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Migration and Migration Policy in Portugal

Dr. Alina Esteves

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Portugal has a long history of emigration. However, it is also a country attracting migrants from different world regions. The country is known for its liberal approach to immigration and strong record on immigrant inclusion.

Demonstration in Lisbon in the fall of 2015 in favour of accepting refugees. Portugal is known for its liberal immigration policy and actively seeks to integrate immigrants. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Portugal has a long-standing tradition of being a country of emigration. For decades, Portuguese people have been looking for a better livelihood in the African and American continents, but also in other European states. The main countries of settlement of the Portuguese diaspora are France, Germany, and Brazil. Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the USA have also been important destinations.

Presently, Portugal is also a country that hosts thousands of foreign citizens coming from a wide range of geographical origins. The Portuguese economy grew remarkably after Portugal's accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1986. With the sponsorship of the EEC's cohesion and structural funds, and also of foreign direct investment, sectors like telecommunications and civil engineering, and also domestic services, industrial cleaning and accommodation expanded and consequently needed a considerable amount of workers. Since the demand for labour was higher than the domestic supply, the immigration of foreign workers was seen as a viable solution.

Figure 1: Emigration, immigration and net migration in Portugal, 1991-2019. (© bpb)

Immigration inflows grew considerably throughout the 1990s. In 2000, the inflows of foreign population in Portugal reached a maximum of almost 78 thousand individuals (by the year 2000, the stock of foreign citizens – 208 thousand individuals – accounted for two percent of the total resident population). Throughout this decade, Portugal never stopped being a country of emigration, but the outflows subsided from 37 thousand people in 1991 to about ten thousand in 2000 (Fig. 1). The first decade of the new century was characterized by decreasing immigration due to the slowdown of the country’s economic performance, with a very slight growth of inflows in the 2007-2009 period. With the financial crisis that led to a great recession, emigration sharply increased between 2010 and 2014 with almost 50 thousand people leaving the country annually. Traditional destination countries like France, Germany or the UK were resumed, but Portuguese emigrants, many of them highly skilled, also looked for jobs in Brazil, Angola, and the Gulf Countries. Simultaneously, Portugal became less attractive to foreign citizens, and during this period, net migration was negative. The economic recovery in the second half of the 2010s led to an inversion of this trend. Since 2017 annual net migration has once again been positive.

Origins of the immigrant population

Figure 2: Stock of documented foreign citizens in Portugal by continent of origin, 1974-2020. (© bpb)

In the early 1980s, immigrants mainly came from former Portuguese colonies in Africa such as Cape Verde, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Príncipe. Due to the growing internationalization of the economy in the 1990s, an increasing number of immigrants from Brazil and Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Moldova and Russia) arrived in Portugal. Since 2010 the number of immigrants from Asia has been on the rise with Chinese, Indian and Nepalese as the largest groups (Fig. 2).

While in 1980, foreign citizens accounted for 0.6 percent of the total resident population in Portugal, the share of foreign nationals reached 2.0 percent in 2000 and climbed to 4.2 percent by 2010. In 2020, the 662.095 foreign citizens living in Portugal made up 6.4 percent of the country's population. The five largest communities in the country are Brazilians (27.8 percent of foreign nationals), British nationals (7.0 percent), Cape Verdean citizens (5.5 percent), Romanians (4.5 percent) and Ukrainians (4.3 percent), according to the Portuguese Immigration and Borders Service (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras, SEF). Nationals from EU member states (EU27) (158.588) account for 24 percent of the total number of foreign citizens. Portugal's immigrant population includes not only foreign nationals but also immigrants who have acquired Portuguese citizenship. According to Eurostat, the European statistics authority, a total of around 1.1 million foreign-born people were living in Portugal at the beginning of January 2020 (10.6 percent of the total population).

Immigration policy

Portugal is known for its relatively liberal immigration policy, including refugee reception and integration. The country ranked third in the latest edition of the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) that compares policies of immigrant inclusion in 52 countries.

Portugal's migration policy is based on international standards laid down e.g. in international conventions such as the Convention relating to the status of refugees. It is also influenced by EU directives which Portugal transposes into the national legislation, for example with regard to refugee reception. However, migration policy in Portugal has largely remained a realm shaped by national legislation. Thus, the Portuguese legislative authority decides on regulations for the entrance, stay and departure of foreigners such as the issuing of visas, regularizations (that is the granting of a legal status to immigrants who previously stayed in the country illegally) and the rights and duties of foreign citizens. The most recent law governing migration policy entered into force in 2007 (Law 23/2007). It defines the conditions foreign citizens have to meet in order to be allowed to immigrate to Portugal and to be granted a temporary or permanent residence permit. Recent amendments to the law have facilitated immigration of foreign citizens wishing to work, study, invest or conduct scientific research through specific visas. The growing relevance of temporary activities (e.g. in agriculture, tourism, civil construction) led to the introduction of a new short-term visa for seasonal work. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020/21, the Government decided to waive the indicative overall quota for third-country nationals’ employment opportunities for subordinated work that exists in sectors such as farming, the hotel and restaurant industry, wholesale and retail trade and construction. Moreover, a temporary regularization was established for immigrants living in the country illegally who submitted their documents for regularization between March 18th 2020 and April, 30th 2021 in order to facilitate their access to public services.

Quellen / Literatur

Cook, Maria Lorena (2018). Portugal's Immigration and Integration Policies: a Case Apart? Journal of International Migration and Integration 19, pp. 771-789.

Esteves, Alina; Fonseca, Maria Lucinda; Malheiros, Jorge (2018). Labour market integration of immigrants in Portugal in times of austerity: resilience, in situ responses and re-emigration, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44:14, 2375-2391, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2017.1346040

Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (2021). Relatório de Imigração, Fronteiras e Asilo 2020. Oeiras. Externer Link: (accessed 24-11-2021).

Solano, Giacomo; Huddleston, Thomas (2020). Migrant Integration Policy Index 2020: Main Findings, Externer Link: (accessed 26-05-2021).

Pena Pires, Rui (coord.); Machado, Fernando Luís; Peixoto, João; Vaz, Maria João (2010). Portugal Atlas das migrações internacionais. Lisboa: Tinta da China.



  1. Pena Pires (2010).

  2. Esteves, Fonseca und Malheiros (2018).

  3. Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (2021).

  4. Eurostat: Foreign-born population by country of birth, 1 January 2020 (migr_pop3ctb), accessed 24-11-2021.

  5. Cook (2018).

  6. Solano, Huddleston (2020).


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is part of the research group MIGRARE – Migration, Spaces and Societies at the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal.
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