Portugal Emigration

Portugal Country Studies index

Portugal - Emigration


Portugal has long been a nation whose people emigrated. Socially significant emigration first occurred in the fifteenth century and sixteenth century during the great explorations. Although the Portuguese established trading posts at many places in Africa and Asia, Brazil was the main colony of settlement. Later, numbers of Portuguese settled in the African colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

Emigration on a massive scale began in the second half of the nineteenth century and continued into the 1980s. Between 1886 and 1966, Portugal lost an estimated 2.6 million people to emigration, more than any West European country except Ireland. Emigration remained high until 1973 and the first oil shock that slowed the economies of West European nations and reduced employment opportunities for Portuguese workers. Since then, emigration has been moderate, ranging between 12,000 and 17,000 a year in the 1980s, a fraction of the emigration that occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s.

The main motive for emigration, at least in modern times, was economic. Portugal was long among the poorest countries in Europe. With the countryside able to support only a portion of farmers' offspring and few opportunities in the manufacturing sector, many Portuguese had to go abroad to find work. In northern Portugal, for example, many young men emigrated because the land was divided into "handkerchief-sized" plots. In some periods, Portuguese emigrated to avoid military service. Thus, emigration increased during World War I and during the 1960s and early 1970s, when Portugal waged a series of wars in an attempt to retain its African colonies.

For centuries it was mainly men who emigrated. Around the turn of the century, about 80 percent of emigrants were male. Even in the 1980s, male emigrants outnumbered female emigrants two to one. Portuguese males traditionally emigrated for several years while women and children remained behind. For several decades after World War II, however, women made up about 40 percent of emigrants.

The social effects resulting from this extensive and generally male emigration included an aging population, a disproportionate number of women, and a slower rate of population growth. Childbearing was postponed, and many women were obliged to remain single or to spend many years separated from their husbands. In some areas where emigration was particularly intense, especially in the north, villages resembled ghost towns and visitors noted that it seemed that only women were working in the fields.

Although emigration brought with it untold human suffering, it had positive effects, as well. The women who stayed behind became more independent as they managed the family farm and fended for themselves. Emigrants abroad absorbed the more open and pluralistic mores of more advanced countries; they also learned about independent labor unions and extensive social welfare programs. The money that emigrants sent back to Portugal from their job earnings abroad became crucial for the functioning of the Portuguese economy. Quite a number of the Portuguese who had done well abroad eventually returned and built houses that were considerably better than the ones they had left behind years earlier.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century and during much of the twentieth century, the greatest number of emigrants went to the Western Hemisphere. The Americas were seen as a New World offering hope, jobs, land, and a chance to start fresh. Between 1864 and 1974, the Americas received approximately 50 percent of all Portuguese emigration.

Brazil was the destination of choice. In addition to the climate, ties of history, culture, and language attracted the Portuguese to Brazil and enabled them to assimilate easily. Despite occasional tensions between them and the Brazilians, the Portuguese saw Brazil as a land of the future with abundant land and jobs. Hence, about 30 percent of Portugal's emigrants settled there between 1864 and 1973. A final surge of Portuguese emigrants was caused by the Revolution of 1974, when an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Portuguese associated with the former regime fled or were exiled to Brazil. According to government estimates, more than 1 million Portuguese were living in Brazil in the 1980s.

Among the other Latin American countries, Venezuela has ranked second to Brazil in terms of Portuguese emigration, and Argentina third. Other Latin American countries have received only a few Portuguese immigrants, for the Portuguese, like other peoples, preferred to go to countries where their fellow countrypeople could help them get settled.

Emigration to North America was also intense. By the late 1980s, it was estimated that the number of Portuguese and persons of Portuguese descent living in this continent amounted to more than 1 million in the United States and 400,000 in Canada, most notably in Toronto and Montreal. Significant Portuguese migration to the United States began in the nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth century, substantial Portuguese communities were established in California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Since the 1950s, the most intense migration has been to the northeast, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and to cities in southeastern Massachusetts.

Portuguese emigration to the United States often involved whole families, rather than just the men. For this reason, emigrants to the United States settled permanently, unlike Portuguese emigrants to Northern Europe, who were mostly men who set out alone with the intention of returning home after a few years. Another characteristic of the Portuguese migration to the United States was that many were fishermen from the Azores who came to work in areas offshore of New England. Others migrated from Madeira and São Tomé.

Portugal was never as successful at stimulating emigration to its African territories as it wanted to be. For centuries the number of Europeans in these territories was small. Faced with competition from other European imperialist powers in the nineteenth century, Portugal sought to fill up its vast African spaces with people. The state allowed prisoners to work off their sentences by settling in Africa, it offered land grants and stipends to prospective settlers, it tried to encourage its soldiers assigned there to stay, and it tried to lure other Europeans to settle there to augment the thin Portuguese population. These efforts were not notably successful, however, and Portuguese emigration to Africa never amounted to more than 4 percent of the total.

With mounting opposition to its efforts to retain its African territories in the 1960s, Portugal's settlement efforts again reflected political, as well as economic, motives. The government tried to persuade the unemployed, especially those in the north, to settle in Africa rather than emigrate illegally to Europe, but in the long run it was unsuccessful in these efforts. Even the construction of major dams and other infrastructure projects in the territories failed to lure significant numbers of settlers. By the mid-1970s, the African colonies were lost, and Portugal was flooded with refugees from these areas instead of providing emigrants to them.

Upwards of 1 million Portuguese or persons of Portuguese descent were living in the country's African colonies in 1974 when these colonies gained independence. Most of these settlers left these former colonies rather than live under the rule of the Marxist-Leninist groups that came to power. Sizeable numbers went to South Africa and to Brazil, but an estimated 800,000 returned to Portugal, where they increased the already high unemployment rate and added to the social and political tensions of the late 1970s. Eventually, however, most of these returnees were assimilated into Portuguese society, and some of them achieved notable political or financial success.

During the first half of the twentieth century, most Portuguese emigrating from their country went to its colonies or to the Western Hemisphere. This changed dramatically in the 1950s when Western Europe began to experience an economic boom that lasted at least up to the first oil crisis of 1973. The boom created millions of jobs, and Portuguese migrants traveled north to fill them. Alongside Italians, Spaniards, Turks, North Africans, and others, Portuguese worked in restaurants, in construction, in factories, and in many other areas. Although much of the work was menial and poorly paid, such employment provided significant economic advancement for many Portuguese. By the late 1960s, an estimated 80 percent of Portuguese emigrants went to Europe. Many of these emigrants did so illegally, without the required documents, because the lure of Europe's prosperity was too strong to be resisted.

France was the most popular destination. By the early 1970s, it was estimated that 8 percent of Portugal's population lived there. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) had the next largest contingent. There were also sizeable Portuguese communities in Switzerland, Belgium, Britain, and the Netherlands. Chaotic economic and social conditions resulting from the Revolution of 1974 caused a slight surge of emigration in the later 1970s, but it never again reached the levels of the 1960s and early 1970s.

During the 1980s, the rate of emigration slowed as revolutionary turmoil subsided and the economy began to grow. Greater governmental efficiency and membership in the EC attracted much foreign investment and created jobs. Portuguese no longer had to go abroad to find economic opportunity.

You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites:

Report: Portuguese lost 20% of its active population to
Immigration to Portugal - Wikipedia
Portugal Seeks Balance of Emigration, Immigration
Portugal | bpb
Portugal immigration guide: Portuguese visas and residency

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