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MIGRATION-PORTUGAL: Pitfalls in the Path to Paradise

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Aug 21 2009 (IPS) - Some 200 million people, three percent of the world’s population, have left their country of origin to pursue happiness elsewhere, according to the International Organisation for Migration. But their dreams are often shattered by human trafficking rings and unscrupulous employers.

Violence, extortion, wage “deductions,” working from dawn till dusk, hunger and fear are part of the daily grind for many immigrants in countries with a centuries-long tradition of emigration, like Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal.

In Portugal, which has a population of 10.7 million within its borders and another five million people living abroad, several dramatic cases were reported recently in the Lisbon newspaper Público.

Romanian and Thai workers were brought to the village of Selmes in the southern region of Alentejo by a temporary employment agency that promised them nothing short of an earthly paradise.

But the Privo-Constantin-Daniel agency is a front that hides a Romanian citizen whose identity cannot be revealed because of a judicial gag order, and who kept 11 undocumented workers in slave-like conditions that included frequent physical abuse, according to the testimony of local villagers.

The only information available from the prosecutor’s office is that he has a long criminal record in Romania for trafficking workers to other European countries, and an international arrest warrant has been issued against him.

The 11 workers, all Romanian, were forced to rise between 3:00 and 4:00 AM, work for 12 hours on farms over 50 kilometres away, and return at nightfall to sleep on flattened cardboard boxes in a ramshackle dwelling.

The story came to light early this month when Joaquina Coelho, the owner of the Refugio de Sao Gabriel, the village tavern, told how two “hungry, barefoot and filthy” Romanians made signs asking her to let them eat the leftovers from dishes her customers had been served.

When the police turned up, the 11 occupants of the house fled. Four of them walked to Moura, more than 20 kilometres away, where they reported to the local police station and asked to be sent home to Romania.

Privo-Constantin-Daniel had already made the news in June, as the agency supplying agricultural labour to local farms, when a worker died in an auto accident near the small southern town of Ferreira do Alentejo. Six of the seven other undocumented Romanians travelling in the vehicle were seriously injured.

The driver of the vehicle, Iacob Beleci, who fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into the side of a bridge, killing his nephew, was so upset that he decided to speak out. “We’re so tired from working all day, and we get so little sleep,” he said. Migrant workers keep silent out of desperation and fear, he said.

Beleci said “a greater fear” even than that of reprisals from the human trafficking networks is that migrants without papers will fall into the hands of the Portuguese police.

Migrants would like to have all their documents in order, to be free of extortion from those who force them into jobs without rights, and take a large cut from their wages. They are paid the national minimum wage of 650 dollars a month, for which they work up to 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week.

The economic crisis, which has begun to bite deeper since mid-2008, has coincided with a marked deterioration in Portuguese employers’ attitudes towards immigrants, Ukrainian electronic engineer Yuri Zvozil told IPS.

Since migrating to Portugal in 1997, at the age of 23, Zvozil has only managed to find work on construction sites. “I had to learn the bricklaying trade and start a new life from scratch,” said the engineer, who specialises in high-precision optics.

At that time, major projects were under construction, such as the Lisbon World EXPO ’98, the Vasco da Gama bridge, Europe’s longest at 17.8 kilometres, highways, buildings, and subway stations, “and there weren’t enough Portuguese workers to build them.”

Today things are different, but “I haven’t seen the poor fighting each other over jobs in Portugal, as happens in other EU countries,” he said.

“Knowing the problems, many company owners and building proprietors are taking advantage of the situation and offering miserly wages for hard and difficult work,” Zvovil said.

“Workers should not accept jobs for just a few cents. A few days ago, the owner of a private school in Quinta da Marinha (one of Lisbon’s poshest neighbourhoods) wanted us to restore and paint the buildings for practically nothing, or for a plate of food.”

Many farmers in the agribusiness region of Alentejo want to replace European labour from former socialist countries, and Brazilian workers, with even cheaper Thai and Vietnamese labourers.

An Israeli company, DFRM-International Services, brings the southeast Asian workers to Portugal, and has already placed some 300 workers from the two countries in the horticultural and fruit-growing area around Odemira, 200 kilometres south of Lisbon.

Manuel Candeias, the manager of a temporary employment agency, said large farmers in Alentejo are insistent they “don’t want any more Portuguese, Brazilians or Romanians; they want Thais.”

DFRM spokeswoman Rute Silva said their enthusiasm was because “a Thai worker works as much as two European workers; they work much faster,” and in their own country they “have only two days’ holiday a year,” so they are used to working without interruption, in exchange for very low wages.

In spite of the EU’s increasing demographic and economic need for immigration from abroad, the bloc has gradually built up barriers.

In 2008, the 27-country bloc approved a new pact on immigration that provides for the deportation of foreign nationals regarded as illegal immigrants, and their detention for up to 18 months.

The directive, which may be modified within each country, was criticised by migrants’ rights organisations which have accused the EU of violating human rights.

According to a November 2008 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, by 2050 Portugal’s population will have declined by 700,000 people, equivalent to 6.5 percent of the present total. As a matter of national convenience, therefore, Portugal does not take such a hard line on immigration.

In June, Greece approved new laws giving the police powers to arrest undocumented migrants and hold them in custody for up to a year, instead of the previous maximum of three months. In addition, the penalty for trafficking in persons was raised from one year in prison to ten years.

France has opted for a “selective immigration” policy, which hampers applications for political asylum and family reunification by requiring immigrants to speak French and be familiar with the country’s values.

The toughest approach is that of Italy, where illegal immigration is now a crime punishable by heavy fines and detention. Italian citizens who knowingly house undocumented immigrants, or fail to report them, are also liable to imprisonment.

Professor Vital Moreira, one of the authors of the Portuguese constitution, said the Italian decision was “a clear regression in terms of civilisation,” which goes against “everything that is the essence of the EU.”

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