless and frustrate their adaptation. While refugees find safety in their host countries, they encounter difficulties. Negative experiences like disrespect, threats, or violence affect their adaptation and increase isolation. According to Lutterback and Beelman, discrimination discourages them from embracing the local culture.

For example, Ziauddin Samadi, an Afghan refugee and Vice President of the Association of Afghan Community in Portugal, faced economic and social challenges when he arrived. Making friends with locals was particularly difficult. Encouraging interactions between refugees and residents in supportive communities can help.

Refugees encounter mental and social challenges when settling in a new country. They face dangers during their journey and the possibility of unfair treatment, helplessness, and isolation. Effective support for refugees’ adaptation is crucial, but how can we achieve it?

Understanding Refugee Adaptation in Portugal

Survey and Participants

graph showing the ages of the participants of the survey for refugees

To understand further refugees’ adaptation, a study1 was carried out in Portugal. Over 130 refugees, supported by local NGOs and SPEAK, participated in a survey from June to August 2022. Of these, 61.4% were women, and most were aged 30-39 (47.6%). Primarily from Ukraine (54.2%). This study involved a survey that delved into several crucial aspects of refugees’ lives, including:

  • refugees’ subjective experiences of forcedness and their associated dangers
  • The sense of loss of control which may originate from their experiences of forcedness and related perils
  • their experiences of interactions with locals, such as perceived discrimination and opportunity for contact
  • and most importantly, their psychological adaptation, which is their social and subjective well-being while adjusting to life in Portugal

More than half of the respondents originated from Ukraine (54.2%), followed by Afghanistan (15.7%), while the remaining respondents originate from 15 other countries2 across Africa, South America and the Indian subcontinent. 

graph specifying the education level

More than half of the respondents had a university-level education (58.3%), followed by secondary-level education (19%) and college-level education (13.1%). 58.3% of respondents actively practiced their religion. 

graph specifying how much time have refugees been living in Portugal

At the time of data collection, more than half of the respondents lived in Portugal for less than a year (69.1%), followed by 1 to 5 years (22.6%) and from 5 to 10 years (8.3%)

Survey Results

graph showing results of the survey made to refugees

An analysis of the survey data was conducted, employing a 5-point Likert scale where 5 indicated strong agreement, 1 indicated strong disagreement, and 3 represented the midpoint, neither agree nor disagree. The results unveiled intriguing insights:

  • Subjective well-being scored slightly below the midpoint (M=2.91), indicating room for improvement.
  • Social well-being, on the other hand, scored above the midpoint (M=3.51).
  • Perceptions of forcedness (M=3.07) exceeded related perils (M=2.81), highlighting the weight of forced displacement experiences.
  • Respondents reported a sense of loss of control below the midpoint.
  • Opportunities for interactions with locals (M=4.03) were ample, while experiences of discrimination were minimal (M=1.40).
graph showing the relationship between social well-being, opportunity for contact, perception of forcedness, loss of control and subjective well-being for refugees

The chart above illustrates how social well-being and contact opportunities are linked to higher subjective well-being. When respondents reported improved social well-being and more chances for contact, their subjective well-being increased. Conversely, when they felt a higher sense of forcedness or loss of control, their subjective well-being decreased.
Surprisingly, perceived discrimination and related dangers didn’t seem to affect how respondents felt about their well-being.

Positive Outlook

There is good news! 

Helping respondents improve their social well-being and connect with locals can make them happier.  When they feel better, they have more chances to interact and it reduces their feeling of losing control and being “forced” from their home countries. Boosting well-being empowers them to make decisions with confidence.

Interestingly, respondents in Portugal feel they face very little discrimination. Also, their well-being doesn’t seem connected to the dangers they experienced during their journey or in their home countries.

Group of international refugees
Photo by Duy Pham

Challenges and Further Research

Because the study had a small number of people, we can’t say for sure that the findings apply to all refugees in Portugal. We do need more research to learn more about how refugees adapt psychologically. This information will be useful for government agencies, non-profit groups, and communities as they work to help refugees settle and become part of Portuguese society. 

How can we all help contribute to the well-being of refugees in Portugal?

It takes small and simple actions to create and provide safe spaces that support refugees’ adaptation and enhance their well-being in Portugal.

Extend a Friendly Hand

One of the simplest and most impactful ways to connect with refugees is by saying, “Hello.” Just a warm greeting and introducing yourself can go a long way. In a world where refugees often feel ignored and mistreated, a simple smile and “hello” can help them feel acknowledged and valued.

Explore Refugees’ Culture

When you miss your home, it is natural to recreate “home” in the new country. Take your time to try the delicious dishes at refugee-run restaurants like Mezze near Mercado de Arroios, or Betânia, an Afghan restaurant near Marquês de Pombal. Don’t miss out on refugee-organized cultural events, plays, and flea markets.

And Share Yours!

It’s not just about learning from refugees; you can share your culture too. This exchange helps them get familiar with the local customs, making social interactions easier. Invite them to join you for a meal, local events, or celebrations. You can also lend a hand in teaching them the local language, with programs like SPEAK’s buddy program.

Encourage Intercultural Friendships

“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.” – Shakespeare

When you start a conversation and exchange cultures, why not turn it into a friendship? Intercultural friendships are invaluable and a highly enriching experience which increases cultural understanding, acceptance and self-reflection

No doubt, being friends with a refugee can help them to feel welcomed and accepted in society. Most importantly, an intercultural friendship can transform both your lives for the better.


  1. A study for the Master of Psychology in Intercultural Relations with ISCTE-IUL was conducted from April – December 2022. The study looked into the psychological adaptation of Zomi refugees in Malaysia compared to refugees based in other countries. The results for this article are taken and analysed from this dataset.  
  2. Apart from Ukraine and Afghanistan, the other 15 countries include Albania, Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Gambia, Guatemala, Guinea, India, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Venezuela.

Author: Ling Ling Tai

Ling Ling is a Malaysian-born social and cultural psychologist with a research interest in refugees adaptation and integration. She is also a learning and development professional and was formerly an electronics engineer. Having studied, worked and lived in 8 countries, she now calls Lisbon her home. Connect with her on LinkedIn or subscribe to her personal blog.

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