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Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Nov 15 2008 (IPS) - The south-central region of Alentejo, one of Portugal’s most impoverished areas, could turn into a haven for some 30,000 immigrants and unemployed nationals.

At first glance, Portugal’s need to bring foreign labour into an area with a high unemployment rate may seem paradoxical. But a closer study reveals that a number of major works underway in the region are demanding skilled labour, which is sorely lacking in Alentejo.

These were some of the main conclusions reached by Maria Ioannis Baganha, a researcher with the Centre for Social Studies (CES) at the Coimbra University School of Economics.

Traditionally, unemployment in Alentejo has had a female face, typically affecting older, unskilled women.

And these are exactly the opposite characteristics of the workers required by the area’s large construction works – hydroelectric dams, bridges, ports, highways, airports, and solar and wind power plants for renewable energy production – and by the harsh agricultural tasks of the grape, olive and orange harvests.

According to the researcher, the labour needs of this region, located south of the Tagus – a river that flows into the Atlantic in Lisbon – will be covered primarily with foreign workers who have their Portuguese papers in order, but due to the “prolonged economic recession in the construction industry” have been forced to emigrate to Spain in search of work.

As the construction industry’s recession spread to Spain, immigrants from the newest members of the European Union (EU) and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe started to flock back to Portugal. Leading the stream of returning immigrants are Rumanians, who are well-known for moving across the European community in search of jobs.

To a large extent, this return is prompted by socialist Prime Minister José Sócrates’s reassurances that despite the global economic and financial crisis Portugal will continue to move forward with its public works programme.

With respect to the region south of the Tagus, Sócrates has guaranteed that works on a series of mega-projects will begin as planned in 2009. These include construction of the new Lisbon and Beja airports, the high-speed train lines, the expansion of the Sines port and refinery, and the irrigation system supplied by the Alqueva dam, which created Europe’s largest artificial lake.

In the 2008-2017 period, a total of 41 billion dollars will be invested in major public works around the country.

The largest investment will go to the high-speed train project, with close to 9.8 billion dollars, followed by road and highway construction, with 9.0 billion, water and environmental projects, with 7.2 billion, renewable energy sources, with 6.4 billion, and the Alcochete Airport in Lisbon, which will cost an estimated 4.0 billion dollars.

At a mid-October conference on migration in Beja, capital of Baixo Alentejo, participants alerted that the inflow of almost 30,000 immigrants – mostly Rumanian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian – that are expected to arrive within the short term to cover the labour shortage was likely to cause social tension and the emergence of precarious housing.

In September, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its International Migration Outlook 2008, which contains a comparative overview of recent trends in migration movements and policies based on 2006 data. The report indicates that Portugal has seen the largest proportional increase in immigration, along with Denmark, Ireland and Sweden.

In its annual report, the OECD – whose members include the world’s industrialised nations and several emerging countries – found that in Portugal’s case, like in the other members with the exception of Japan, “family migration continues to dominate among the inflows of permanent-type immigrants,” meaning that most new immigrants are not attracted to Portugal by work-related reasons, but are rather relatives of recent labour migrants, particularly Ukrainians, coming to join their families.

Among the new arrivals looking for work, the largest group is formed by Brazilian nationals (one of every four foreign workers), followed by Ukrainians, Cape Verdeans and Moldavians.

In 2006, according to official records of the Services for Foreigners and Border Control (SEF), 435,000 legal immigrants were officially registered in Portugal, whose population at the time was 10.2 million.

However, immigrant support organisations say that, based on their estimates of undocumented immigrants, the total number of foreign nationals in the country is 620,000, which makes Portugal one of the European countries with the largest number of immigrants, in proportional terms.

The three largest foreign communities in Portugal are the groups formed by nationals from Brazil, Cape Verde and the Ukraine, in that order.

That pattern is replicated in Alentejo, where the majority of foreigners are Brazilians. The experts gathered in Beja forecast that the trend will continue in this sense, accompanied by domestic migration flows of unemployed Portuguese nationals from other regions of the country.

According to SEF figures, after Brazilians, the largest groups of foreign nationals in the district of Alentejo are all communities from Eastern Europe, namely Ukrainian, Romanian and Bulgarian.

SEF figures are based on official data only, as releasing information on illegal immigrants is not standard practice for a law enforcement body that answers to the Interior Ministry.

But in recent statements to the Lisbon newspaper Público, Alberto Matos, an advocate of migrant rights with the Associação Solidariedade Emigrante (ASE), maintained that in order to accurately reflect the region’s immigrant population, the nearly 7,000 documented migrant workers declared officially must be upped by “over a third more who are in Portugal illegally.”

Consulted by IPS, Eduardo Tavares de Lima, president of the executive body of the association for Brazilian immigrants Casa do Brasil in Lisbon, supported Matos’s assessment. This is true “not only in Alentejo, but in all of Portugal, where official numbers speak of some 80,000, when there are actually nearly 120,000 Brazilians living here,” he said.

Tavares de Lima pointed out that “because there is no language barrier, the majority of Brazilians who immigrated to Portugal traditionally had no problem finding work in commerce and services, but gradually they have expanded to jobs in the construction industry and agriculture.”

At the Beja meeting, Ioannis Baganha warned of the consequences of a predictable cultural clash, which according to the researcher could “exacerbate social tensions” between the region’s local population and immigrants, with the risk of turning into a “very serious and difficult to solve problem.”

The construction of the Alqueva dam and hydroelectric power plant, from 1998 to 2005, employed mostly Portuguese-speaking African immigrants from Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Principe, but once the projects were completed, these workers migrated to other parts of Portugal.

Antonia Baião, a leader of a migrant support cooperative in Alentejo, said to Público that, unlike the Portuguese-speaking African migrants, many others who have come from the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe, in particular Rumanians, “have chosen to settle here, in rural areas, drawn by the olive and orange groves.”

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