What You Should Know About Refugees in Portugal?
As probably many of you know, recent European refugee crisis has been tackled in many different ways. Some countries like Hungary has reacted on it very skeptically, while others like Germany has been more positive about it. However, there are countries that are hardly mentioned in any international media for their effort in this crisis.
One of these countries is Portugal, which in the course of two years will receive 4.500 refugees. Numbers of asylum seekers in Portugal has been low so far, which means that it is taking a big challenge in this crisis and should be more acknowledge for that effort.
To get a better overview of the situation and development of the resettlement we contacted non-governmental organization Refugees Welcome Portugal. It has provided us a good insight into the current situation and regulations of resettlement of refugees that will arrive to Portugal.
In 2012 there were 295 applications for asylum seekers, but only 100 of them were approved. What was the reaction of immigration office when refugee quota highly increased?
The Portuguese Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, stated that the government was “practically” ready to receive 4,500 refugees.
It is important to note that the number of asylum seekers in Portugal is extremely low when compared to other European countries, namely other Southern European countries (many of them in financial crisis and with high levels of unemployment). For instance, according to Eurostat – the statistical office of the EU – Portugal received 440 asylum applications in 2014, Spain received 5,615 and Greece 9,430 and 64,625 people applied for asylum in Italy.
There have been already several delays for refugee arrival. What is the cause of that?
The delays in relocating people from Greece and Italy under the EU relocation scheme are quite concerning as this was supposed to be an emergency mechanism to help the front line EU Member States who are facing a disproportionate migratory pressure and swiftly identify people in need of international protection.
No one can be sure what is causing this delay but many national and European NGOs have raised this question. At the moment only 116 people were relocated from the 160,000 pledged.
Do you think that current Portuguese refugee infrastructure is capable to oversee all the expected 4500 refugees?
The number of 4,500 people under the relocation scheme has been calculated based on clear criteria, such as the size of the population, gross domestic product (GDP), average number of past asylum applications and unemployment rate. Therefore, we believe that Portugal can host this number of refugees.
As already discussed, the number of refugees in Portugal is extremely low when compared to other Southern European countries. 4,500 is only about 0.042% of the Portuguese population and we have seen outbursts of solidarity all over the country so we are confident that these vulnerable people will be welcomed in the country.
What we call for is also for attention to be given to the small number of refugees who are in the country and need to be integrated. This is why we came up with the idea of Refugees Welcome Portugal. We believe that it is important to support refugees that are already here during their integration process.
How long have they been waiting to be transferred to Portugal?
Regarding the UNCHR resettlement scheme, we cannot speculate on the waiting time because we do not have the necessary information. However, we can comment on the recent resettlement of 22 refugees who were based in Egypt. There was a nine month delay whilst the European Union authorised the transfer of the first group of refugees to Portugal.
However, some refugees will wait longer than others due to unforeseen circumstances. On Saturday 7th November only 22 of 42 refugees arrived in Portugal from Egypt due to a flight being cancelled as a result of the current Lufthansa airline cabin strike.
Is UNHCR the only refugee agency that is responsible for incoming refugees?
The Portuguese Refugee Council (CPR) is the operational partner of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Portugal. In recent months, CPR has joined a platform called Platform to Support Refugees (PAR) which has been set up to support the refugees who will arrive in the country through the EU relocation scheme. This platform will work with various partners such as the Jesuit Refugee Service, Amnesty International and the University of Lisbon amongst others.
Will refugees come directly from their countries and what are their nationalities?
For various reasons, it is extremely difficult for asylum seekers to arrive directly to European countries in a safe and legal manner, this is why we see harrowing images of people taken dangerous boats to reach European shores.
The refugees that are part of the EU relocation scheme are already in Europe and most of them are Syrian, however there are also refugees from other countries including Eritrea and Iraq.
How many refugees will be invited at once?
The 4,500 refugees, that are part of the relocation scheme, will arrive over a two year period. The number of refugees that will arrive at any one time is determined by the scheme and we are not privy to this sort of information.
Having said that, we do know that 22 refugees arrived on the 7th of November. These refugees are part of the UNHCR’s resettlement plan.
Will women, children and families receive priority for resettlement?
To be clear, in the EU, resettlement means the transfer of refugees from a country in which they have sought asylum (outside of the EU) to an EU Member State that has previously agreed to admit them as refugees and give them a form of legal status.
Relocation is the transfer of refugees from one EU Member State to another. It is an intra-EU process, in which Member States help another Member State to cope with the pressure of hosting a relatively large refugee population by agreeing to receive a number of them.
Under the relocation scheme, priority will be given to particularly vulnerable cases such as families and people with disabilities and medical needs. Also, under the relocation scheme priority is being given to Syrians and people from Eritrea as they have the highest recognition rate across EU Member States.
What will be the process for refugees who will arrive to Portugal?
We do not know many details, only that PAR will support the refugees during a two year period. Furthermore, social teams are being formed in various cities to aid in the integration process.
Will they undergo medical screening?
Yes, however medical services in Portugal (both physical and psychological) are not prepared to deal with some specific issues that relate to refugees – in particular the issue surrounding those who suffer from trauma.
Where will they be housed prior to their permanent residence?
We are not certain where all refugees will be housed prior to their permanent residence. Refugees in Portugal are normally housed, temporarily, in several reception centres.
However some projects, such as “Residências Paz/Peace” in Coimbra, are prepared to offer immediate permanent residence to incoming refugees who are part of both the EU relocation scheme as well as UNHCR’s resettlement programme.
How long will they need to wait for permanent housing?
As is the case with our potential landlords at Refugees Welcome Portugal, it depends on the availability of suitable properties as well as the requirements of the refugees. In terms of dedicated housing for refugees, this depends on bureaucratic and administrative procedures and therefore we cannot give a definite answer.
How about permanent housing, will it be provided by the government?
State institutions such as Social Security are working with civil society organisations such as PAR as well as other players to provide housing to refugees that are part of the EU relocation scheme. This includes both temporary and potentially permanent housing.
If not, what non-governmental bodies will do so? Or help them with finding the housing?
Many non governmental organisations (NGOs) are already part of PAR, however there are many private initiatives seeking to aid refugees with housing issues such as us at Refugees Welcome Portugal.
Besides housing, what will refugees be provided with?
In principle, refugees should be provided with health, employment and education amongst other things. In recent weeks the Portuguese government has announced that each refugee arriving under the relocation scheme will have the right to a family doctor.
Will they get divided, or housed in one particular region/ city?
PAR aims to house the incoming refugees throughout the country in different regions and cities.
What is your position in proving help for incoming refugees?
We, at Refugees Welcome Portugal, are helping refugees that are already here since they will not receive as much support as the refugees who will come as part of the EU relocation scheme. However, if there are refugees – from this scheme – who come to us then we will not turn them away.
Could you give us a brief description about your organization?
We are called Refugees Welcome Portugal. Our objective is to ensure that refugees can live in flat shares or other common housing arrangements instead of mass accommodation. The long term goal is to create a welcoming environment where refugees and locals are able to coexist peacefully and where refugees are better integrated in the Portuguese society.
In September 2015, unemployment rate in Portugal was 12.2%, which makes 621.800 citizens. Do you think refugee resettlement will make this situation worse?
On the contrary, there is evidence that migrants actually contribute to a country’s economy rather than what appears to be a widely held counter-belief that they are an economic drain on the host country. This evidence also includes many refugees who become entrepreneurs and create jobs in the local communities. In Portugal, one can easily observe this phenomenon, especially in bigger cities such as Lisbon and Porto.
What is the public opinion about increased amount of refugees?
The general public appears to be cautious regarding this scheme. As previously stated, Portugal does not have a high number of refugees, therefore it is conceivable to assume that the vast majority of Portuguese have never met a refugee.
Moreover, many Portuguese still consider Portugal a “crisis” country. Due to these reasons, many of their concerns have been heightened. That said, many initiatives have been created, in an act of solidarity, to help the refugees. Indeed, a particular initiative called “Caravana Aylan Kurdi” managed to collect 66 tons of supplies and donations from the Portuguese public for refugees held up at closed borders.
Do you think refugee quota will increase even more in next few months/ years?
This depends on the political reaction of the European Union and member states as well as the development of the crisis in the Middle East.
Would you like to add something else?
I think that this is a crisis that will go on for a while and therefore it is important for all players to unite and work together to help those in need. Helping these refugees and providing them with opportunities is also a way to improve our world.
Many of these may return to their countries of origin and use the knowledge and love they gained by being here to improve their own countries. At the moment we are focused on housing, but we want to work with other partners in order to be able to create a welcoming and friendly environment.
Special thanks to Refugees Welcome Portugal team.
Interview by M.Borgarbúi