Portugal, a beacon of migrant rights? It’s complicated

Published 23 July 2020 / By Margarida Teixeira

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum. It is co-published with Routed: Migration and (Im)mobility Magazine in its special issue of “Epidemics, labour and mobility

In March 2020, Portugal made history by becoming the first country to grant temporary residence to migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic. This policy stood in stark contrast with the draconian measures adopted in other European countries, such as Hungary’s illegal detention of asylum seekers, and it earned Portugal compliments from international human rights bodies. However, did the hype match the reality for migrants in Portugal?

The policy in practice

Despite international news coverage stating that Portugal had granted temporary residence to all migrants, that is not actually true. Portugal awarded temporary residence to migrants who had already initiated their residency application process with the Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF, ‘Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras’). This means that all migrants who had applied for residency – including asylum seekers – and who had been patiently waiting for a response (sometimes for years) are now treated as Portuguese citizens, entitled to the same rights not only when it comes to health services, but also social security, housing, and employment assistance. However, migrants have to present proof of their submitted application, so there is still bureaucracy involved.

But what about those migrants who have not applied for residency? According to the State Secretary for Integration and Migrations, Cláudia Pereira, these migrants are entitled to access health services. However, if they choose to initiate their applications for residency during the lockdown, they will have to wait for a positive response and will not be covered by the temporary residence policy.

Furthermore, all documents expired after 24 February are automatically renewed up until 30 June 2020, thus ensuring migrants are not left in limbo.

SEF offices are expected to re-open only on 1 July, at which point migrants with temporary residence will have to reschedule appointments, and so will those who apply for residency during the lockdown period and those whose permits expire.

A ‘brave’ but ‘limited’ policy

Associations working for migrant rights applauded the policy when it was first announced, but they also criticised several aspects.

First, the need to offer proof of a submitted application seemed to be unpractical, at a time when SEF and Social Security offices are mostly closed and many migrants lack access to computers.

In recent years, SEF has also struggled with monumental delays in responding to residency applications. Therefore, migrant rights activists would prefer the temporary residence authorisations to become permanent, and therefore spare the services from dealing with new requests within the appropriate timeframes.

Then, the kind of rights these newly ‘legalised’ migrants would have access to are also unclear – e.g. would they be able to apply for unemployment benefits? Supposedly yes, but the decree does not specify it.

Finally, activists warned about the thousands of people left out by government policies, which would remain vulnerable to exploitation, income loss, and poverty.

Scandals erase the hype for migrant rights

At the same time as Portugal was being complimented internationally, two scandals erupted.

One was the murder of a Ukrainian national at the hands of SEF officials. Ihor Homeniuk arrived at the Lisbon airport on 10 March, where he was immediately detained by SEF due to irregularities and was brutally murdered on 12 March. Three SEF inspectors used their bare hands and a bat to beat Homeniuk to death while he was cuffed in an isolated room in SEF’s airport detention facilities.

The cover-up of Homeniuk’s death – which had been originally registered as due to an episode of epilepsy – was only discovered in early April, thanks to an anonymous tip. Officials reacted swiftly, the inspectors were detained and the case is currently under an investigation by the State Prosecutor.

The second scandal relates to the conditions for asylum seekers in Portugal. A hostel for asylum seekers in Lisbon was evacuated on 19 April when 138 out of 175 residents tested positive for COVID-19. Most of them were quarantined in military facilities outside of Lisbon, and a few others were taken to the Lisbon Mosque. The overcrowding of facilities, the negligence of authorities, and the lack of information provided to asylum seekers by officials were heavily criticised by human rights activists.

What’s next?

There are now more European countries considering granting temporary residence to migrants, although for different reasons – in Italy and Spain, the absence of migrant seasonal workers could be a catastrophe for the countries’ agricultural production.

In Italy, a six-month amnesty for undocumented migrant workers was only motivated by the need to tackle the labour gap and will therefore only impact about 200,000 people, not even half of estimated undocumented migrants residing in Italy. In Spain, undocumented migrants aged 18 to 25 are provided with temporary work visas so they can harvest fruits and vegetables. Officials estimate they need a workforce of 300,000 workers, most of which used to consist of seasonal migrant workers before the border closure.

Although these policies seem to demonstrate the importance of migrants to the economy of these European countries, they are mostly self-serving. That is why activist groups have been calling on the EU and its Member States to follow Portugal’s lead and, most importantly, the rationale behind the policy.

Portugal implemented this policy out of solidarity and concerns for public health and it should indeed be applauded for it, given the stark global context for migration. But it was not a magical fix to the problems faced by migrants in Portugal. It shows that there is a different way of making migration policy, but the government must now pursue that alternative route all the way through and not as a band-aid for the duration of the pandemic.

Although Portugal’s example should definitely be followed by other EU countries, it demonstrates that one single national policy is not enough. What Europe needs now, more than ever, is a coherent strategy for migrants in the EU that does not only tackle security concerns, but upholds human rights and stops treating migrants as second-class citizens.

Margarida Teixeira is a freelance writer, content manager and creator. She is also a feminist activist working with both grassroots feminist groups and established women’s organizations in Portugal and Europe. She mostly focuses on the intersections between women’s rights, human trafficking and migration.

A traditional Lisbon tram in Martim Moniz, the neighbourhood associated with the migrant community in Portugal