Migration & Integration Portugal Interview

Migration and Integration in Portugal: An example to follow?

A look at a country with one of the world's best level of protection for refugees' human rights, by Cláudia Pedra

Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Claudia Pedra, Director of the Network for Strategic and International Studies, comments on the way Portugal deals with the refugee crisis. Even in a country with one of the best asylum laws worldwide, integration and tolerance seem to remain problematic issues.

Have there been any lessons learned from (changing) integration policy during the last decades?

Since World War II the number of asylum seekers in Portugal has been very small. For the last 15 years they didn’t exceed 80-200 people annually, even when the rates were higher they wouldn’t go beyond 200-300 people, including realisation of the agreements on resettling people from other countries. Of these only a few get the refugee status. Thus, Portugal is not used to dealing with refugees – the general public does not know how to tackle such issues, what the difference is between refugees and migrants, etc.

Despite this fact, the asylum law in Portugal is one of the best in the world securing a high level of protection of human and civil rights for the refugees – they are nearly equal to national citizens, except for the voting rights. So, theoretically there are good solutions, however not implemented effectively.

Current national migration policy – what are the current challenges? What direction should it take: restrictive approach to migration and asylum policies, selective labour migration or “open-borders” policy? Current national integration policy – what are the current challenges? What measures you think would be most effective in your country

The biggest problem so far are however the misconceptions speeded about the “refugee crisis” by the media. The arrival of 4000 people – as agreed in the EU quotas – was never explained properly, making an impression they will all come at one time. Thus the rise of xenophobia and racism were the answer.

It seems that the adopted decentralized approach of resettling the refugees is also problematic, as a result different systems are implemented depending on how many refugees arrive and where they are located. Cultural trainings in schools and communities would help integrate the newcomers. They could be delivered by culture mediators – former refugees or migrants who settled in the country and help and do the trainings based on their own experiences. Trainings provided by specialized institutions – the Portuguese Refugee Council for example – would suit the public institutions.

Has the refugee crisis contributed to the rise of populist/radical agenda in your country? If so, how and who (what political actors or groups of interest) is instrumentalizing it?

Portugal was always a country where racism and xenophobia existed, but the public opinion does not want to admit it, as they rather want to see Portugal as a tolerant and fair country. The refugee issue, however, caused the rise of xenophobia or racism because of popular stereotypes, misconceptions, especially those based on economic risks resulting from the crisis – that the migrants/refugees have come to “steal jobs” – which became a touchy subject especially due the crisis. Even people with higher education would fall victims of such bias and repeat such populist slogans. Race-based violence however did not increase – it’s mostly hate-speech that is more visible than before the “refugee crisis”. In general, modern Portugal was not a country of hate-based violence – within the last 20 years there were few incidents of note.

Interview conducted by Maria Skóra.

Claudia Pedra is Director of the Network for Strategic and International Studies and Managing Partner and co-founder of Stone Soup Consulting. She has a degree in international relations and a masters in Strategy. Claudia Pedra has been working in the Third Sector for over 20 years in the human rights field and worked in international organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and International Organization for Migration as a consultant and researcher.  For 6 years she was the CEO of Amnesty International Portugal. She was also a researcher on Asia. She is co-author of specialisation courses on human rights and has dozens of published articles on human rights.