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Monday, April 25, 2005

Immigration and Janus

Listening to stories of my son's friends is mostly educational. Today I was hearing about some of their parents who have been working in England for "agencies" (read "mafia"). They went to England with the promise of jobs, accomodation and a future, to find themselves in a country where they didn't speak the language, where they were paid below the minimum wage, accomodation was sub-standard and deducted from their salaries, and where they didn't realise that their rights were exactly the same as UK nationals. In the cases I heard they paid the agency to get them work in catering and cleaning.

At the same time, about 10% of the population of Portugal are immigrants from Portuguese-speaking countries like Brazil, Angola and Cape Verde, and increasingly from the Ukraine, Moldavia, Romania and Russia. Back in 2001, when the economy was booming, everyone turned a blind eye to the numer of immigrants working mostly in the construction industry. It's not so easy now as economic times get hard. In 2002 there was a Report from the European Commission agains Racism and Intolerance which recommended among other things "the protection of immigrants against abuses in the employment field".

I have a friend who works for SEF (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras). He has heart-breaking stories of arresting people on their way into Portugal who spent their (and their family's) life-savings on buying a visa or passport from a Mafia. They are the few (un)lucky one who get sent back home, never knowing what it was that they missed. The others are still here.

I often think of Portugal in this Janus position - a doorway or a gate looking in two directions, inwards and outwards. It knows what it is to be and to receive immigrants. It is in a historic and geographic position to look in both directions for lots of current issues. A post-modern position, no less.

There are a number of informative sites, by Portuguese government and European agencies, with social and legal information to help immigrants in Portugal - but you need to speak Portuguese or English and to have access to a Internet to know what it is that they say!


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