Integrating migrants of African descent into Portuguese society

Sonia Almada came to Portugal from Cape Verde with her mother at the age of four to reunite with her father.

African-born migrant holds a poster reading “Nobody is illegal”, October 2008 © EPAToday at 31, she recalls her family’s first years as migrants were difficult. It took her mother six years to acquire Portuguese nationality but it was easier for Sonia because a new Portuguese nationality law had been enacted.

In 2004, the High Commissioner for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue (ACIDI) created the National Centre for Immigrant Support (CNAI) in the capital Lisbon, a “one-stop shop” where migrants can get information on residency and naturalization in Portugal. The Centre groups into one building six different ministries and the Portuguese Border Control Service, the authority that delivers residence permits.

More than 700 people go through the Centre each day. Visitors are predominantly nationals of Portugal’s former African colonies; new immigration from Brazil and Eastern Europe has arisen in recent years.

Almada coordinates the SOS Immigrant Line team at the Centre. She is considered a success in her community and many Cape Verdean migrants call her for assistance in regularizing their situation. She says she is happy to help them.

“I’m proud to be seen as a model for my community,” she says. “Since I was nine I’ve lived in neighbourhoods with Afro-descendants from Cape Verde. But I feel totally integrated into Portuguese society.”

Coming from a more visible minority in Portugal, she says she has never felt discrimination. She has heard stories of Cape Verdeans not finding work despite their qualifications but blames this situation on the country’s economic crisis.

“Sometimes I say I know more about Portuguese history than about my home country. I came to Portugal when I was four, I studied here. Of course I go to Cape Verde on holidays but I also feel Portuguese. I don’t want people to see me only as African. I want them to see me as a person”, she said.

The Centre employs workers of 13 different national origins. The Portuguese Government sees the establishment of the Centre as one of its best practices in terms of foreigner integration policy. However, Mamadou Ba of the NGO SOS Racismo expressed reservations on the Centre.

“The Centre is not bad in itself; it’s actually much more flexible than the Border Control Service. The people who work there had the same experiences of migration as the newcomers; they understand their situation and try to respond more humanely,” Ba said. “What’s problematic to us is the principle behind this initiative.”

Ba noted that public administration “one-stop shops” which serviced both nationals and foreigners already existed in the country and questioned the need for centres exclusively for foreigners. For him, a good practice would be to integrate mediators of foreign descent in the main public administration services.

“This would enable two things: end public administration services’ preconceptions on migrants, and foster trust between migrants and public administration in general,” Ba added. “Solving the issues migrants face in Portugal would first require solving society’s problems from within.”

On a recent fact-finding visit to Portugal, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent welcomed the initiatives taken by the Government to facilitate the integration of migrants, including the National Centre for Immigrant Support, which also benefit people of African descent. However, they said that more can be done for their full integration.

“The Centre appears impressive on the surface. It offers a beacon of light to immigrants and foreigners, seeking a new life in Portugal, who would otherwise get lost in the maze of bureaucracy that normally attends the process of transition from immigrant to citizen/settler,” said Verene Shepherd, Member of the Working Group. “But until immigrants really feel integrated into all facets of life in Portugal and are able to access jobs and opportunities regardless of status, CNAI will represent dreams deferred.”

1 July 2011