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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Portugal: Immigrants Break Records for Taxes, Births, Citizenship

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

"If you are from Bangladesh, you receive 32 percent less" in pay than a national.


Not even the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the increase of foreigners, births, students, Portuguese Sephardim Jews and, even, contributions to Social Security.

However, Catarina Reis Oliveira, the director of the Observatory for Migration (OM), regrets that hardly any foreigners vote in local elections.

The top 10 nationalities represented in Portugal were as follows: Brazil (27.8%); United Kingdom (7%); Cabo Verde (5.5%); Romania (4.5%); Ukraine (4.3%); Italy (4.3%); China (3.9%); France (3.8%); India (3.7%), and Angola (3.7%), according to the OM report.

Reis Oliveira, a sociologist, collected and analyzed statistical and administrative data from 48 national and international sources, which resulted in a portrait of the integration of foreigners in Portugal in an annual OM report for 2020.

Two new factors were in play: COVID-19, which was first detected in March 2020 in Portugal, and has since become a global pandemic for nearly two years, and Brexit, which was the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union at 23:00 on January 31, 2020. The OM, created in 2002, is a project of the High Commission for Migration (ACM).

Reis Oliveira addressed the following questions of The Expresso (December 18):

What was the most surprising indicator of 2020?

We were counting on the year to be atypical. It is true that some indicators show the effect of the pandemic such as the radical decreases in marriages and the increase in deaths. Yet, there are other indicators that were surprising such as those of Social Security.

There was a clear substantial increase in expenditure on immigrants, due to the extraordinary measures. But on the other hand, there was an exponential growth in the number of foreign taxpayers and in contributions to the system which, for the first time, exceeded one billion euros and which kept the balance very favorable, even in the context of the pandemic.

During the last economic and financial crisis, the balance of Social Security from foreigners became less. Not now.

Was it expected that the foreign population would continue to grow in the midst of a pandemic?

The pandemic led to a decrease in entries, but the number of foreigners with residence permits in Portugal continued to grow, reaching 662,095 foreign residents, who already represent 6.4 percent of the population.

Census data released on December 16 also reveal an increase in the foreign population but give lower numbers (555,299 or 5.3 percent). Is this normal?

We use SEF (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras) data relating to the foreigners who have a residence permit. What the census gives us are foreigners who live in Portugal, on a regular or irregular basis. Sometimes the census numbers are larger, sometimes smaller. That’s what happened this year. What appears in our report are people with a residence permit but who have left the country.

The birth rate also increased with COVID-19 . . .

Another surprise. In a pandemic context that made such a dent in the birth rate of the Portuguese, the births of foreigners increased again, and for an unprecedented value in terms of impact, to 13.4 percent.

At the moment, the births of babies to foreign women represent more than double what would be expected because if the foreign population only represents 6.4%, it means that they have more than double the prevalence in terms of births. This impact, which is very positive for Portugal’s demographics, continued this year.

Were there any more surprises?

The increase in those granted Portuguese nationality was an absolute record. In a single year, we had close to 104,000 new Portuguese citizens when the average in the fantastic years after 2006 had been 49,000.

What explains this?

This was not a spectacular year for the entry of new processes, given that there was some restriction of services during various periods of the year. But there was an accumulation of processes that awaited an answer and that moved forward.

On the other hand, small changes to the 2006 law were felt, namely the case of Sephardic Jews: in this last year alone, we already have more than 27,000 new Portuguese citizens under this exceptional mechanism. It started slowly when it first appeared in 2015, but it has grown exponentially, and this was a record year.

We also have more cases of derived nationality of foreigners living in Portugal, either for the length of residence or for other reasons, which means that the integration of immigrants is taking place.

The critics of naturalization say that most applicants do not intend to reside in Portugal and contribute, for example, to demographic balance.

Until 2007, about 70 percent of those who applied for Portuguese nationality did not reside in Portugal but from then on, we have more than 80 percent who request Portuguese nationality residing in Portugal.

Only in the last year has this prevalence changed slightly due to the Sephardim, who reside almost entirely abroad.

What are the countries of origin of the new Portuguese?

The PALOP (Portuguese-speaking African countries) and Brazilians continue to stand out, but this prevalence of Portuguese speakers has decreased slightly.

The percentage of Asians, mainly Indians and Nepalese, has increased. There are more recent migratory flows, but the indicators are beginning to change.

Did the top nationality of resident foreigners change?

Yes. This year is a paradigm in showing who the current immigrants really are. Brazilians maintain the lead, but Indians appear, for the first time, in the top 10 and go directly to 9th position. The United Kingdom rises the most, influenced by the Brexit effect, and becomes the second most numerous nationality. Many of the British people who already resided in Portugal will have asked for permanent residence to avoid legal constraints. The Nepalese and Bangladeshi populations are increasing. In contrast, Eastern Europeans and Ukrainians, in particular, are declining significantly in terms of numbers of total residents, the labor market, in education and in all dimensions of integration.

Who is leaving?

Some acquired Portuguese nationality and disappeared from immigration statistics, but here we still have the effect of the economic crisis during which many left. In the years immediately following, there were still family clusters, but now the stock is actually declining.

Are immigrants continuing to come for mainly economic reasons?

Our immigration continues to be an essentially economic and labor migration, but new profiles are beginning to stand out.

The biggest impact has been generated by the entrance of students. Almost 17 percent of higher education students are foreigners, and the majority of them are not the children of immigrants who have studied in Portugal. There are even more and more foreigners looking to Portugal to take a higher degree, that is, a master’s or a doctorate.

Are European pensioners also part of the rising profiles?

Yes, but this last year, they have decreased slightly due to the pandemic. Some residents are not permanent. They come and go a lot depending on the period of the year and, in 2020, we had circulation restrictions. Even so, it is one of those indicators that, later, made itself felt in other areas, namely population aging. If we tend to have younger immigrants of childbearing age and working age, this presence of retired people already is being felt in demographic indicators. That is why it is important to distinguish between the effect of the “extra-community”, younger people and the effect of the Europeans.

It is not just in terms of age that the profile is different between European pensioners and non-EU workers. The economic capacity is almost the opposite.

Although it has improved in recent years, foreign workers are still over-represented in unskilled activities, and this has an effect on remuneration. In the last year, the gap in the average monthly income in relation to the Portuguese, which is already 8.3 percent lower, has worsened. If we analyse nationalities, contrasts emerge. If you are from Bangladesh, you receive 32 percent less.

Also, the profession that foreign workers are practicing often does not reflect their training. We continue to have about 13 percent of foreigners with higher education who are not using it in the Portuguese labor market.

According to your report, they also work longer hours and have more precarious ties.

In contractual terms, foreigners have a much higher prevalence of fixed-term and temporary contracts than nationals. And when you compare, for example, the prevalence of permanent contracts, the difference is 34 percentage points less than for the Portuguese. In the number of working hours, the trend is inverse. What is observed is that foreigners work more hours per month, and that these longer hours are more associated with shift work.

Many fell into unemployment with the pandemic. Foreigners at employment centers rose more than 100 percent.

It is one of the indicators that was expected. When a country’s economy is held back, the first to be exposed to unemployment are foreigners, especially those outside the community. Even so, the rise was not as significant as the one seen during the time of the economic and financial crisis, and now we have more foreign workers in the country. I think it has to do with the fact that some economic sectors have not stopped, those with jobs that the Portuguese do not want.

This was seen when outbreaks of COVID-19 began to appear among blackberry pickers in Odemira or in construction sites in the capital, where activity did not stop.

It is in this context that the importance of another indicator emerges: the overcrowding of the houses where they live. It is a trend in the European context, not specific to Portugal, but the prevalence continues to be much higher among foreigners compared with nationals.

Why is it that, year after year, housing remains one of the biggest problems of integration of immigrants?

Foreigners are more concentrated in the national territory in metropolitan areas, where the square meter is more expensive, which means that they often have to rent, sublet and share housing. However, there are also difficulties in accessing their own housing such as bank credit. There is an old feeling of risk associated with loans to foreigners whose average incomes are still far lower than nationals. We are not talking about rich immigrants We are talking about workers who come looking for better living conditions and, who despite having few resources, want to send remittances home to their country of origin. That’s why they don’t mind giving up decent housing conditions, especially in areas closer to work, such as in several municipalities in the Alentejo and the Algarve.

These are two regions that saw the number of foreigners skyrocket due to seasonal work.

Yes, but not only that. In the Algarve, the highest incidence is of European Union citizens. We have municipalities in the Algarve where foreign citizen already represent more than 30 percent of the resident population. There is a lot of change here. There is this idea that immigrants are all in the Lisbon area, but it is a false perception. If we don’t just see the numbers but consider percentages, we have surprises: Lisbon doesn’t even appear in the first places, nor Amadora or Loures. However, an Algarve and Alentejo municipality do appear.

Access to health is another chronic problem. How was it in the time of the pandemic?

Access to health continues to be a chapter that is done without administrative data, and it is difficult to know at all how many foreigners are registered in the National Health System versus how many have accessed it effectively.

But doesn’t this data exist?

These data are not transferred. And I’ve been trying for years. It began as a problem with the computer system itself, which did not make people autonomous by nationality, but it is now a database reserve. This chapter is made up of indicators that are published in the Living Conditions Survey. Therefore, we are relying on a sample. There, foreigners tend to consider their health as good or very good, report fewer chronic illnesses and less sick leave than the Portuguese. However, we are comparing populations that do not have an equal demographic and age structure. The question arises whether that sample is representing these more recent immigration flows, which may have challenges in accessing health care. In the last year, in a COVID-19 context, it is not possible to measure the impact with this sample. There were some specific measures to protect foreigners’ access, for example, to vaccinate regardless of legal status. However, we can’t see the effects of the measures because we don’t have access to administrative data.

How has discrimination been in the last year?

Discrimination continues to appear to be more linked to the racial issue or to migratory origin, the two reasons that explain the law that has been in force since 2017. However, 2020 was an atypical year. The number of complaints of discrimination has increased exponentially, more than 600, but associated with a new reality. There was a very large increase in complaints regarding information or positions disseminated on social media platforms in the digital environment. There is no direct victim or specific person who was the target, but there is a group. A comment that generalizes a reaction and negative effect generates a complaint of discrimination. It can be explained by the pandemic during which we had many people who maintained a virtual social life in order to stay out of the streets.

Are there any indicators that you are particularly concerned about?

The voter registration of foreigners. The weight of the relative importance of who can vote, who can participate politically, has remained around 65 percent. This year, it has risen to 66 percent. However, when we are talking about those registered, this percentage has declined abruptly in recent years, reaching the lowest value in 2020: only 8 percent of foreigners who can vote in Portugal registered for the vote.

What is the cause?

When we analyze the information by nationality, we can get a little closer to some explanation. For example, Brazilians are always among the nationalities with the lowest registration rate, in the order of 5 percent. In a study carried out for the OM, Brazilians explained that, in Brazil, it is mandatory to vote so that for many to arrive in a country where it is not, there is almost a feeling of liberation. In addition, Brazilians would have to give up voting in Brazil, and many do not want to do so.

Then, there is another worrying area, which is the maintenance of a fraction of foreigners, namely Asians, without political rights in Portugal. With this aspect of reciprocity that Portugal maintains, giving eventual political rights to those from countries that do the same to national emigrants, the country is allowing these people no rights.

On the other hand, there are still citizens who come from countries without a culture of political participation, such as the Chinese, always among the lowest of participants.

How can political participation be increased?

Portugal continues to have a very restrictive framework for granting political rights. In the European context, it is one of the most liberal, but it is an area that has more work to do. And with a census rate decreasing dramatically in recent years, it’s worrisome. It reached the lowest level in 2020, a year in which there were local elections.

Where have you seen more positive changes toward integration?

In education. Something is being done and, apparently, according to the indicators, being done well. The school success rate, or transition, has improved a lot, both for the Portuguese and for the foreigners. In the last year, the gap between the two groups has decreased. At the beginning of the decade, the transition rate of foreigners was 75 percent and, in 2020, it rose to 86 percent. This improvement, of course, also can be associated with the characteristics of the foreign population that is currently in the school system. We had the entry of many Asians. There remains a lower transition rate for foreigners than for the Portuguese, but the gap has narrowed and academic success has improved greatly.

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