Welcoming migration in Portugal

Portugal is one of the few European countries with a policy of welcoming and integrating migrants. For the moment, it is still capable of reacting to the increase of radical, xenophobic and nationalist movements that reject human mobility as a fundamental right. 

It is crucial to find ways to improve the social inclusion of migrants and refugees in Portuguese society. Migrant integration and full inclusion are essential requirements for achieving the full potential of migrants. 


Social inclusion is key for welcoming migration in Portugal.
Photo: Caritas Portuguesa.

Road to Social Inclusion

In an integrated Europe, cities and regions are the main areas of inclusion, diversity, and reception. The main collective challenge for Portugal is how to welcome a plurality of individuals who bring their own cultures, religions and identities, while also preserving social cohesion at regional and national levels. Social inclusion means ensuring equality of treatment between nationals and foreigners, equal access to social support services, and equal opportunities in accessing education, housing, health and essential resources.

The social inclusion of immigrants or refugees does not mean an assimilation of a minority in the majority, but integration based on solidarity. This process implies the commitment, engagement, qualification and empowerment of the entire host society. At the same time, it is important to communicate the rights and duties of each actor in the process of fostering social integration. Integration will only become a reality if public officials, service users and the public are fully informed and engaged with the proposed process. A key task, therefore, is to clarify and communicate the challenges and the projects to be built together and demonstrate the benefits of an intercultural society. 

There is no other way to promote development, and, at the same time, prevent the growth of xenophobic and racist phenomena, other than working with the whole community and knowing how to communicate the challenges of diversity, but also the benefits. However old their roots may have been, no emerging national identities have survived in isolation without the benefits and challenges of new social, political, economic and cultural evolution, resulting from the movement of people from one place to another, their settlement, and diverse contributions as human beings in search of their own full integral development. 



Migration in Portugal

The Portuguese migratory reality is complex and multifaceted. One of the Portuguese singularities is the simultaneous emigration and immigration flows that result in the entry and exit of individuals with similar characteristics: in age, schooling or professional qualifications. 

Many of the immigrants and emigrants work in the same professions, with varying salaries, career prospects, and professional development. This leads some to leave Portugal and others to migrate to the country. Along with migratory flows, social change emerges in a diverse set of socio-ethnic-cultural groups and identities of individuals. This leads to some challenges on how to maintain the respect for diversity and commitments to social cohesion in Portuguese society.

Positive impacts

In Portugal, migrants and migration are being consensually considered as having a positive impact on the development of countries of origin and destination. Migrants’ competencies and skills, savings and remittances contribute to development. Moreover, they do so in a variety of fields, such as in the overall economy, the labour market, demography, or through cultural and social innovation, among others. As an example, according to recent research, migration flows to Portugal produce positive effects, mitigating the consequences of population ageing and decline, as the immigrant population tends to be younger than the Portuguese population, and reinforces the younger and working age structures. The fact that established foreign communities already exist in Portugal helps generates new migratory flows due to either family formation and/or family reunification. This further contributes to the country’s economy and socio-cultural diversity and richness.

In Portugal, immigrants tend to be more entrepreneurial than nationals, which further contributes to their full integration/inclusion. This trend also adds dynamism to the Portuguese economy, bringing innovation to the Portuguese corporate landscape (with new ideas, new technologies, and innovative projects), creating new jobs both for multiple generations of migrants as well as for native Portuguese. It also provides a preventative measure to avoid unemployment.


cooperation to solve migration challenges

Contributions of diasporas

The contribution of immigrants to the development in their country of destination, as well as their countries of origin can be valued socially and politically – in both geographic contexts. Countries of origin have long understood the importance of the contributions of diasporas in nurturing the development of their homeland. These countries have increasingly acknowledged that the development effects of migrants do not stem only from returns and remittances, but more broadly, from knowledge transfers, direct investments, and the capacity of emigrants and their descendants to ‘market’ their homeland abroad – thus contributing to the country’s attractiveness for tourists and foreign investors, stimulating trade, or even channelling broader geopolitical benefits. Since the 1960s, Portuguese emigration has also consistently sent back financial flows essential for the support of families and for investment, especially locally.


Legal Framework for migration in Portugal

Portuguese Legal Framework

Portugal’s nationality law has also evolved, responding to inclusive ideologies, and has extended the number of citizens who are part of the national community. In Portugal, foreigners and non-nationals (stateless persons) have exactly the same labour, social and civic rights as Portuguese citizens. Some exceptions include some political rights, the exercise of public functions (except those with a predominantly technical character), and the rights and duties expressly reserved by the Constitution and by the law to Portuguese citizens (for example, to be a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic). Despite these rights, the daily experience of foreigners in Portugal, however, shows a less virtuous reality. NGOs and other civil society associations regularly refer to the prevalence of discriminatory practices that negatively impact the resident foreign population in accessing public services.

Despite the existing legal framework in favour of migrants’ rights and needs, for instance, with regard to regularisation schemes, in practice there are still many obstacles in implementing existing legislation. Factors impeding the effective implementation of Portuguese law (and international treaty obligations) have been documented across the country’s services and institutions. These include the lack of capacity in care and training, outdated procedures, unnecessary bureaucracy within and across the public services of migration governance, poor inter and intra-service communication, language barriers, the inefficient distribution of existing resources throughout the national territory or the shortage of financial resources dedicated to complex social problems. For example, the concentration in Lisbon, Porto, and Algarve of many of the services available through the High Commissioner for Migration creates additional integration costs for immigrants living in other regions of the country. 


Cooperation is key to solve migration challenges
Photo: Caritas Internationalis.

Collaborative solutions

The existing complex, segmented, multi-faceted constellation of government actors with different approaches to migration and migrants lacks organisation. Collaboration between the different entities is neither structured nor are there organised procedures and modes of operation that allow dialogue or a collaborative solution to challenges and problems. Sharing responsibility for managing integration programmes between different ministries and public institutions and dispersing areas of responsibility has been well documented, visible alone by the number of entities involved in the Strategic Plan for Migration. This amounts to ninety-six and yet, this still does not fully include private organisations or civil society in the calculation.  

The lack of a systemic vision prevents the construction and implementation of public policies with a wide impact as well as solutions proposed by immigrants in Portugal with regard to existing problems. The lack of inter-institutional dialogue prevents problem solving and creates entropy in information and communication flows, contributing to inefficiencies. 

Since 2015, Portugal has been open and willing to receive refugees. However, the relocation programme in Portugal relies heavily on the management of civil society in the process of reception and integration, owing to the absence of a historic tradition of receiving refugees and the lack of state structures by which to do so. This limitation is a challenge for the future role that the country wants to play in the governance of global refugee flows. The growth in the number and origins of refugees or other individuals under international protection who are hosted in Portugal is a sign that this reality is also changing the landscape of migration to the country.


International cooperation

International cooperation

Cooperation and (new) partnerships are key. For the first time in history, with the adoption of the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, complemented by the Global Compact for Refugees, the international community has recognised that no country alone can respond to the challenges of global human mobility and brings together key actors to cooperate on migration, security, human rights and development. The Compact is rooted in Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. It is based on the recognition that migration is a multidimensional reality of the greatest relevance to the sustainable development of countries of origin, transit and destination. As stated in the Compact itself, this “aims to leverage the potential of migration to achieve all the Sustainable Development Objectives.”

For more information, visit the Cáritas Portuguesa Common Home Publication.

Author: Filipa Abecasis

Filipa is the head of international operations at Caritas Portugal, and likes to meet new cultures. She also has a passion for writing. “Si quieres cambio verdadero, camina distinto.”

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