Dispatch

The view from the ground.

How Portugal Quietly Became a Migration Hub

The country has a hot labor market and offers a path to EU citizenship for undocumented workers.

By , a writer based in Lisbon.
An immigrant holds a “Nobody Is Illegal” placard at a demonstration in Praça do Comércio in Lisbon on July 11, 2021.
An immigrant holds a “Nobody Is Illegal” placard at a demonstration in Praça do Comércio in Lisbon on July 11, 2021.
An immigrant holds a “Nobody Is Illegal” placard at a demonstration in Praça do Comércio in Lisbon on July 11, 2021. Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

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LISBONIn 2015, the world watched as over a million refugees, many of them fleeing Syria’s civil war, made the dangerous journey from Turkey to Greece and then, once in the European Union, trekked toward Austria. Their goal was to reach Germany, Europe’s economic giant, and its promise of a new life.

Five years later, Deepti Raut, a 24-year-old Nepali whose name has been changed here so as not to affect her EU residency application, made a similar journey that ended in a very different destination. For the past 18 months, she has worked temporary agricultural jobs across Portugal, the poorest country in Western Europe and one she had never heard of before she reached the EU. Raut dreams of a life in France, but she must first survive a decade here.

On the southern and eastern fringes of the 27-member EU, hundreds of thousands of people are engaged in protracted efforts to reach its wealthy, northern economic core. They are seeking citizenship in hinterland EU states so their children, if not themselves, will one day be able to work freely across the bloc, as only its nationals can. What Portugal cannot offer in wages it makes up for in a viable pathway to a passport.

LISBONIn 2015, the world watched as over a million refugees, many of them fleeing Syria’s civil war, made the dangerous journey from Turkey to Greece and then, once in the European Union, trekked toward Austria. Their goal was to reach Germany, Europe’s economic giant, and its promise of a new life.

Five years later, Deepti Raut, a 24-year-old Nepali whose name has been changed here so as not to affect her EU residency application, made a similar journey that ended in a very different destination. For the past 18 months, she has worked temporary agricultural jobs across Portugal, the poorest country in Western Europe and one she had never heard of before she reached the EU. Raut dreams of a life in France, but she must first survive a decade here.

On the southern and eastern fringes of the 27-member EU, hundreds of thousands of people are engaged in protracted efforts to reach its wealthy, northern economic core. They are seeking citizenship in hinterland EU states so their children, if not themselves, will one day be able to work freely across the bloc, as only its nationals can. What Portugal cannot offer in wages it makes up for in a viable pathway to a passport.

Portugal has been open to immigrants for decades but was largely ignored as a destination when migrants still had a chance of settling in the United Kingdom, France, or Germany. Since 2015, however, when a political backlash to the Syrian exodus reverberated across Northern Europe, immigrants and the networks that guide them to Europe have had to change course—and Portugal has become a sought-after endpoint.


Portugal’s immigrant population has grown almost 70 percent in the last five years, rising quickly even during the pandemic. More than twice as many immigrants were granted residency here in 2020 than in 2015, a growth rate matched only by low-income Croatia and Slovenia. Meanwhile, immigration to wealthy France and Germany fell significantly.

Because EU citizens have the right to live and work in all member states, Portugal loses many of its own nationals to higher wages in countries like France and Germany and relies on cheap labor from beyond the EU’s borders to keep its economy running. The result is an immigration policy that is among the most accommodating in Europe.

Undocumented immigrants are free to apply for jobs and can request residency if they find one. Proof of legal entry to Portugal is technically required for residency, but that provision is usually ignored by authorities. Foreign Policy has learned of dozens of immigrants who have been granted legal status without providing entry documentation, likely because they had been working and making social security contributions for months.

This policy of granting residency to immigrants who have found employment regardless of how they arrived can be traced back to 1986, when Portugal joined the EU and development funds from Brussels unleashed a construction boom. At the time, it was not possible for immigrants to apply for residency from within the country, though more than 200,000 undocumented workers were regularized through periodic amnesties over the ensuing decades. In 2007, the government created a formal mechanism that allows immigrants to apply for residency as soon as they find work. 

What Portugal cannot offer in wages it makes up for in a viable pathway to a passport.

Once they become legal residents, immigrants can apply for their families to join them. Children born to immigrants here automatically become Portuguese citizens if one of the parents has been a legal resident for a year. Make it to five years of legal residency, and immigrants can apply for a Portuguese passport of their own—one of the shortest naturalization periods in Europe. By contrast, immigrants to Germany must wait eight years to apply for nationality, and children born to foreigners in Germany only obtain German citizenship if one parent has lived in the country legally for at least eight years.

“I searched all the experts on the internet and found Portugal is the country that will give the resident permit sooner than others,” said Kamal Bhattarai, the president of an association for Nepalis in Lisbon. He moved here in 2013 after attending an academic conference in Italy on a short-term EU visa, which he overstayed.

South Asians are by far the fastest growing immigrant group in Portugal, though nationals of former Portuguese colonies exceed them in absolute numbers. Brokers and fixers who bring South Asians to Europe promote Portugal as a destination via YouTube videos in Hindi and Urdu and in closed WhatsApp and Facebook groups for immigrants, promising the chance to obtain legal status in the EU.

At sunset in Portugal’s rural south, Punjabi Sikhs walk hand in hand out of fields into villages where cafes have Hindi signage. In Lisbon, Nepalis staff restaurant kitchens, and Bangladeshis run many of the city’s fruit shops. Recruiters find agricultural workers in Martim Moniz Square, where immigrants congregate to drink sweet tea and eat samosas sold in makeshift stalls.

Hari Bhattarai (no relation to Kamal) has been in Portugal for several years working in restaurant kitchens in Lisbon and its wealthy oceanfront suburbs. As he talked with Foreign Policy, he pulled two identity cards from his wallet and placed them side by side. His own, a temporary residency card with his Nepali nationality clearly marked, and his son’s, a Portuguese citizen card with an EU crest on the back. Even if the rest of Bhattarai’s family is forced to go back to Nepal, he said with relief, his son will always be able to return.


Although Portugal’s legal system is accommodating to immigrants, the country grants precious few visas and work permits for fear of censure from other EU governments that could accuse it of actively encouraging immigration.

“We need workers, but we can’t say we’re open to immigrants because France and Germany won’t tolerate this,” said João Carvalho, a political scientist at the University of Lisbon. “We rely on the labor market instead. If there are jobs here, people will find a way into the country to fill them. If there is no work, they will leave.”

The result is that most immigrants are forced to smuggle themselves into Portugal, ensuring only the relatively wealthy make it. For immigrants, the ordeal can be both dangerous and financially burdensome: Based on interviews conducted by Foreign Policy and academic research by sociologist Alexandra Pereira, the cost of reaching Portugal can range from €4,000 to €14,000 (or $4,185 to $14,650).

It took 15 days for Raut to walk through the forest that separates Turkey from Greece and an entire summer to trek across Europe. Those with more money pay a broker to secure a tourist or student visa or a work permit for another EU state. Then they fly straight to Portugal and start hunting for a job. Still others smuggle themselves here from the United Kingdom, where they are earning well but have no prospect of securing papers.

Other poor EU states—such as Malta, Poland, and Croatia—are more likely to offer work permits, making entry smoother and cheaper. But the pathway to citizenship in those countries is much harder than in Portugal.

Portuguese businesses benefit from immigrants arriving clandestinely. Isa Alves Dias is the director of human resources at Madre Fruta, a cooperative of large farms in the Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost region. She used to make trips to Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Serbia to recruit seasonal workers. Now, she said, “You can actually hire someone that is here, didn’t come with the correct visa, and started to work.”

“They just appear here,” she added. “Somehow, they come to Portugal from their own means.”

Immigrants, however, are often vulnerable to exploitation. Although employers like Madre Fruta must provide workers recruited overseas visas with meals, accommodation, and transport to and from work, undocumented immigrants can be treated as local hires. They receive only the minimum wage of €705 (around $737) a month and must arrange their own lodging, often crowding into bunk rooms or paying to stay in portable cabins on the land they farm.

As the number of immigrants in Portugal grows, the wait for residency applications to be processed has stretched from the few months Kamal Bhattarai experienced back in 2013 to up to three years. The path to citizenship then looks more like a decade.

It will be some years before newcomers to southern states like Portugal gain citizenship and freedom of movement and fan out into Northern European states. But as economic growth in South Asia gives millions more people the resources to try and make it to Europe, the number of immigrants arriving in the EU’s poorest states is likely to grow. A shot at new life in Germany or France, even if it takes a decade, remains enticing.

“Immigration to Europe is an industry. And [Portugal’s] place in this industry is to use the labor for five to seven years, provide passports, and then somebody else will have the labor,” Carvalho said.

Ajay Makan is a writer based in Lisbon. He writes an occasional newsletter about race and immigration in Portugal. Twitter: @ajaynou

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