Portugal to take more migrants

Migrants having a light moment outside shipping containers that have been converted into homes at a state-run shelter near Calais, France, yesterday. Portugal has offered to take up to 10,000 migrants from Austria, Greece, Italy and Sweden - countrie
Migrants having a light moment outside shipping containers that have been converted into homes at a state-run shelter near Calais, France, yesterday. Portugal has offered to take up to 10,000 migrants from Austria, Greece, Italy and Sweden - countries struggling to cope with the influx - to help maintain its own population. Nearly half a million Portuguese have left the country in the past four years in search of jobs as the global financial crisis exacted its toll.PHOTO: REUTERS

The country needs more people to cope with population drain and boost workforce

LISBON • Traditionally a country of emigration, Portugal has offered to take up to 10,000 migrants from countries struggling to cope with the influx, to help maintain its own population.

Portugal's socialist Premier Antonio Costa last week sent letters to Austria, Greece, Italy and Sweden - countries that have seen refugees arrive in large numbers - offering to welcome up to 5,800 more refugees in addition to the 4,500 it has already agreed to take as part of the European Union's refugee quota system.

Refugees have not exactly been knocking on Portugal's door, with most opting to go to northern European countries such as Sweden and Denmark - which have begun tightening their borders in an effort to stem the flow of migrants. Portugal has taken just 32 migrants.

Mr Costa recently told Brussels that Portugal should "set an example", adding that he was against "a Europe that closes its borders to block access to refugees".

His comments echo those he made during a visit to Berlin earlier this month, when he said it was "unfair" to burden Berlin with a duty which is for "all European leaders". Germany has taken over one million asylum seekers this past year alone, an influx weighing heavily on the European power.

Portuguese Refugee Council head Teresa Tito Morais said Portugal is little known and "needs to make its voice heard to migrants arriving in Europe".

"The arrival of refugees will benefit the regions in the country that have become deserted," Ms Tito Morais said. "A large number of Portuguese have emigrated and certain regions need to regain some life."

The country was hard hit by the global financial crisis and, as elsewhere, unemployment took a toll on the country's young people, forcing many to leave in search of jobs. Unemployment remains high at 12 per cent.

Nearly half a million Portuguese have left the country either permanently or temporarily in the past four years.

Portugal's birth rate is also the weakest in the European Union. If the decline continues, the country could lose 20 per cent of its population by 2060, dropping from 10.5 million to 8.6 million residents, according to the National Institute of Statistics in Portugal.

The idea to welcome refugees was launched last September by Braganca, a small town in northeast Portugal that counts some 35,000 residents, with hopes of reviving its declining population.

But the country will be picky in the migrants it welcomes, as it attempts to boost its workforce with students and skilled labourers.

It plans to receive 2,000 university students, 800 vocational students and 2,500 to 3,000 refugees qualified in the agriculture and forestry fields.

"These are the sectors that lack manpower and are being forced to recruit workers in Vietnam and Thailand," the government said. "They are the jobs that the Portuguese do not take," said Ms Tito Morais, adding that it is a myth that refugees come to Portugal to steal jobs.

The anti-refugee movement has remained small and marginal in Portugal, with anti-refugee rallies attracting only small crowds.

"The Portuguese are used to emigrating and know what it's like to look for a better life elsewhere," a refugee council official said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Portugal to take more migrants'. Print Edition | Subscribe