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PORTUGAL: Young Professionals Flee Crisis – to Former Colonies

Mario Queiroz

LISBON, Aug 22 2011 (IPS) - Thousands of young people from Portugal are joining an emigration flow that never trickled to a stop but is turning into an exodus now due to the severe economic crisis plaguing this southern European country. And the main destinations of those looking for a better future abroad are former colonies, especially Brazil.

The new emigrants are overwhelmingly young university graduates or skilled technicians, who have failed to find opportunities for personal and professional development at home. Many are drawn by the buoyant optimism prevailing in Brazil, in contrast to the disillusionment and fatalism hanging over Portugal.

The enormous investment this country has made in education in the last two decades seems to be going down the drain – or to Brazil, and to a lesser extent, to other former Portuguese colonies, in Africa and Asia.

For the less-skilled migrants, especially truck drivers, construction equipment operators, construction workers and electricians, the promised land is Angola, where oil and diamonds have made the southwest African country one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

Macau, a former Portuguese enclave on the southern coast of China, 70 km southwest of Hong Kong, has also begun to look attractive to victims of the crisis.

The tiny territory, which returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1999 after five centuries of Portuguese rule, is often referred to as the Las Vegas of Asia. Besides the robust growth of its travel and tourism market and the presence of a number of Portuguese companies, Macau is attractive to Portuguese investors and traders as a gateway to China.

But it is in Brazil where the Portuguese tend to feel most at home, in terms of cultural identity. “It’s like leaving Portugal without really going abroad,” Mafalda Assenção, who has a degree in humanities from the University of Lisbon and plans to head overseas, told IPS.

The common language as well as ties with the thriving Portuguese community in Brazil make the country look promising to young people seeking to flee the recession in Portugal.

Young Portuguese professionals who feel they have nothing to lose in a country that offers them neither jobs nor ongoing unemployment benefits find a world of opportunities in moving to the planet’s eighth largest economy, which is 94 times the size of Portugal’s and has a population 18 times larger than this country.

This presents a huge advantage compared to Greece, another southern European country suffering from an economic crisis even worse than Portugal’s, but whose people do not have a menu of options of other countries where their language is spoken.

The rest of the countries of the European Union are no longer an alternative due to financial woes of their own.

EU citizens are allowed to stay in Brazil without a visa for up to three months. Most of the Portuguese heading to that country, according to a recent report in the Lisbon newspaper Público, will make use of that option, and then find employment as undocumented workers, since applying for residency there is a complicated process.

Although Brazilian Portuguese differs from the Portuguese spoken in Portugal, people from this European country find it easy to imitate the Brazilian accent, to which they have become accustomed after being bombarded by soap operas from South America’s giant for the past 35 years. (Most Brazilians find it next to impossible to imitate European Portuguese.)

The ability to blend in takes on huge significance for undocumented Portuguese workers, who are generally able to go unnoticed in a population that does not see them as foreigners.

Pedro Góis, a researcher at the University of Coimbra in central Portugal, says Portuguese citizens in Brazil “are not considered foreigners, but fall into a kind of third category: you have the Brazilians, the foreigners, and the Portuguese.”

The Portuguese nationals who have moved to Brazil over the last five years differ from the large waves who emigrated there in the 1950s and 1960s, when low-skilled emigration was dominant.

“Among the skilled workers, there are two clearly identifiable groups: the civil or electronic engineers, or those who have recently earned masters and doctorate degrees, who are setting out on an academic career in Brazil, where higher education has experienced a huge boom,” Brazilian academic José Sacchetta Mendes writes in his book “Laços de Sangue” (Blood Ties), on Portuguese immigrants in Brazil, published by the Fronteira do Caos publishing house in 2010.

Góis also says “there is a need for PhDs that Brazil is not producing at a fast enough rate, while a degree from Europe is still highly prestigious.

“In fact,” he adds, “we are now exporting more highly skilled labour than during previous waves of emigration, because the Portuguese population is better educated now.”

Fernando Castro, the owner of the O Amarelinho tobacco shop in Estoril, an affluent suburb of Lisbon, sent his 22-year-old son João to continue his dental studies in Rio de Janeiro because, as he told IPS, “in Portugal merit is no longer valued; there is no future in this country of ‘poor little us’, where people always expect to live off of benefits.”

Portuguese politicians “scorn our education and creativity. The only thing that works here is nepotism, and all in the name of a supposed modernism. It’s hard for a mother and a father to see their child leave, but it’s much harder to see that their children have no future here,” Castro said.

That view is shared by Assenção, who pointed to “the army of unemployed people who have made the effort to earn a university degree that in the end has been of no use to us in this country where it’s all about knowing the right people or greasing the right palms.”

There is a constant coming and going across the Atlantic Ocean. In Portugal, Brazil tops the list of immigrants, with 120,000 legal residents accounting for 27 percent of the total, according to the Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF).

But as Eduardo Tavares de Lima, president of the executive body of the association for Brazilian immigrants Casa do Brasil, pointed out to IPS, SEF statistics “do not take into account undocumented immigrants. Our unofficial estimates indicate that there are some 200,000 Brazilians living and working in Portugal.”

Despite the strong economic growth in their home country, many Brazilians decide to stay here, “because they are unskilled labour working in tourism, hotels and restaurants, and can earn better wages in Portugal than in Brazil, where what is needed are university graduates, professionals and highly-skilled technicians,” Tavares de Lima said.

But there is another key reason to stay in Portugal, as reflected by the case of psychologist Renata Cortizo, one of the directors of the NGO Cidadãos do Mundo (Citizens of the World).

Cortizo, who has a daughter and two sons between the ages of eight and 16, prefers an uncertain future in Portugal to raising her children in a country with high rates of violent crime.

“I was on vacation recently in Brazil, where I could find a job pretty easily. But from what I saw in my city, Salvador de Bahía, violence is still routine: mugging, robbery, burglary, car theft, rape, murder, every day, around the clock,” she said.

“I obviously don’t want my kids to grow up surrounded by that,” Cortizo said.

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