Most European countries have been reluctant to take refugees. Some, however, have been actively encouraging them to come. For example, unlike several EU members, the Portuguese government has actually offered to take many more refugees than it was asked to. Yet the refugees themselves seem unenthusiastic; Portugal has offered to host 10,000, but by May 2016 had only taken in a couple of hundred (though more have arrived since then).
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis will be on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
This week we’re looking at Lisbon, Portugal. Few refugees seem keen to settle in Portugal, and part of the reason might be that joblessness remains high: 12.3% in 2016. Compare that to 4.3% in Germany, and it’s clear that finding work will be easier in Deutschland. Is it wrong for refugees to prefer to go to countries which have stronger economies?
We had a comment from Hans, who says he’s seen lots of media reports that refugees don’t want to go to countries like Portugal. They want to go to countries with lots of jobs and with generous welfare systems, like Germany and Sweden. Is that true?
To get a reaction, we took Hans’ comment to Marina Watson Pelaez, a freelance journalist working in Lisbon and London. What would she say?
Yes, that’s true, because most refugees have a set plan and that is to go to a rich country like Germany, where there are higher hopes of getting a job and perhaps more economic support. Many refugees have never heard of Portugal, and those who have know that the country is undergoing economic difficulties. They also understandably want to go to countries where they know people or have family members.
For another reaction, we also took Hans’ comment to Paul Ames, a freelance journalist who has written in Politico about the reluctance of refugees to come to Portugal. How would he respond?
Estimates vary, but so far there are suspected to be around 1,100 refugees here, which is way below the 10,000 that the Portuguese government has offered to take in. Once again, the numbers are a little bit unsure, but there are reports saying that of those who have come in, around 200 have left because they don’t want to stay here.
There are a number of reasons for this. Obviously, Portugal doesn’t have the same kind of job market that Germany has, for example. A lot of refugees who come here don’t speak Portuguese. It’s not so easy for them to get jobs…
We also had a comment from Nelson, asking for more refugees to come to Portugal, because they still believe in solidarity and have hope. But is Portugal being so generous precisely because it knows that so few refugees will actually take it up on its offer? We put this (slightly cynical) question to Marina Watson Pelaez. What would she say?
I don’t think so. Portugal’s population and birthrate is declining, with thousands of people emigrating every year to find work abroad. So the government wants to attract refugees here to help solve that problem. Also, I think the new administration led by the Socialist party (and backed by the Left Bloc and Communist party in parliament) has a welcoming attitude towards refugees because it makes sense given the country’s pro-EU and solidarity stance . Portugal has also blamed the EU for a lack of coordination.
Finally, how would Paul Ames answer this question?
It’s a very interesting question, and one I’ve put myself to Portuguese government ministers. It is true that Portugal earned some political kudos in Brussels for being so generous on this at a time when many countries in Europe were closing the door, particularly back in 2015 and early 2016. Portugal made this very generous offer which went down very well, especially in Germany. So, yes, there is a political side to this.
Having said that, the support for the open door policy is pretty much across the board on the political spectrum here. It goes from the far-left parties to conservative parties, where the Catholic church is quite influential – and the church has also had a very open policy on bringing refugees in. So, it’s been quite widespread. To what extent the offer was made with the knowledge that not so many people would be coming here, it’s difficult to say. But the government is continuing to bring in refugees. More have been coming, as I’ve said, there’s about 1,100 here at the moment, and they have generally been making a strong effort – not just from the government, also I think from civil society, the media, and church organisations – to welcome and integrate the refugees…
Is it wrong for refugees to want to go where jobs are? Why have so few refugees gone to countries like Portugal? And can the Portuguese government afford to be very generous on refugees, knowing that few will accept its offer? Or is it a genuine, principled stance the country is taking? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!