|Many are critical of Portugal's prime minister's remarks that unemployed citizens should find work outside the coutry, seeing it as the government giving up on fixing the country's devastated economy [Reuters]
Lisbon, Portugal - Hounded by the economic crisis that shows no signs of letting up and by political leaders of all stripes, Portugal's conservative Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho sent out an unprecedented message to his fellow citizens: Emigrate.
A wave of indignation was triggered when Passos Coelho, in the face of the growing unemployment that is hitting young people and educators extremely hard, suggested to teachers on December 18 that as an alternative they could move to Portuguese-speaking countries like Brazil or Angola.
The next day, several ministers applauded the prime minister's remarks, saying his suggestion was a valid solution, especially for teachers.
But the governments of Angola and Brazil quickly responded, saying they had no immediate need for teachers.
Surveys indicate that young people between the ages of 25 and 34 are the most interested in moving abroad.
Joao Peixoto, a researcher at the School of Economics and Management (ISEG), told the Publico newspaper that in order to emigrate, "it's not enough for things to be bad here; it's also necessary for us to have a place to go".
The decision to leave one's country "is not easy, it's painful and difficult, and people don't emigrate just because some political leader says they should," said Peixoto, who described Passos Coelho's remarks as "odd for a prime minister to make".
Ana Maria Gomes, a member of the European Parliament, said that when she heard what he said, "I felt furious, because that is the last thing a prime minister should say."
"Worse than feeling impotent is giving up, because no matter how complicated things are, we can and must pull out of this, because we have qualified young people, the result of the investment in education made over the last few decades," said Gomes, one of the most prominent leaders of the so-called left wing of the Socialist Party.
Stalled economic growth
Passos Coelho has accepted the impositions of the "troika" of creditors - the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund - and of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, "without even trying to negotiate anything to benefit Portugal's people," Gomes said.
In her view, the conservative government "has put aside the development of a strategy of economic growth and job creation, and is focusing only on financial austerity measures," with the aim of paying off the US $110bn financial bailout granted by the troika.
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"But without economic growth or jobs, it will be impossible to pay off the debt," the lawmaker said.
"The strategy of the right is to convince people that solutions cannot be found and that they must resign themselves to living outside what one secretary of state called the 'comfort zone'," she added.
Fernando Gomes, president of the Council of Portuguese Communities, an independent body that advises the government on migration issues, criticised the prime minister's remarks as "embarrassing for the country's international political image".
Emigration figures continue to climb, although no precise statistics are available because within the EU there is no requirement to register the cross-border movement of European citizens.
But the estimate is that some 120,000 Portuguese moved abroad in 2011, continuing "the growing tendency of the last few years," the secretary of state of foreign relations for Portuguese communities, Jose Cesario, said on Tuesday December 27.
The most significant flow has been to Brazil, which has been a constant destination for the Portuguese for centuries, even after the South American giant declared independence in 1822.
A country of emigrants
According to Brazil's National Secretariat of Justice, the number of applications for permanent residence filed by people from Portugal rose from 276,703 to 328,856 between December 2010 and June 2011 - apart from the numerous temporary work, study and research visas that were issued.
And according to the latest available figures, from 2010, 91,900 Portuguese citizens are living in Angola, Portugal's biggest former colony in Africa.
"The government's incredible message leaves floating in the air the idea that Portugal is not worth it."
- Publico newspaper editorial
Sociologist Manuel Villaverde Cabral, vice-chancellor of the University of Lisbon, said that Portugal's modest development has historically been due to its empire, in first place; then remittances from Portuguese citizens living abroad and finally EU structural funds.
Portugal has been a country of emigrants since the 15th century, which has affected it throughout its history.
Up to the 16th century, the Portuguese mainly headed to the coastal areas of North Africa, and to island colonies in the Atlantic - the Azores, Madeira, Sao Tome e Principe, Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, when it was still a Portuguese colony.
But after the discovery of the sea route to India, in 1498, Portuguese emigration began to expand towards the east, until the late 18th century, when the flow shifted heavily towards the until then nearly forgotten Brazil.
And in the modern era, 1.5 million Portuguese emigrated between 1960 and 1974, with the outflow falling later to 230,000 between 1974 and 1988.
Portugal's leaders "are becoming a laughing stock, starting with the prime minister, when he suggested that emigration was a way to deal with the crisis," said a December 20 editorial in Publico.
If skilled workers and professionals continue to leave, the situation in this country "will be even more miserable", and "the government's incredible message leaves floating in the air the idea that Portugal is not worth it," the editorial added.
A version of this article was first published on Inter Press Service.