Lisbon, Portugal – “Our nationality law is one of the best in the world,” says Portugal’s deputy minister, Eduardo Cabrita, whose office overlooks the 25th April Bridge – named after the 1974 revolution which spelled the end for the fascist dictatorship and, eventually, for Portugal’s long-running colonial projects.
“I worked on it myself,” he adds.
Cabrita is referring to the recent amendments that make Portugal one of the more generous countries in Europe for resident, tax-paying migrants and for descendants of Portuguese nationals anywhere in the world, seeking to naturalise.
Not everyone, however, is reaping the benefits. An unknown number of young men and women, born in Portugal since 1981, have found themselves excluded from Portuguese citizenship because of a change in the nationality law that year. Despite having been born and spending all their lives in Portugal, this misplaced generation are legally considered “foreigners” because their parents’ immigration status was not regularised at the time of their births. It is an issue that, for reasons that are at the same time historical, socioeconomic and political, predominantly affects Portugal’s black, Afro-descendent communities, who originate mostly in the African former colonies of Cape Verde, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, and Mozambique.
Illegal migrants in a country they’ve never left
“I didn’t really notice it until I started school, and then I realised that my ID card was blue,” says Nuno Dias, who was born in Lisbon in 1983, “whilst the other kids had a yellow one. Even my teachers at school didn’t understand why, if I was born in Portugal, I couldn’t get Portuguese nationality.”
Both of Dias’ parents are Cape Verdean and had not yet applied for Portuguese nationality when he was born – so, from birth, Dias had the ID card of a “foreigner”.
“My older brother was born in 1981, just before the law changed, so he was already considered Portuguese; my sister was born in 1992, and by then my parents had naturalised, so she was considered Portuguese. But I, the middle child, was the only foreigner – I got stuck in the middle,” Dias says.
Like many of his generation, Dias’ parents did not at the time understand the impact of the law change, nor could they easily access information on how to navigate Portugal’s notoriously complex bureaucracy.
“You’re talking to one case,” says Dias, “but our entire generation was marred by this issue.”
At his practice in Amadora, on the outskirts of Lisbon, lawyer Jose Semedo Fernandes has seen many cases like Dias’.
“With nationality laws, at different points in history, one criteria becomes dominant over another,” he says.
“From 1959, the dominant criteria in Portugal was ‘Jus Soli’ [right of land], meaning that anybody born in Portugal, wherever their parents were from, was considered Portuguese,” he says.
“But from 1981, the predominant criteria became ‘Jus Sanguis’ [right of blood]. So, from then, lots of people born in Portugal were actually considered ‘foreigners” or even illegal immigrants – illegal immigrants who have never left Portugal.”
The 1981 law was introduced just six years after the former colonies gained their independence. Its critics, like Semedo Fernandes, believe that the new law unfairly targeted the first and second generation who began to move to Portugal in significant numbers during that period.
A matrix of problems
The case files testing the shelves of Semedo Fernandes’ office serve as a catalogue of the challenges facing Portugal’s black, Afro-descendent communities: summary house demolitions, police harassment, deportations, and discrimination. To these could be added poverty, marginalisation, low literacy levels and unemployment – issues that they have faced ever since arriving here.
For Afro-Portuguese activist and social worker Ana Tica Fernandes, the situation has changed since her parents first arrived in the 1970s from Cape Verde – but not enough.
“Our problem is with institutional racism – it’s not so much day-to-day manifestations of prejudice, unpleasant as those are, but it has to do with the policies and institutions that we need … addressing the nationality law is one aspect of this.”
Despite the nationality law having been debated and amended several times since 1981, notably in 2006 when it was made easier for those born since then to nationalise, sufficient provisions have not been made for those previously affected.
Those born in the 1981 to 2006 window – to parents whose immigration status had not been regularised – face a particular matrix of problems: they are prevented from joining official sports teams, cannot access national or local funding to study and, as foreign citizens, do not have the same employment rights as Portuguese nationals.
Once they turn 18, they can supposedly apply for nationality through one of several loopholes, but the process is often prohibitively complicated – and costly.
“In order to obtain nationality, an adult born in Portugal has to prove that they have been living uninterrupted in the country for the last 10 years,” Semedo Fernandes says. He points out that many in this situation are forced to go abroad to study or work because they don’t, in the first place, have the authorisation to do so in Portugal.
“Many people just don’t have this proof that they demand. So, I think it’s hard to say that the Portuguese nationality law is good, despite what they claim. For those of us who were born here, for the Afro-descendants here, it’s not good – it’s quite unjust,” he says. “Not only have they not resolved the situation of those already affected, but now what they’re doing is the opposite: they’ve actually been taking nationality away from people who already had it.”
A campaign, “For a New Nationality Law”, launched last month by grassroots organisations and activists including Ana Fernandes, has already gained national media attention. One of its most important demands of the state is the collection of specific data.
However, there are no signs from the government that the law will be amended any further.
“Our law is already one of the most open in Europe and it’s allowed for significant growth,” says Cabrita, the deputy minister.
Complications in proving nationality
The impact of not having Portuguese nationality, despite being born in the country, can be huge: it can leave people without the right to live, study and work in the European Union, and has even resulted in the deportation of some, after serving a criminal sentence, to a country they have never set foot in.
One of Semedo Fernandes’ recent cases involves a young man living in the UK, who had returned to Portugal to get a new national identity card after his previous one was damaged.
“He booked a fast-track appointment to get it done quickly,” recalls Fernandes, “but two days later, he received a letter telling him that he was no longer Portuguese – apparently, there had been an ‘error’, and they had made a mistake in giving him Portuguese nationality to start with.”
Fernandes laughs in disbelief, shaking his head. Although the man, after protesting, was given the option of re-applying for nationality, Fernandes believes he will now face a common problem: he has a criminal record, for a minor offence.
“The issue of the criminal record is actually the main problem with the nationality law,” Fernandes says, explaining that someone convicted of a crime with a potential sentence of three years or more is unable to claim nationality.
“Even if you were given a small fine for a crime for which the maximum sentence is three years, that’s what counts – you lose your right to nationality,” he says.
“But there are hardly any crimes that have a potential sentence of less than three years.”
In communities suffering from heavy-handed policing, social marginalisation and poor access to education and employment, “the likelihood of an applicant having a criminal record, however minor, is high,” according to Fernandes.
Portugal’s structural racism is, visibly, deeply embedded in its urban geography. The centuries-old historical centre of Lisbon and the city’s wealthy waterfront and hillside areas belie what urban researcher Antonio Brito Guterres has dubbed “the invisible city” – a sprawl of neglected self-built neighbourhoods and shoddy tower blocks.
Much of the newer housing was rapidly constructed from the 1990s to replace the “bairros de barracas” shantytowns which sprung up in the post-colonial period. While often demolishing the sense of community and resilience that was incubated within the bairros, these bleak, state rehousing projects have done little to alleviate the social and economic marginalisation of the people who live there. In projects like Casal da Boba and Bela Vista, police stations were actually built into housing estates, exacerbating tensions between police and residents and increasing the sense among communities that they are being unfairly marginalised.
The killing in 2009 of Elson “Kuku” Sanches, an unarmed, 14-year-old boy by a police officer, is by no means the only – for many, still unresolved – allegation of racialised police violence and impunity – but it is perhaps the one that has left the deepest scar.
“I feel like we have never recovered from the death of Kuku,” says Mamadou Ba, the director of SOS Racismo Portugal, and a member of the left-wing Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) political movement. “Not only because we are talking about the death of a child – but also because the police officer walked free. It proved that the police have total impunity – and it deeply affected the [anti-racist] movement.”
Semedo Fernandes, who himself grew up in the bairro of Santa Filomena, which has since been demolished, says: “In these neighbourhoods, the police cruise around and provoke people. All you need to do is look sideways for them to stop and frisk you – it used to happen to me all the time.“
From a young age, the horizons are limited for many Afro-Portuguese children growing up in these environments.
“They are ghettos,” says sociologist Cristina Roldao who focuses on education and exclusion, “and there are also schools that in reality only serve these ghettos.” Secondary school pupils surveyed in a recent study conducted by Roldao, who are from the PALOPS – the international community of mostly African, Portuguese-speaking countries – were three times more likely to be held back a year at school, and 80 percent more likely to be pushed towards vocational courses instead of higher education.
The PALOP designation is the closest Roldao can get to analysing the issues affecting Portugal’s black, Afro-descendent communities, because the Portuguese authorities say the constitution does not allow for the collection of statistics based on race or ethnicity.
Likewise, the number of people from any specific group affected by the 1981 nationality law change remains unknown.
Roldao is one of many calling on the Portuguese state to disregard the constitutional clause.
By making it impossible to collect data that could prove the existence of institutional racism, say activists, the government is able to perpetuate a long-standing Portuguese myth.
“They try to make it seem – and perhaps some of them even believe it,” says prominent community activist Flavio “LBC” Almada, “that in Portugal there is no racism; so why separate data to reveal a problem that doesn’t exist?”
According to Ana Fernandes, this is one of the main problems activists and community workers in the Afro-descendent communities face in convincing the Portuguese state to take their concerns seriously.
“When the UN committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination visited Portugal last year, they recommended – for the second time – that Portugal implement specific measures for the Afro-descendent community,” she says. “And once again, Portugal simply told them they aren’t going to do that, and that there was no need because there’s no racism here.”
This dismissive assertion, often repeated in official and public discourse, is part of a historical complex that continues to haunt Portugal today, angering those in minority communities whose lived experience is very different.
“When Portugal ranked as the second-most welcoming country for foreigners, it made me think of a man who commits domestic violence,” says Semedo Fernandes, laughing but with indignation.
“Outwardly, they’re seen as good people: respectful, hardworking and responsible, but when they get home, they beat their wives and children – that’s what happens to us.”
With pressure building behind the campaign to change the nationality law, the government may be forced to readdress its flaws, but to do so may also involve confronting some inconvenient truths about the historical treatment of Portugal’s black population. For Ana Fernandes, it cannot come soon enough.
“My daughter is three years old – but I don’t want her generation to still have to struggle for the same things that my parents and I have struggled for. That’s why I fight.”