Most of us still remember when the European crisis deepened and it became impossible to hide its consequences; the policy of Portuguese governments was to rely on emigration as if it was the miracle solution for all problems.

The cynicism of such attitude is unbearable, especially if we remember the statement of the Prime minister who suggested that young people should leave “their comfort zone” and take advantage of the “opportunity” that the crisis offered, inviting them to emigrate when asked to comment on the levels of unemployment.

Time has come to be clear about this so-called opportunity and to identify the main reasons and the predicable consequences of emigration in the medium and long term.

Emigration as a movement of people with the dimension it has today, in particular in the southern countries of Europe, is no longer a natural migratory movement that humanity, namely in some regions in Europe, used to register. Nor is the old dreamed of land that people looked for.

Emigration today with its specific characteristics and dimension is a quite different phenomenon. In Portugal, it’s not an opportunity offered to people, but a clear sign that opportunities no longer exist. Emigration expresses the absence of choice, the total lack of answers for serious problems and the suffering of thousands of people,  most of them highly qualified young people.

This situation is peculiarly clear in the most fragile Eurozone countries, such as Portugal. In this country, after the so called creative destruction of Troika´s adjustment programmes and austerity policies imposed to save financial system, the consequences were dramatic: unemployment; poverty; increasing inequality; social, environmental and economic devastation; growth in insecure and badly paid work. All this led to a mass escape of people, especially the well trained and prepared.

In the Portuguese scenario, emigration confirms that in the current political conditions, this is a country with no job, no future and no hope.

 2012 emigration hits new heights

As a result of the economic measures taken by the Portuguese government, young people,  around 40% of the unemployed people in Portugal, had to leave their country, their home, their family and friends, and look abroad for a job and a project for their life. The departures started in 2009 at the beginning of the crisis.

In 2012, for the first time since the 1960s, the exits peaked and largely exceeded the worse emigration years, which occurred during Salazar´s dictatorship, in which poverty, political persecutions and colonial war forced thousands to abandon the country to escape their destiny. In 2012 more than 120,000 left Portugal, in a consistent growing movement, the impact of which no one can ignore.

The former African colonies like Angola and Mozambique are a significant part of the new work destinations, although European countries remain the most common choice.

Germany, United Kingdom, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden are the main countries chosen. For the less qualified and older unemployed workers, life will mean the acceptance of insecure and poorly paid jobs, in civil construction, cleaning or tourism. For the others, the most qualified generation Portugal has prepared since 1974, the story will be slightly different. Thousands of managers, advisers, engineers, architects, researchers, pilots, nurses, doctors, hi-tech experts, will have good opportunities, allowing other countries to benefit from highly trained people.

Emigration as a waste of resources and investment

Therefore, emigration represents a tremendous loss of potential and unacceptable waste of investment and resources, especially in a poor country like ours, with limited financial means to invest in the future.

Meanwhile, research released at the beginning of March 2014 in a public university forum[1], showed that about 50% of the health technicians (nurses) were forced to leave the country during the previous three years to find work. The closing of public services, the unacceptable working conditions and the extremely low wages explain this exodus.

To meet the average standards recommended by the WHO, Portugal should have at least 25,000 more nurses to insure the minimum standards and ratio considered acceptable for the needs of its population.

This particular example shows the nonsense of what Portugal is currently experiencing and the gradual loss of capacity to answer its problems and much less develop a political strategy for the future.

Can we move in a different direction without our best?

The situation is very serious, unprecedented and recommends an immediate evaluation of this mass emigration. This situation is not sustainable.

What is happening is neither a natural or desirable sharing of resources, nor a mobility flow because we have exceeded the absorption capacity in our society or solved the needs to assure public well-being.

What’s going on, instead, is the waste of all the public investment that democracy has made after 1974 which allowed us to reduce the structural gap with other European countries in terms of development. Emigration can be useful in the short term, for the electoral show off for European leaders or national governments. It is perhaps useful to help the official narrative (from the Troika and Portuguese government) of the so called “recovery of the economy” and “success” of the austerity programmes or even the decrease in the unemployment rates.

However, the mass emigration that our country is witnessing is hiding a serious risk that condemns us in the long term.

No one can doubt it will be much harder for Portugal to recover from the present nightmare in the future (experts estimate that might occur  in two/three decades from now) and come back to the previous levels of development if the population is old and if our best human resources are no longer in the country. Unlike what happened in the past, this human resource will find abroad the desired conditions to settle and will not return. 

The demographic collapse

The problem of emigration must be taken very seriously while the analysis of the available indicators forces us to see the global picture, and realise its meaning in terms of future demographics.

Besides emigration, another consequence of the crisis in Portugal is the drastic reduction of the birth rate. The joint impact of those two important indicators redrafts the demographic picture.

The decrease of population began in 2009, when Portugal reached an all-time low (99,491 births per year). However, the situation is now even worse (83,171 births in 2013). This is exceeded by the number of deaths (106,361), which continues to grow. The combined effect of these rates of emigration, deaths and births highlights the existence of a negative natural balance, which forces us to consider the consequences: the natural demographic balance in Portugal has been broken.

With this tendency, the Portuguese population will register a significant decrease in the future. We would need 63 more births each day to restore the natural balance and compensate the number of the deaths. But that is something quite unlikely to happen in the present circumstances for young families, with no money and no jobs.

The Portuguese population, actually estimated at 10.4 million people, should decrease to 7 million, by 2061, taking in account the investigation published by The Institute of Ageing and supported by the National Statistical Institute this month (March 2014).

With the current crisis and the European and local lack of vision to think and act differently, an extraordinary scenario can happen, leading  one of the oldest nations in Europe, to the risk of become an irrelevant geographic point, somewhere in the map.



[1] ISCTE-IUL ( Lisbon University Institute) conference “Contemporary Portuguese Emigration”

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