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Syrian refugees at Budapest’s Keleti Train Station in 2015. (Wikimedia Commons)

Italy Says ‘Goodbye’ while Portugal Says ‘Hello’ to Migrants

Despite pledges from the Portuguese government to accept thousands of refugees, it has not taken in many

While European Union countries are closing their doors to migrants trying to flee war and persecution, one country is doing the exact opposite. Portugal has vowed to welcome thousands of refugees and other immigrants in the coming years, in a bid to combat a declining population.

“We need more immigration and we won’t tolerate any xenophobic rhetoric,” Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa recently said at a Socialist Party gathering.

Costa’s statement stands in stark contrast to Italy, whose Interior Minister Matteo Salvini just last weekend called for a pan-European alliance to curb “mass immigration.”

“I am thinking about a League of the Leagues of Europe, bringing together all the free and sovereign movements that want to defend their people and their borders,” Salvini said at a political rally of his far-right League party.

Whereas hundreds of thousands of migrants requested asylum in Italy in recent years, the same cannot be said of Portugal. Despite the Portuguese government’s declared open-door policy, a report released by the Portuguese Information Service showed that in 2017 there were just 1,750 asylum seekers in the country.

“The number of refugees in Portugal is not very high,” Monica Frechaut, the Public Information Officer from the Portuguese Refugee Council, told The Media Line. “But when we analyze the year 2017, we realize that the number has increased very quickly, though it remains very modest when compared to other European countries.”

Because of this, “there is no strong public rhetoric against refugees or migrants in Portugal,” Frechaut said. “The government is now preparing a set of measures to ease the laws around accepting immigrants.”

The Portuguese government is currently seeking 75,000 immigrants per year to maintain the country’s population, which currently stands at 10.3 million people and has declined in recent years due to very low fertility rates (1.36 children per woman on average) and an aging population. The Portuguese Refugee Council, which works in partnership with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), said it welcomes the current government’s willingness to absorb asylum seekers.

“We are not like other EU countries that are receiving a big influx of migrants so we are capable of receiving more people,” Frechaut conveyed to The Media Line, adding that one of the reasons the number of migrants is low is due to the country’s geographical location. Unlike Italy, Portugal is not in the direct path of migration for those fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa.

“So far, migrants are coming because of the relocation program. They are not coming spontaneously, or if they are it’s in very low numbers,” she said, referring to an EU resettlement program aimed at relieving the pressure large influxes of migrants have caused other European nations.

Due to such low numbers, the integration of refugees—who come mostly from Syria, Eritrea, Angola or the Democratic Republic of the Congo —has not been an issue. The government has implemented a number of successful initiatives aimed at speeding up absorption, mostly in the fields of health and education. However, many immigrants struggle to learn the Portuguese language.

“There are several municipalities with specific integration programs and several organizations working for the integration of refugees,” Sofia Cruz, a project assistant at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Portugal, told The Media Line. “Refugees can participate in training, for example, through the Employment and Training Institute and also Portuguese language courses.”

The IOM, headquartered in Geneva, is an intergovernmental organization aiding refugees and migrants that also provides “pre-departure assistance to refugees from Turkey and Egypt going to Portugal under the resettlement program.” One of its flagship programs is Link It, an EU-funded project that helps prepare migrants and refugees for a new life in Europe with orientation courses geared towards the labor market.

“Some of the project’s activities include information sessions for refugees, authorities and employers; training volunteers; and preparing videos and reception guides,” Cruz told The Media Line. The state also purportedly offers attractive benefits to new immigrants, including 18 months of free housing, a monthly allowance of 150 euros (roughly $174) per person, and access to a broad range of educational programs.

In spite of these efforts, Portugal has nevertheless struggled to attract migrants and has in fact seen many leave the country in search of greener pastures. Following the 2008 global economic crisis, over 300,000 Portuguese residents left the country in search of work and better living conditions.

“The indication we have is that almost half of the beneficiaries of the refugee relocation program left Portugal, but we do not at the moment have exact numbers,” Cruz concluded.

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