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Portugal’s brave stand for migrant rights

Portugal has been considered one of the best countries to secure migrant rights during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the first country to grant temporary residence to migrants, a brave policy that contrasted with the authoritarian measures taken by countries such as Hungary.

The policy was considered to be so groundbreaking that several international human rights bodies, UN agencies, and activist groups from across the world urged other governments to follow in Portugal’s footsteps.

According to the Portuguese government, this policy was not a matter of ensuring there are enough migrant workers to satisfy economic targets (the basis for similar proposed policies in Spain and Italy), but rather a crucial measure of solidarity and public health.

Basically, Portugal recognized the humanity of migrants with irregular status, most of which pay taxes even though they are not entitled to their respective benefits (e.g. they cannot access unemployment subsidies).

Many of these migrants were stuck in limbo for years, waiting for a positive response by the Foreigners and Border Service (SEF), which has a huge backlog of cases caused mainly by increased migration to Portugal due to Brazil’s political situation and Brexit, as well an increased presence of South-Asian permanent and seasonal workers.

But what does this policy mean for migrants in Portugal? And what is left to be done?

Migrants are treated as citizens – for a while

All migrants who had already applied for residency had their requests temporarily granted. This means they were entitled to social assistance and health care access like any other Portuguese citizen, even though their cases had not technically been “accepted” yet. Migrants whose residency documents expired during the lockdown would also have them automatically renewed until June 30, 2020.

This policy was complimented in international media as a quick and effective way to ensure migrants were treated as Portuguese citizens. But the process is not so clear-cut – migrants must still present proof that they applied for residency. This bureaucracy worried activists for migrant rights because most SEF and social security offices are closed and many migrants do not have access to computers.

Although this measure was obviously a relief to thousands of migrants, it also left out a big portion of people. Mainly, those who had not been able to apply for residency yet and those who applied for residency after the lockdown. Therefore, there are still many migrants in Portugal who are treated as second-class citizens. However, during the pandemic, migrants in that situation were at least granted access to the national health service, which is not usually the case.

Once SEF offices re-open, supposedly on July 1st, migrants will have to go through the normal procedures to ensure the residency permits are not temporary. So, even though this policy is certainly protective of migrant rights during the pandemic, it will not delete the backlog of cases being currently examined by SEF.

For many, this means that after enjoying a short break as citizens, they will go back to being “citizens-on-hold”, paying taxes without enjoying the same rights and benefits.

What’s left to be done?

For migrant rights associations, the government policy was clearly a step in the right direction – but a timid one. Activists wonder why migrants why the policy is only temporary, given the huge delays by SEF due to limited staff and resources responsible for tackling an enormous backlog of cases.

Activists also found disingenuous the need for bureaucratic procedures to implement the policy. After all, why should migrants provide proof of their residency applications? Shouldn’t the State already have the necessary information to provide those temporary residency permits?

There were also concerns about the ambiguity of the law which ensured this temporary legalization of migrants. Although it stated migrants would be able to access the same social assistance, it did not specify whether migrants would be provided with social housing or unemployment subsidies.

Since the policy was first enacted, there are still no reports about its implementation (at least, no reports available in the media). So it’s difficult to evaluate whether it made a huge or only a marginal difference in the lives of migrants in Portugal.

At the same time, the pandemic uncovered the appalling conditions of overcrowding in hostels for asylum-seekers in Portugal, which led to the evacuation of 138 asylum-seekers. Furthermore, when the lockdown began, the murder of a Ukrainian national by SEF officials in the Lisbon airport detention center was uncovered. These reports, which did not receive as much international coverage as Portugal’s policy for migrant rights, stifled national praise for the government’s protection of migrant rights.

For Portuguese activists, it’s clear that there is still a long road ahead before migrant rights are respected in the country. Housing and work conditions are far from ideal, and cases of human trafficking and exploitation have been discovered in the Portuguese South involving seasonal migrant workers from South Asia.

Furthermore, Portugal is still coming to terms with its colonial past and traditional narratives that place Portuguese of African descent as less civilized than other Portuguese people.

Still, considering how so many countries across the globe took advantage of the pandemic to attack migrant rights, there is no question that Portugal has led the way to ensure COVID-19 is an opportunity to stand up for human rights and not trample them.

The way forward should be to pursue even more ambitious and ground-breaking policies, including changing laws for citizenship and nationality, that in Portugal are mostly based on jus sanguinis rather than jus soli, with significant implications for the children of migrants residing in Portugal.

Although migrants play an essential role in the Portuguese economy, and although Portuguese people have a history of migration themselves, the xenophobic wave of hate that has spread in Europe has not left Portugal completely intact. Portugal now has the chance to fight against populism with effective policies that benefit everyone living and working in Portugal.