Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Portuguese
Main religions: Roman Catholicism
At the time of the 2011 census, minority communities included Azoreans 246,772 (2.3 per cent), Madeirans 267,785 (2.5 per cent) and Roma 30,000–70,000 (0.3 – 0.7 per cent). Other important communities comprised persons with the following origin or descent: Cape Verde 61,953 (0.6 per cent), Ukrainians 33,790 (0.3 per cent), Brazilians 139,703 (1.3 per cent), Angola 162,604 (1.5 per cent), Mozambicans 73,084 (0.7 per cent), Guinea-Bissau 29,578 (0.3 per cent), Asians 32,853 (0.3 per cent), and São Tomé and Príncipe 18,645 (0.2 per cent) (2011 census).
There were an estimated 397,731 foreign citizens living legally in Portugal at the end of 2016 out of a total population of 10.6 million, according to the Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras. The majority of immigrants live in the main urban industrial areas of Lisbon, Porto and Setubal. There are increasing numbers of East Europeans, mainly from Ukraine, but also from Moldova, Romania, Russia and Lithuania, who live in a broad range of large and small towns.
Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion, accounting for 81 per cent of the population, with other Christian denominations including Orthodox and Protestants making up an additional 0.3 per cent. There are around 20,640 Muslims (0.3 per cent) and about 3,061 Jews (less than 0.1 per cent).
(Regarding the 2011 census: the Portuguese Constitution forbids data on ethnicity unless it is collected on an anonymous and voluntary basis)
Updated March 2018
Long regarded as a relatively homogenous society in terms of ethnicity and religion, Portugal has only in recent years taken concrete steps to promote the inclusion of its minorities, including Roma, persons of African descent, Brazilians and a growing Eastern European community who have migrated to the country. Many in these communities are still marginalized within Portuguese society, struggling to access essential services and even targeted with violence.
Compared to some countries elsewhere in Europe, Portugal has managed to avoid the development of overtly xenophobic and anti-immigrant platforms by political parties – in part because its geographic location and limited economic growth have resulted in fewer migrants entering the country. Nevertheless, racism and violent incidents against minorities, particularly Roma and those of African descent, persist. Hate crimes are still not specifically recognized in Portuguese law and there is no national data collection system for incidents.
Furthermore, there are concerns that law enforcement officials have themselves engaged in excessive force against members of minorities. In particular, there have been reports of abusive incidents against Roma and persons of African descent by police and a lack of measures in place to tackle racial discrimination. In 2017, all 18 of the officers at a police station in Alfragide, a neighbourhood near Lisbon, were charged with the racially motivated torture of six men of African descent during an incident in 2015. Despite persons of African descent being an established part of Portuguese society, a legacy in part of the country’s long history as a colonial power, there are still no programmes promoting their inclusion.
Various indicators point to the deeper structural obstacles facing communities of African origin or descent as well as immigrants more generally. These reflect the impacts of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and origin with issues to do with socio-economic inequality. In 2011, 37 per cent of immigrants of African origin were in low status or menial employment, compared with 13 per cent of the population as a whole. In the 2013-14 school year, the proportion of students of African descent who failed at the secondary level was 2.5 times higher than the general population. For immigrants more generally, researchers found that they were fifteen times more likely to face incarceration than Portuguese nationals convicted of the same crimes in 2011.
Roma are among the country’s most excluded populations. While Portugal has implemented a Roma Integration Strategy covering the period 2013-2020, Roma continue to experience widespread discrimination including a lack of measures in schools to promote inclusion and negative stereotyping by the media. Within schools Roma-only classes still exist, and textbook materials fail to acknowledge the history of Roma within Portuguese society. In some cases, due to ineffective reporting mechanisms, incidents of discrimination and hate crimes towards Roma are not addressed.
There are also issues of substandard housing amongst the Roma, usually in segregated settlements, which can even be separated from other communities by walls. Inadequate provision of facilities can mean that some Roma need to be constantly on the move. Roma also frequently experience limited access to essential services such as clean drinking water and electricity.
There are limited powers and mechanisms available for Roma representatives to consult on integration strategies. This included a lack of participation of Roma representatives in the direction of the National Roma Communities Integration Strategy. However, an Advisory Group for the Integration of Roma Communities (CONCIG), including four Roma representatives was set up in 2014.
Updated March 2018.
The Portuguese Republic consists of the south-western Iberian peninsula and the island possessions of Madeira and the Azores. Its Atlantic coastline has made it a seafaring nation.
In Roman times Portus Cale was a settlement at the mouth of the Douro river, the present-day city of Porto. From the seventh to the ninth centuries the name was applied to the region between the Douro and the Minho rivers, which marks the northern border with Spain. The Moors set up their ‘Kingdom of the West’ in the Algarve in the eighth century, while central and northern Portugal were ruled by various counts and alternately by the Spanish kingdoms of Galicia and Leon. In 1143 independence was declared in northern Portugal and in1179 Alfonso I (D. Afonso Henriques) was recognized as King of Portugal by the Pope. In 1250 the Algarve was taken and the Moors expelled. Portugal’s borders have not changed since that time.
Seafaring, cartography, exploration and trading were strengths from early times. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Portugal was a leading world power. It established small but significant trading colonies in North and West Africa. In 1419 Madeira was discovered and in 1427 the Azores. In 1494 the Treaty of Tordesilhas with Spain divided the newly explored and unexplored world between Spain and Portugal along the north/south meridian 1,770 km west of the Cape Verde islands, with Portugal taking the lands to the east and Spain the lands to the west. Thus, Portugal gained Brazil. The next possessions were Goa in India and small East African states, followed by the Moluccas and East Timor (in the Malay archipelago), and in 1557 the Chinese territory of Macao.
The Iberian peninsula – comprising both Spain and Portugal – was home to large Jewish communities. By the end of the 15th century, approximately 100,000 Jews were living in the region with an estimated 30,000 living in Portugal. However, beginning in 1492 in Spain and 1497 in Portugal, the whole community was expelled – with forced conversion the only option for those seeking to remain. Some of those expelled from Portugal had in fact come from Spain as a result of the persecution there. A smaller Muslim community was also expelled from Portugal at this time.
From 1580 to 1640 Portugal was ruled by Spain. Although it had a separate government, laws and currency, it declined and many Portuguese emigrated to Brazil in the seventeenth century. In 1709 Brazil was raised in status to a vice-kingdom and the Amerindians were given their freedom. Slavery was abolished in the Indian colonies in 1755. When Lisbon fell to French troops in the Napoleonic Wars in 1807, the Portuguese government moved to Rio de Janeiro until 1821. Brazil declared its independence as a separate kingdom in 1822 during an uprising in Portugal. There was civil war in Portugal from 1822 to 1834. This resulted in the first constitution giving more power to the aristocracy.
The republican movement gained strength from the late nineteenth century and a republic was declared in 1910. But the first republic was unstable with 45 governments in 16 years. In 1926 a right-wing military coup brought in the second republic and some measure of order. This was transformed into a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship under António de Oliveira Salazar from 1933 to 1974. For the last 13 years of Salazar’s rule, independence wars were fought in Portugal’s African colonies, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. They gained independence when a left-wing military coup established the third republic in 1974.
From the 1950s to the 1960s large numbers of Portuguese emigrated to northern Europe to find better-paid work. A small number of people immigrated from the colonies, many of whom had Portuguese nationality. In the 1970s and 1980s over 500,000 Portuguese, some of whom were born abroad, returned to Portugal. The number of returning Portuguese and immigrants from former African colonies rose after liberation in 1974.
The government introduced the first immigration law in 1981. After Portugal joined the European Economic Community in 1986, the economy strengthened and more workers, including immigrants, were needed. In the1990s immigration laws were tightened again, but a growing wave of migrants from Eastern Europe continued to increase until the economic crisis in 2008, after which there was a slow-down in immigration. A significant proportion of the population live below the national poverty line, a situation particularly affecting ethnic minorities, women and children.
In 2011 Portugal required a 78 billion euro financial bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund to help reduce its large deficit. The assistance was given on condition that Portugal implemented austerity measures and cut government spending. The recession continued until 2014 and during this period high levels of unemployment contributed to an increase in emigration, mainly to elsewhere in Europe, but also to some of Portugal’s former colonies such as Angola and Brazil. As of 2016 the emigration rates were the highest in Europe, with over 20 per cent of the Portuguese population living outside of Portugal.
Portugal has taken in a relatively low number of refugees compared to other more central and northern European countries, in part because it is further from the main refugee routes. Despite this, there has been some incidents of racism and xenophobia in recent years. The Partido Nacional Renovador (PNR) or National Renovator Party was established in 2000. In 2005 there was an anti-immigration demonstration of several hundred coinciding with the instigation of another far-right group (and an off-shoot of PNR) ‘Frente Nacional’. Other demonstrations by both groups have occurred, notably in 2016 when demonstrators belonging to the PNR left two pigs’ heads near the site of a future mosque; they were protesting the supposed ‘Islamic invasion’ of Europe. There have also been reports of racist and xenophobic incidents instigated by neo-Nazi extremist groups at football matches. Still, Portugal remains striking in comparison with many other European countries in that the far-right has not made significant gains in parliamentary politics. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the PNR only received 0.5 per cent of the vote.
As Portugal has in the past been regarded as largely homogenous in ethnic terms, measures to support minorities had not been prioritised until recent years. Portugal ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 2001, although it does not formally recognise national minorities in its territory. There have, however, been some steps taken to adopt measures to combat racism and inequality towards minorities, including Roma. Most significantly, the country adopted a 2013-2020 National Roma Communities Integration Strategy.
However, discrimination and racism still affect minorities in Portugal. Minority groups, such as Roma and persons of African origin or coming from Brazil and Eastern Europe, have often been negatively and stereotypically portrayed in the media. In recent years, there have also been concerns regarding the treatment of minorities by law enforcement officials, including discriminatory and racist incidents.
The 1976 Constitution bans discrimination and provides legal protection against discriminatory acts and practices. This protection covers discrimination on the grounds of ancestry, sex, race, age, disability, language, territory of origin, religion, political or ideological convictions, education, economic situation, social condition or sexual orientation and any other reason. The scope of Portuguese law against discrimination is therefore wider than European Union (EU) law. This broader base was maintained in 2004 when the government enacted the EU Directives on Racial Equality and Employment Equality.
Hate is a crime only in its most extreme forms: murder and assault motivated by racial or religious hatred, genocide, racial and religious discrimination and related intolerance, insults on grounds of religion and profanation of cemeteries.
The main anti-discrimination Law No. 93/2017 was passed by the Portuguese parliament in July 2017. It was intended to be a comprehensive piece of legislation banning discrimination on the basis of race/ethnic origin, nationality, ancestry and territory of origin. In principle, it combines Law No.18/2004 (2004) which transposed the EU Racial Equality Directive into domestic legislation, as well as Decree-Law No. 86/2005 (2005) which was an updated version of an earlier law banning discrimination, establishing the principle of equal treatment and providing the legal framework to combat discrimination on the grounds of social or ethnic origin. Innovations in the new legislation include adding the grounds of ancestry and territory of origin, as well as a new definition of multiple discrimination. The terms of the Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination were also improved, providing more weight to non-governmental and parliamentary representation among its members.
Religious freedom and equal treatment of religions and beliefs are regulated in Law No. 16/2001.
In the 1990s the government took steps to improve information and services, including education and housing, for immigrants in order to promote better integration. In 1991 a new Ministry of Education secretariat was set up to promote the development of multicultural education at the elementary and secondary school levels. The government expanded its housing programme, gave foreigners access to a guaranteed minimum social income and the right to vote in local elections provided there is a reciprocal arrangement in their country of origin.
Local authorities in Lisbon in 1993 and Amadora in 1995 created consultative councils with representatives of locally recognized associations of immigrants and ethnic minorities.
Portugal has experienced shifts in its government structures, reflecting the fact that it is a country both of emigration and immigration. In 1996 the office of High Commissioner for Immigration and Ethnic Minorities (ACIME) was set up to conduct research into discrimination and social exclusion, and to propose legislation to help immigrants and ethnic minorities. ACIME provided advice to victims of discrimination but could not represent them in court. It was reconstituted as the High Commission for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue (ACIDI) in 2007; the new body was given an added public awareness role, especially through partnerships with local immigrant associations. Following the financial crisis, when Portugal once again became a country of emigration, ACIDI was replaced with the High Commission for Migration (ACM). The new body was given added functions to support the mobility, return and reintegration of Portuguese citizens; it was established in 2014.
ACM is assisted by another advisory body, the Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination (CICDR), which was established by Law No. 134/99 in 1999 and collects information on incidents of discrimination. Its mandate is now derived from Law No. 93/17 of 2017. The Ombudsman, or Provedor de Justiça, receives complaints from the public regarding the actions of the authorities concerning discrimination and racism; it is considered Portugal’s National Human Rights Institution (NHRI).
Portugal is implementing a Roma Integration Strategy covering the period 2013-2020. Roma participation in the design of the Strategy was lacking, but there is now an Advisory Group for the Integration of Roma Communities (CONCIG), including four Roma representatives and which was set up in 2014.
A child automatically becomes Portuguese if one parent is Portuguese and born in Portugal. A child born in Portugal to foreign parents is entitled to Portuguese citizenship if the parents have valid residence permits and have lived in Portugal for 10 years, or six years if the parents are citizens of a country where Portuguese is an official language. The same time period is required for naturalization, and foreign citizens must also have sufficient knowledge of the Portuguese language and effective links with Portuguese society. The language and integration requirements also apply to those acquiring citizenship by marriage. A foreigner married to a Portuguese citizen for at least three years has the right to Portuguese citizenship. Portugal allows dual nationality.
Immigration laws have become progressively tighter since the first came into force in 1981. But there is a growing number of East European immigrants.
Until 1992 any citizen of the former African colonies could come to Portugal to live and work. However, restrictions were imposed following the ratification of the Schengen Convention in 1990, which allows for open borders between certain EU countries.
The government has offered various amnesties for undocumented immigrants. The first round in 1994 legalized 40,000, the second in 35,000, and a fourth round in 2001 a massive 125,000, mostly from Eastern Europe, especially the Ukraine. The immigration law adopted in August 2006 also offered amnesty to around 50,000 undocumented Brazilian immigrants and an unknown number of others.
The 2006 law offered new immigrants temporary residence permits if they had the qualifications to register on the ‘employment exchange’ (Bolsa de Empleo), or if they had work contracts. The law introduced a visa system for guest workers and residence permits for highly qualified foreign workers. Illegal immigrants already working in Portugal or with their own businesses were to be given residence permits. The waiting period for family reunification was cut from nine to three months.
However, for some children born in Portugal since the passing of the 1981 nationality law, gaining Portuguese citizenship can be difficult if they have foreign parents whose immigration status in Portugal was yet to be legally recognized at the time of their birth. This can particularly affect minorities of African descent with parents who migrated from former Portuguese African colonies. The difficulty of obtaining nationality for an unknown number of children born in Portugal to foreign parents has added to problems of discrimination. This is exacerbated by the cost and complexity of obtaining nationality as an adult, which also affects their right to live, work and study in the EU.
The left-wing governing Socialist Party, which gained power after the 2015 elections with a focus on lifting austerity measures, proposed further amendments in 2017 to the nationality law. If implemented, these changes would allow those born in Portugal to foreign parents to gain citizenship if their parents have at least 2 years residency. These amendments are being proposed in part due to an acknowledgement that Portugal requires an influx of tens of thousands of immigrants each year and also a reduction in emigration, in particular of young people, to maintain its current population of working age.
Portugal took a significant step with regard to its small Jewish community in 2013, when the parliament approved a bill granting citizenship to the Jewish descendants of those Sephardic Jews who were expelled during the 15th and 16th centuries.The same year, the government opened a learning centre in Trancoso about the country’s Jewish heritage; the town had previously been home to a thriving Jewish community. The centre conducts outreach towards the ‘anusim’, descendants of those who were forcibly converted to Catholicism. The citizenship legislation was ratified in 2015.
Representation of minorities in politics at national and local level is low, with some notable exceptions, such as Prime Minister António Costa and Minister of Justice Francisca Van Dunem being of Indian descent and African origin respectively. Although political participation amongst the electorate in Portugal has been in decline in recent years, under-representation amongst minorities in particular may partly be due to a lack of measures promoting their inclusion in the main political parties.
Updated March 2018.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination (CICDR)
OIKOS/Cooperação e Desenvolvimento
[Fight against Racism and the Xenophobia in Portugal]
INDE (Intercooperação e Desenvolvimento)
Santa Casa da Misericordia
Aga Khan Foundation, Portugal
Azoreans and Madeirans
Sociedade de Desenvolvimento da Madeira
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in