Seeking greener pastures: Portuguese emigration to former African colonies

September 3, 2013 6:34 pm0 comments by:

Akari O. Izumi Kvamme,

“Angola is open and available to help Portugal face this crisis”
-Angolan president, José Eduardo dos Santos

“Everyone is feeling the pinch of the economic crisis, and Mozambique offers a lot of opportunities”
-Goncalo Teles Gomes, Portugal’s consul general in Maputo

Although Angola is ranked as an upper-middle income country and Mozambique a low income country,the two share a number of striking similarities. These commonalities are found not only in the rudimentary infrastructures of their societies, their colonial histories and a shared official language, but the two countries also underwent a common liberation struggle prior to their independence in 1975, followed by an extended period of socialist single-party rule and violent civil wars triggering massive migrant outflows.On the other hand, both Angola and Mozambique are endowed with a vast wealth of natural resources and their economies have been growing at a rate of 7-8% annually over the last years.These purported economic booms, and bright projections for the future, have rendered them attractive destinations not only for foreign direct investment (FDI), but interestingly also for tens of thousands of Portuguese migrants looking to escape the economic contagion that has gripped much of Europe.

In January 2013 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported that over 2% of Portugal’s national population have emigrated in the course of the last two years. The article, in quoting the country’s secretary of state for emigrant communities, specified that as many as 240,000 Portuguese are thought to have left the country since 2011.Similarly, the Portuguese embassies in Luanda and Maputo have reported a 25% increase in the number of registered labour migrants in recent years.While empirical data and information on the education background of these emigrants remain scarce, tentative figures released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggest that many of the new migrants are young, highly-educated, bi- or multilingual, skilled persons who are struggling to make ends meet at home. This analysis discusses the crisis-induced influx of Portuguese workers to two of its former African colonies, a trend which began to accelerate about two years ago. It highlights some major factors that underlie this rather unprecedented shift in migratory patterns and deliberates the potential implications of this new trend and what it might mean for the African continent. The trend is likely to bring about some profitable outcomes for Angolan and Mozambican economies. However, it is imperative to maintain a cautious stance and critically consider whether economic development is likely to transform into a broader and more inclusive socio-political development that caters to the needs of ordinary citizens and contributes to narrowing enduring inequality gaps.

Push and pull: Portugal in crisis, Africa in economic bloom

Although no overarching international migration theory exists, drawing on elements from various theories provides insights that enable a better understanding of the trend we are currently witnessing. Micro-level theories view migration as a life strategy whereby ongoing or predicted hardships, coupled with prospects of improved conditions and a brighter future, influence human movement. Migration literature, hence, tends to identify various push and pull factors as “intervening factors” that jointly determine the likelihood and the direction of migration.Furthermore, meso-level migration theories stress the role of social networks as a basis for social capital and cohesion, whilst macro-level theories focus on entire systems of mobility and the interconnections found among the various communities of sending and receiving countries that generate flows of remittances, trade and investment, services, information and know-how.

As former colonies, Angola and Mozambique share numerous historical, political, economic and ethnic links with Portugal. Historically speaking, these links tended to foster a kind of dependency of the south on the north. In previous decades, the political and socio-economic hardships confronted by war-torn Angolan and Mozambican societies prompted a sustained and primarily northward flow of African refugees and economic migrants.It now appears that the tide has changed; Mozambique and Angola, two countries that traditionally exhibited a high net-out migration flow, have become prime destinations for a growing Portuguese workforce in crisis. Portuguese labour migration to its former colonies, broadly speaking, exemplifies a response to the set of underlying factors of “the push of poverty” and “the pull of opportunity.

Portugal is one of the countries hardest hit by the eurozone crisis. Its economic calamity, rooted in “a kind of Dutch disease”characterised by stagnation, public and private indebtedness, diminishing competitiveness, rising levels of unemployment, financial insecurity and deepening poverty, has turned the former migrant-receiving destination into a country of emigration. Additionally, poor management of public funds and the Portuguese Government’s recurring pronouncements of further austerity measures may be viewed as a key impetus for the mass departure of its labour force.Thus, the rapid deterioration of economic and socio-political conditions in Portugal and the gloomy prospects of a rather hazy future comprise major factors that have stimulated a growing outflow of workers in search for a “fresh start.”

If the eurozone crisis has acted as a principal push factor driving Portuguese emigration, the perceived economic booms of Mozambique and Angola can be understood as pull factors, drawing the flow of many migrants towards the southern hemisphere.Both countries are commonly considered to represent contemporary Africa’s ‘success stories’ of peace, stability and prosperity.They boast two of the world’s most rapidly expanding economies and have exhibited robust growth over the past few years, an achievement largely accredited to abundant natural resources and government reform as well as efforts to implement better fiscal policies and foster macroeconomic stability.Angola is considered among the most resource-rich countries in Africa, with its enormous endowments of oil, gas, diamonds, minerals and other raw materials. Mozambique, an increasingly popular tourist destination, recently discovered unexploited reserves of coal and natural gas and is expected by many analysts to become a major mineral exporter in the coming decade.The expansion of these countries’ economies has not only sparked a keen interest among Portuguese and other international investors, but has also fostered a demand for skilled professionals, particularly within the urban development and architecture sector, the mining and natural resource extraction industries and the growing medical industries.

Besides these perceived opportunities for European entrepreneurs and skilled labour, cultural factors are also worth noting. Whereas the majority of Portuguese migrants seek work within the European periphery, not speaking the language of a destination country is an acknowledged barrier to movement.This obstacle, however, is readily overcome in Angola and Mozambique due to the countries’ “shared culture, language and colonial experience.”(25) In effect, this contributes to blurring cultural distinctions, something that eases the entry and integration of Portuguese labour into the domestic societies.

Deliberating implications: What does this mean for Africa?

International migration and development are intertwined in a highly complex and multi-dimensional relationship and a myriad of links exist between them. Nonetheless, Tanja Bastia argues, “there is little conclusive evidence on whether and in what ways migration contributes to ‘development’.”Indeed, the tensions that emerge when attempting to ‘measure’ the impact of migration renders it challenging to accurately predict and assess the implications of the Portuguese influx for development in Angola and Mozambique, or, moreover, to answer the question of who exactly is benefiting and in what ways.Furthermore, it appears that related research has hitherto been carried out from a predominantly euro-centric point of view. Whereas several studies and reports have been published on the consequences for European societies following the eurozone crisis, and consequent shifts in patterns of international migration, little has emerged regarding African perspectives and what the recent flows of European migrants to countries such as Mozambique and Angola might mean for the region.

The current Portuguese emigration has a number of possible implications, both positive and negative, for the receiving countries. One possibility is that a European ‘brain drain’ may actually contribute to African ‘brain gain’. Previously, brain drains were largely seen as a problem of the developing world, and the African region in particular, as waves of qualified African academics and highly skilled professionals leave the continent in search of better working conditions.Today, however, Portugal – like Greece, Ireland, and Spain – is facing this very problem and risks losing a significant portion of its highly skilled workforce.The rapid expansion of Angola and Mozambique’s extraction industries are thought to contribute to the process of urbanisation, fuel new demands, and stimulate job creation within the technology, agriculture, energy and professional service sectors.This has led to increased pressures on their education systems and implies that there is a need to amend and accelerate education and training programmes to secure domestic labour force for the future.

It is worth noting, nonetheless, that the incoming waves of Portuguese migrants have produced mixed reactions and fuelled ongoing debate about the pros and cons of the trend. Some argue that the Portuguese influx presents a win-win situation, whereby the foreign migrants are seen to fill an existing labour demand that cannot be satiated by the local workforce alone and, in this context, foreign immigrants might bring in much-needed expertise in certain sectors. However, the distribution of Portuguese workers in Angola and Mozambique reveals a marked concentration in specific sectors and underrepresentation in others. This could be viewed as an expression of the current opportunity structures in the African countries and the deficient human capacity infrastructure among the local labour forces. Furthermore, some argue that the Portuguese arrive with their own financial baggage and are not in the position to inject as much money into the domestic economy as desired, because a considerable portion of their income is sent as remittances to support their families back home. Thus, it is important both for the local economies and for the benefit of local populations that the domestic governments invest in improving the access to and quality of its education schemes and build local human capacity, rather than rely too heavily on imports of skilled foreign labour to satisfy demands. A population more capable of fulfilling the aggregate skill level that is required to ensure the effective functioning of national industries, commerce and the state would boost and reinforce local entrepreneurship and project management and, in turn, contribute to strengthening domestic bargaining power to protect local interests and ownership.

Furthermore, the Portuguese influx has given rise to concerns about the risk of displacing legally unprotected Mozambicans and diminishing opportunities for the local workforce.Although there is a law which stipulates that several domestic nationals must be hired for every foreign worker employed by local companies,it is a flawed system with many inherent loopholes and it remains difficult for many Mozambicans to find work. Numerous locals, such as construction workers, have in recent years become increasingly vocal about the alleged differential treatment and higher wages paid to Portuguese workers “for doing the same work.”Such hostile reactions and perceived humiliation may risk reinforcing colonial enclaves and fuel social unrest.

Maputo is in a particularly vulnerable position as it has seen rent soaring and property purchase prices doubling in the past four years.Although many high-rise urban development projects are under construction, few Mozambicans can afford to live there and there is possibly a risk of creating a kind of ‘bubble economy’ that is mainly tailored to, and targets, the thriving expat communities and higher-income locals, whilst neglecting the needs of lower- and middle-income households. The lack of affordable housing could effectively push many locals out of the urban housing market. Hence, whereas emigration might offer some relief to social tensions generated by rising unemployment in Portugal, it may have a reversed effect in the receiving countries and might fuel an already-existing unemployment problem and magnify other deeply embedded social grievances.

In light of lingering colonial tensions and the historically disadvantaged bargaining position of developing nations, some sceptics claim that the FDI and migrant flows to African nations represent a form of neo-colonialism, grounded in the ideologies of market liberalism, accumulation of capital and profit maximisation. Accordingly, it is seen as a contemporary imperialism that might reinforce power hegemonies and socio-economic or political control, as national leaders in developing countries might resort to a blind embrace of institutional structures tailored to entice foreign investments whilst paying insufficient attention to the distribution of revenues and the impacts on local communities, something which the Angolan and Mozambican governments can ill-afford. Angola and Mozambique exhibit a poor social safety net record, rank low on human development indicators,and have undergone insufficient structural transformation.In Mozambique, approximately 82% of the population is reportedly living under the global poverty line of USD 2 per day; the corresponding figure in Angola is lower, but still a substantial 37%.Mozambique, which hosts one of the world’s fastest growing economies, also remains one of the world’s most poor, underdeveloped and aid dependent nations.

The migration and development nexus closely relates to the question of effective governance and the role of the state in the multi-faceted development process. The ways that the international community has tended to exercise its influence in the past has often shaped the way in which African officials respond to their requests and pressures. Recent events may have marked a shift away from the time when African nations were lacking an independent position when negotiating with Western governments, foreign investors and donor agencies.Ideally, this shift may, through concerted regional efforts, help bolster “the bargaining power of individual African countries to both accelerate infrastructure delivery and insist upon higher levels of localisation, technology transfer and skills development.”


The recession-induced Portuguese influx to its former colonies, Angola and Mozambique, is rooted in deeply structural conditions and is also, to a significant degree, a product of historical and political construction and the common language factor. It not only signals changes in the contemporary migration patterns and the ways in which migration flows are channelled internationally, but also highlights the lingering historical and socio-political ties of the colonial period, and suggests that we are currently witnessing shifts in global power dynamics. Although north-south and south-south migration are well documented phenomena, the current frameworks for international north-south migration is lacking and is in need of improvement. As the Portugal-Africa dynamics have been picked up by many global media outlets lately, it can be expected that researchers, multilateral organisations and government bodies will take interest in the unfolding trend, leading to the production of more comprehensive empirical and analytical materials in the near future.

What is apparent is that as Angola and Mozambique strive to develop more dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economies, including enhanced capacities for sustainable development, employment opportunities and social cohesion, it is imperative that their leaders and policy-makers do not permit themselves to be distracted by prospects of short-term profit. The new migration trend should prompt Angolan and Mozambican leaders to review their immigration policies. Measures to manage the new waves of foreign labour ought to be coupled with enhanced efforts to mitigate deeply entrenched issues of inequality in the social, political and economic spheres. This must take place hand in hand with efforts to strengthen eroding institutions, including education systems. It also requires a renewed focus on building domestic human resource capacities, ensuring social security through providing public safety nets, effective labour protection measures and continuous poverty reduction initiatives. The challenge is inevitably that of striking a workable balance that can accommodate these changes and turn them into positive impacts.



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