Emigration from Portugal, a matter of course – Sofia Barbeiro, Portugal

Now that Christmas and New Year’s Eve are long gone, people re-embrace their daily rush and work stress – but many do it kilometers away from where they spent their holidays. Christmas is a time for being with family and celebrating with the ones we love. However, this period of the year holds extra meaning for those working or studying abroad. The winter holidays often mean going back home and seeing the dearly missed family members and friends. Fortunately, nowadays, technological development has made it less difficult to be abroad and maintain contact with family and friends.

Portugal, a country with a long history of explorers who discovered the world, has a 12.4% unemployment rate, the fifth highest in the European Union (EU), according to Eurostat. To compare, the EU average is 9.1%. In Portugal, more often than not, you will encounter people who have a friend, family member, or other acquaintance that is working abroad. Of all the EU countries, Portugal has the most emigrants in proportion to the total population. The number of Portuguese emigrants exceeds two million, meaning that more than 20% of Portuguese people live outside their country of birth.

Though modern Portuguese emigrants have existed since World War II, because of the sovereign debt crisis and the recessionary effects of austerity policies, those leaving to live abroad grew rapidly in number in 2010, eventually stabilizing in 2013/14 at around 110,000 people annually. Statistics like these were last observed in the ‘60s, when emigration was predominantly intercontinental emigration to America or African ex-colonies.

Today, European destinations are favored, and according to the Portuguese Centre for Emigration, the United Kingdom (UK) is the country that receives the most Portuguese emigrants: 30,000 in 2013 and 31,000 in 2014. After the UK and France, Switzerland holds third place in terms of countries to which the highest number of Portuguese people migrate to. Outside Europe, the main countries of destination belong to the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries: Angola (5000 in 2014), Mozambique (4000 in 2013) and Brazil (2000 in 2014). Besides, Scandinavian countries have also seen a growth in Portuguese emigration, particularly of qualified workers, with Norway being the fastest-growing Portuguese emigration destination.

There is still a significant gap between the conditions offered abroad and the labor reality in Portugal. Those who stay and find opportunities in their home country despite the challenging economic and social conditions in Portugal tend to be the lucky ones, who usually recognize the difficult situation the country faces – one that has only worsened after the financial and economic crisis.

The unemployment situation in Portugal lowers motivation among young people and emigration appears to be a clear solution. Better salary conditions and promises of career development are common underlying motivations to emigrate, although for many, it is seen as a last resort after continuous efforts to seek employment in the home country become fruitless. A study conducted in Zurich shows that 57% of Portuguese young people between 15 and 24 admit to emigrating to another country in search of employment.

However, among emigrants there are not just unemployed people, but also people with very precarious jobs. The difficulty in advancing professionally and the cuts in wages contribute to the insecure labor conditions in Portugal. Therefore, even experienced workers hit by the job crisis are looking for better opportunities abroad.

For instance, nursing is an area that sends a huge number of professionals abroad, due to precarious working conditions in Portugal for this class of workers. The Order of Nurses estimates that about 12,500 have emigrated since 2009, denominating it as an “exodus” which has consequences for the home country, since these professionals are sorely lacking in Portugal, with a ratio of 6.2 nurses per thousand population, well below the OECD average of 8.6. The emigration of nurses in 2013 and 2014 corresponds to about 2% of the total migration of the country.

Even though emigration can be seen as a factor contributing to the achievement of the Single Labor Market the European Union aims for, it does imply some negative impact in the country of origin: in the case of Portugal, an aged country, an increased flow of emigrants makes it vulnerable to the effects of current emigration, especially because a large-scale return which would help offset partially and temporarily the recessionary effects of the major recent emigration wave is not expected. According to the OECD, in Portugal, the elderly population (people aged 65 and over) accounted in 2013 for 19.62% of the population. This number is expected to reach around 32% in 2050.

However, there is evidence that the unemployment rate is not caused by a deficient educational system, confirmed by the example given, where training and the adequate practical component allows Portuguese nurses to be recruited in the UK. With this comes the so-called “brain drain”, where the majority of the country’s qualified workers go abroad, yet another consequence of this wave of emigration.

Nevertheless, building a new life abroad offers advantages. Beyond greater career opportunities, there is also the chance to travel more, adopt a new language and experience new and different cultures. Young people are eager to start the lives they dreamed of and fight for their achievements. And if their home country does not offer the proper conditions and the necessary opportunities to pursue and achieve their aspirations, then fears are overcome, risks are taken and hopes are rebuilt towards a new life abroad.

This emigration tendency is becoming a normal thing. A generation that grows up with exchange programs and Erasmus opportunities is likely to consider working and living abroad as a natural step to take when the country of origin does not value their qualifications and does not meet their career expectations. The New Year’s resolution for these young people and many others facing precarious working conditions or unemployment in Portugal may constitute going abroad in the search for a better life and higher income security.

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