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Portuguese Emigration After World War II


The northern Portuguese landscape is dotted with old houses that are architecturally exotic, with plenty of small, picturesque towers and innumerable decorative elements. One also finds new houses, architecturally reminiscent of northern European cottages, with black roofs and large windows. Then there are expensive suburban houses, which their owners have covered with colorful tiles. A significant number of these are currently being built or enlarged.

These are the houses of former or present-day emigrants. The older ones are known as Brazilian houses and the more recent as French houses. Seemingly out of context, they dot the traditional landscape and constitute the most obvious material evidence that emigration has been a constant feature of modern Portuguese life.

Although Portuguese migrated to the United States, Venezuela, Germany, and Luxembourg (to name just a few of the countries where sizable Portuguese immigrant communities have settled historically), the labeling of these houses is rooted in the country’s migratory experience. Up to the 1950s, Brazil received more than 80 percent of Portuguese migratory flows, and France approximately half from that period on.

The objective of this chapter is to present a general overview of the Portuguese migratory experience from World War II to the 1980s. It is, however, important to emphasize that Portuguese migration has been a significant historical process for centuries, one that has changed not only the country’s landscape but also its way of life and its people’s mentality.

The analysis presented here is based on the assumption that Portuguese emigration is essentially an international labor flow, which has changed according to the demand for labor in the international market of the macro geographical system to which the country belongs. Its evolution has depended not only on the potential migrants’ assessment of available rewards for labor abroad, but also on the political sanctioning of the “recipient” nations and the strength of the migrant network active at both ends of the trajectory.

Migration Policies: The Legal Framework

The Marshall Plan gave Western Europe the means with which to launch its postwar economic recovery. 1 Southern Europe and other peripheral regions covered the initial labor shortages resulting from war casualties, and later substituted native labor in the so-called dirty and low-paid jobs. Thus, between 1958 and 1973, the six countries of the European Economic Community issued eight million first work permits to facilitate a mass transfer of labor from the peripheral south to the industrialized north of Europe.

It was only from the 1960s on that Portugal began to participate substantially in this intra-European transfer of labor. This can be shown with an analysis of foreign arrivals in France between 1950 and 1974. France was a major destination for migration in this period and the preferred destination for Portuguese emigrants. Between 1950 and 1959, Italians represented more than half of the total foreign inflow. In 1960, Spaniards equaled the number of Italians entering France, with each of these nationalities contributing 30,000 migrants to a total of 72,600 arrivals. The Spaniards replaced the Italians as France’s main suppliers of foreign labor from 1961 to 1965, and were in turn replaced by the Portuguese from 1966 to 1972. From 1962 on, Portugal’s share grew constantly. In 1970 and 1971, Portuguese migration peaked. In an overall total of 255,000 arrivals in 1970 and 218,000 in 1971, the Portuguese contribution represented 53 percent (136,000) and 51 percent (111,000 migrants) respectively. 2

The Portuguese did not simply replace the Italians and the Spaniards numerically; they also took up jobs left vacant by them in public works, construction, and the domestic and personal service sectors, as well as in agriculture. 3 An analysis of the structure of the active native and foreign labor force in France also suggests that the labor market was segmented, with certain jobs specifically taken up by foreign laborers in the public works and construction sectors. 4

The oil crisis of 1973-74 and the restrictive immigration policies of receiving countries halted the influx of foreigners. Up to then, however, the major recipient European countries had “open door” immigration policies. The same cannot be said of Portuguese migratory policy. Indeed, until 1974, individual freedom to emigrate was subordinated to the economic and imperial aims of the state. According to Article 31 of the 1933 Constitution, “The state has the right and the obligation to coordinate and regulate the economic and social life of the Nation with the objective of populating the national territories, protecting emigrants, and disciplining emigration.” The Estado Novo tried to attain three key goals with this policy: to meet the country’s own labor needs, to satisfy its interests in Africa, and to benefit from emigrant remittances with a supervised export of labor.

In order to insure the attainment of these goals the Estado Novo enacted several policy measures concerning emigration. Thus, in 1944 the issuing of ordinary passports to any industrial worker or rural labor was interdicted; in 1947, after a temporary total ban on emigration, a special government agency, simultaneously dependent on the Foreign and the Interior ministries, was created to regulate and supervise emigration. The Junta da Emigração aimed to implement a quota system that defined the maximum number of departures by region and occupation, after taking into account regional labor needs and the structure of the active population.

According to the same logic, several bilateral treaties were signed in the 1960s with the Netherlands, France, and the Federal Republic of Germany. These treaties, which explicitly aimed to maximize economic returns from emigration to these countries, were accompanied by an order to the Emigration Services to allow a maximum of thirty thousand legal departures a year, and by a total ban on the legal departure of those engaged in specific occupations. 5 The combined effect of these policies was to ensure a migratory flow that the state considered beneficial to the country’s labor supply and to its economic development.

The rationale behind this last set of governmental policies has to be linked to the new economic model of development endorsed by the Estado Novo during the 60’s. In fact, while the previous model of economic development favored the labor-intensive traditional industries in northern Portugal and rural development, the new model favored the creation of a leading modern industrial sector in the Metropolitan Area of Lisbon. It was thought that this new industrial sector in conjunction with emigration would absorb the rural surplus. It was also thought that this industrial sector, along with the banking and insurance sectors also centered mainly in the Lisbon area, would absorb the majority of skilled or highly skilled workers and professionals. In fact, neither of these groups was particularly inclined toward emigration.

On the eve of the 1974 Revolution, the state was ready to promulgate an unprecedented liberal law, justified on the grounds that emigration was highly beneficial for Portugal because it promoted gains in productivity and the rationalization of production methods. The law concluded with the following statement: “Emigration, which acts as a positive factor in modernization and the rationalization of labor, contributed greatly to the progress and development of the country.” 6 Individual freedom to emigrate and return were finally written into the 1976 Constitution. By that time, however, most European countries had shifted to a “closed-door” policy.

The Evolution of Migration Flows

Between 1950 and 1988, the Portuguese Emigration Bureau, the Secretaria de Estado de Emigração, registered 1,375,000 legal departures. 7 Of these, five countries absorbed 82 percent (see Table 10.1). This official picture should be compared with French and German sources, which state that the number of Portuguese migrants entering these two countries, during this period, was 1,259,000 immigrants. 8 Even revising Portuguese emigration figures taking into account only these two destinations, emigration between 1950 and 1988 totaled at least 2,152,000. This means that during this period, at least 36 percent of Portuguese migrants left the country illegally. 9

No systematic study has ever been made of clandestine migrants. The study of illegal Portuguese migration in other historical periods, as well as available information on illegal departures to Europe after World War II, however, indicates that clandestine flows differ significantly from legal ones. Illegal Portuguese migrants tend to be isolated and unskilled males in their prime; this increases the likelihood that legal flows do not accurately reflect actual migratory flows between 1950 and 1988. 10

One corrective for the discrepancies in the official figures is to examine the relative attraction of the principal recipient countries. According to French and German records, we can correct the distribution in Table 10.2. Table 10.1 (Legal Departures)) shows that the two preferred European destinations (France and Germany) attracted 35 percent of the total between 1950 and 1988, and that the three overseas destinations (Brazil, Canada, and the United States) attracted 47 percent. Table 10.2 (Legal and Illegal Departures), by contrast, indicates that the two key European destinations accounted for 59 percent of the total, and the three overseas destinations for just 30 percent, in the same period.

TABLE 10.1 Principal Destinations of Portuguese Legal Emigration, 1950-1988 (in thousands)

Legal Departures








United States















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