When there is a will but no way

Mónica Frechaut of the Portugese Refugee Council explains why Portugal would like to host more refugees but can't get them to come and stay.

Whereas most European countries are trying to keep refugees out, Portugal is open to receive more. One of the reasons is that despite being a country of immigration and emigration, Portugal has only received a relatively small number of refugees.

In her interview with FES, Ms. Mónica Frechaut, Public Information Officer at the Portuguese Refugee Council, gives insight into the refugee policy of Portugal and the situation of refugees there.


FES Portugal:Portugal hosts a relatively low number of refugees. What are the current figures and why are they so low?

Mónica Frechaut: During the first six months of 2017, around 500 asylum requests were filed in Portugal. Although this is a relatively low number, it is an increase of 60% compared to 2016. Additionally, our asylum system is not designed for receiving as many refugees as other countries do, including Germany. Against this background, the increase in asylum requests is quite significant with regard to the reception and integration of these refugees.

There are many reasons why there are not so many refugees arriving in Portugal. First of all, geography plays an important role – it is not easy to access the territory. For example, refugees from the Middle East normally travel through Turkey or Greece and would have to cross many European countries before arriving in Portugal. Another factor might be that Portugal is not a very well-known country and some people believe that integration and finding a job would be difficult.

The Portuguese government is offering to host many more refugees than it does today. This policy differs profoundly from the policies of most other EU member states. Could you explain your government’s approach? How do you assess it? 

This policy is again related to the low number of refugees currently residing in Portugal. The Portuguese government understands, firstly, that Europe is facing a crisis with so many arrivals to the continent, and secondly, that Portugal is not as overwhelmed as other countries are. Thus, the government has commendably decided that Portugal may offer much more places for asylum seekers and refugees, especially for asylum seekers that are relocated from Italy and Greece, the two European countries facing the highest numbers of refugee arrivals. It is in the spirit of solidarity and burden sharing that Portugal has agreed to relocate refugees from these two countries. We as CPR believe that this is a very positive policy, because we feel that solidarity is urgently needed in Europe to support asylum seekers and refugees.

Additionally, Portugal is a country with a long tradition of welcoming foreigners, and this attitude is part of our country’s “identity”. We are used to receiving people and we are also used to be received by other countries, so we feel that welcoming refugees in the same way as we would like to be welcomed in other countries is very important for our identity and society. In that sense, I think that our government expresses a little bit of what is on many Portuguese’s minds with regard to migration.

Furthermore, the government is planning to relocate such a moderate number of refugees that this measure is very unlikely to impact our society. We are speaking about less than 5000 refugees in two years. We believe that Portugal has the capacity to receive these persons and integrate them in a way that respects their dignity. All in all, in our opinion, the government’s policy is very important because it sends the signal that we can all do much more for refugees.

How would you describe the situation of those refugees that are living in Portugal? How well are they integrated into society in terms of education, work and social life? 

Of course, refugees in Portugal are facing many challenges. For example, there is no immigrant community of Middle Eastern persons, which makes it more difficult for Syrian refugees, for example, to integrate themselves. Notwithstanding all the challenges, all refugee children are entitled to education and go to schools. Refugees are also being integrated into Portuguese social life. Many of them are being hosted by small communities that are well-equipped to welcome newcomers, for example by providing proximity services that big cities sometimes cannot provide. However, access to the labor market is still a challenge. We are working together with many Portuguese institutions to allow refugees to acquire new skills and to have their diplomas recognized. Good tools are being designed right now to facilitate employability and integration into the labor market, but we do have a lot of work to do in this area. This is the biggest challenge that we are facing now.

You already said that there is not a big Syrian community in Portugal and people are not used to certain other nationalities. What do you think is the attitude of the Portuguese population towards refugees, and towards migrants in general? 

In general it is quite positive. You don’t see movements or groups against refugees or migrants in Portugal. Of course there are instances of racism, but in general the population is welcoming refugees. In this context, it is very important that refugees are being distributed across the country, so they are not concentrated in the big cities, such as Lisbon or Porto. This also facilitates the image that the Portuguese population has of refugees. The attitude is positive now. However, I believe that we have to actively maintain and support this positive attitude on a daily basis, for example by raising awareness for the situation of refugees at schools and in entities from the private sector, especially because the number of refugees coming to Portugal is not likely to decrease.


The interview was conducted by Christine Auer, FES Portugal.

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