World

Portugal's African community hit hard by austerity

  • 23 May 2013
  • From the section World
A street cleaner in Cova da Moura
Image caption Cova da Moura, a poor district north-west of Lisbon, was built illegally in the late 1970s by African migrants

Economic migrants from Africa have been coming to Portugal for more than 50 years but they have rarely encountered such challenging times. Two years into a programme of cuts and tax rises there are now fewer opportunities for both established residents and new arrivals.

Joao Dos Santos Neto has a family to support - and he is looking for work. The 44-year-old from the small African country of Sao Tome and Principe has plenty of experience - 19 years in construction.

He has his papers in order too. But right now he seems a broken man. He has been looking for months. He has two sons and a wife to feed - and he says he is beginning to lose hope.

"Before it was easier to get a job," he says, "but with the crisis it is very difficult. And even when we find a job we have a very low salary."

"I really don't think things are getting better. Probably they're getting worse."

Image caption Joao Dos Santos Neto has been looking for work for months

Mr Neto lives in Cova da Moura - a vibrant but poor neighbourhood perched high on a hill in the outskirts, north-west of Lisbon. It was built illegally in the late 1970s by African migrants.

Today, more than 6,000 people from Portugal's former African colonies - three-quarters of them from Cape Verde - live here in cramped concrete breeze-block homes covered in graffiti.

The roads are wrecked and nests of wires hang from roof tops. This place might have more in common with areas of Nairobi or Rio than the grand squares and avenues of central Lisbon. Times here have never been easy - but these days they are particularly bad.

Portugal is in its third year of recession - it is the worst economic crisis since the 1970s. Two years ago the country took a 78bn-euro (£65bn) bailout from international lenders.

As part of the deal, it has to make 4bn euros of savings by the end of 2015. To meet tough lending criteria, the government has raised taxes, slashed spending and cut pay. That has resulted in record high unemployment, now at nearly 18%.

Piles of paperwork

It is difficult to know how many Afro-Portuguese live in Portugal. The Portuguese census does not ask people about their ethnicity. Some are here illegally, and many of those who arrived decades ago have since been nationalised and now have Portuguese families.

Most people come from Cape Verde and Angola. The official statistics from the Portuguese Border Agency say some 44,000 people from Cape Verde and some 21,000 from Angola live here. But the real figure is believed to be much higher.

"The problem for Portugal's African residents is that many of them work in two of the hardest hit industries - construction and domestic services," says Lieve Meersschaert, a board member of Moinho Da Juventude, an non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Cova da Moura.

Image caption Most Afro-Portuguese come from Cape Verde and Angola

"Men cannot find work right now, and the women have work, but they are not getting the same money," she says. "They used to work seven hours and now they have to work 10 hours for the same wage.

"Many of them have four or five children and they're not returning home until two in the morning. So it's very hard."

Compounding that is the fact many Afro-Portuguese lack the education and contacts to allow them to compete with others looking for jobs.

And there is an additional problem. Many Africans here do not have the right documentation. Some are long-standing residents who have never entered the system. Many have come to Portugal on a tourist visa and have overstayed.

It is Jokilson Pereiro's job to help these people here navigate the channels to get papers and find jobs legally. Piles of paperwork sit on his desk in his tiny office in Cova da Moura. Music from Guinea-Bissau wafts through the air.

"The problem is the system and the people who work in the system - bureaucracy is the problem," he says.

But 29-year-old Clemildo Barros Abreu says money is the real problem. He came here recently from Sao Tome and Principe. His landlord has agreed to waive his rent until he finds work, but his tiny apartment has no hot water. His work papers will cost him 475 euros. But he says he needs work before he can afford to buy them.

"There are two possibilities," he says. "I can get a good job with a contract and then it's easier to get the documents. Or, I'm going to try to do some illegal jobs to get the money and then pay for the documents."

'Feeling the brunt'

It is the illegal work that poses the biggest problem for the government, and makes it difficult for them to get a handle on the number of people out of work and needing help.

Susana Branco, Lisbon director at the Ministry of Solidarity and Social Security, says she has moved office workers back to front-line field work.

In fact, she says because of established networks and NGOs on the ground, there is still more help for African-Portuguese than many in the middle classes who have suddenly found themselves out of work.

Image caption A mural in the Cova de Moura district

Everyone is affected - "everyone, with no exception," she says.

"In the field I never saw people together working in the problematic neighbourhoods like I do now. I don't believe the most vulnerable are the most affected by the crisis."

But not everyone agrees.

"The situation for African Portuguese is worse than it is for the rest of the population," says Antonio Santos, an Angolan journalist with RTP Africa. "There is no money at the moment, no investment. The minorities are the first to feel the brunt of this crisis. The situation is tragic for everybody but especially for minorities."

Image caption Clemildo Barros Abreu plans to stay in Portugal as long as it takes to find work

The people of Cova da Moura are used to hardship. Thirty years ago, hundreds of residents were without running water, electricity, and sewers. It used to be that the struggle was part of the journey to a better life.

These days, though, the narrative has turned on its head. Booming African economies appear to be where the future is.

Numbers are hard to come by, but there is anecdotal evidence that some recent migrants are leaving Portugal. Antonio Santos says he is hearing Angolans are returning home to seek opportunities in the country's booming oil economy. Others say migrants are moving on to try their luck in the UK, where unemployment is lower.

Clemildo Barros Abreu has no such intentions. He plans to stay in Portugal as long as it takes to find work. "I'll stick it out," he says. But for increasing numbers of Afro-Portuguese, this country is no longer the land of opportunity.

Ian Brimacombe's special report can be heard on the BBC World Service.

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