People & Power

Europe’s new refugees

Europe’s job hungry migrants are flocking overseas, with many landing in nations once colonised by their home countries.

Filmmaker: Bernhard Kocian

When the banking and economic crisis broke around the world in October 2008, few imagined that its recessionary effects would linger for as long as they have. In Europe, and particularly in some eurozone countries, people accustomed to years of relative prosperity have had to get used to harsh government austerity measures, wage freezes and job cuts.

You walk around in the centre of Buenos Aires and it’s like being in Spain. I strongly recommend it to anyone struggling there who sees no future prospects. Why not emigrate? You can still go back to where you came from at any time

by Carlos Blanco, Chef

This contraction has been especially severe in heavily-indebted southern European countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, where youth unemployment has climbed to record levels, public sector salaries, pensions and welfare payments have been slashed, and widespread defaulting on mortgage repayments has led to a spiralling problem of homelessness.

Inevitably, public anger at the belt-tightening decisions made by politicians has repeatedly spilled out onto the streets. Many European cities have seen large demonstrations over the past five years, with the centres of some cities, especially Athens, Lisbon and Madrid, regularly brought to a halt.

The Spanish capital has often seen different protests in different parts of the city at the same time. On one day, during the making of this film, protestors furious at redundancies at a local television station were vying for the public’s attention with doctors a few streets away who were angry at the privatisation of hospitals.

At the TV demonstration, Carmen Diaz, a newly laid-off employee, was trying to work out what to do next. “We’ll have to go elsewhere. There’s no work, 925 of us lost our jobs – some of us have worked here [for] 15 or 20 years,” she said. A colleague was equally as despairing. “I’m 47, not young,” she said. “Where should I go? Abroad? Into a flat with five-year-old children? It’s upsetting.”

With no immediate prospect of relief in sight, it is perhaps not surprising that hundreds of thousands of Europeans have abandoned their home countries and gone in search of a better life elsewhere.

For some, this is merely a matter of moving elsewhere in Europe – to a country, like Germany, that has survived the downturn in reasonable shape. But others have been forced to go further afield; following in the footsteps of previous European generations driven overseas by the wars, poverty and financial calamities of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

But what is different about this 21st century wave of migration is the economic standing of many of the countries to which they are heading. In previous centuries, the continent’s economic refugees often sought sanctuary in colonies in Latin America, Asia and Africa, able to take advantage of opportunities and preferential treatment afforded by their supposed status as European migrants.

However, in the intervening years many of these former colonies – having long since become independent and self-reliant – have managed to catch up, and in some cases overtake, the European country to which they were once subject. Spain and Argentina are a case in point. Spain’s economy is currently mired in recession, while the South American country – although not without its own social problems and rising inflation – is enjoying a boom. This reversal of fortunes offers opportunities to Spanish migrants that can no longer be found at home.

Fortunately, Argentina is generally happy to welcome them. Over two-thirds of the population are descended from European stock – although only around four percent are first generation migrants – and there is sympathy for the European influx, especially for those bringing much needed skills. New arrivals need nothing more than their passport and a police certificate as a new law guarantees them the right to healthcare and education and allows them to stay, even if they have no work.

Carlos Blanco is one of those who grabbed the chance to make a new life. For the Spanish chef who lost successive jobs as the restaurants he worked in folded, it was an easy choice to make. And the common language and similar customs have made adjusting to life in Argentina easy.

“You walk around in the centre of Buenos Aires and it’s like being in Spain. I strongly recommend it to anyone struggling there who sees no future prospects. Why not emigrate? You can still go back to where you came from at any time,” Blanco said.

But not all of Europe’s new economic refugees are heading to countries that are a simulacrum of home. While many Portuguese migrants, for example, naturally opt for Brazil because of its thriving oil-rich economy and common language, others are looking to make a home in more unexpected places, such as their nation’s former African colonies of Mozambique and Angola.

In Lisbon, long lines form outside these two countries’ embassies – an unusual sight in the capital of a European state which only a few years ago was the target of economic migrants coming the other way. Those waiting for visas for Mozambique hope to find opportunities in a country whose economy has been boosted in recent years by the exploitation of coal and natural gas and which since the mid-1990s has been politically stable.

For the most part, they are well received. Last year, according to the Portuguese consulate in Maputo, there were 17,000 registered Portuguese nationals living in the southern provinces of Maputo, Gaza and Inhambane and the number is growing. However, the true figure is hard to determine because there are many Portuguese who arrive in Mozambique on a tourist visa and then find an illegal job in the shadow economy. Once their visas expire, they leave the country and then return again, as tourists. This has recently forced the Mozambican authorities to tighten border controls and expel dozens of Portuguese who have abused their permits.

The paradoxes of a situation in which Europeans are seeking relief from their economic woes in an African state are not lost on many Mozambicans – who know that despite their country’s growing economy many of their fellow citizens are still struggling with extreme poverty.

Antonia Jorge is the Mozambican personnel manager of a health clinic, which as well as dealing with some of the consequences of deprivation, also employs Europeans on its staff. Sitting in a cafe in downtown Maputo she pondered on the way roles have been reversed: “We always had a very different view of the Europeans. We have never seen them as people who need to come to Africa to find a better life. And now, all of the Portuguese… that is the irony of history. They first came to colonise us. The fact that we can help them today,  I find somehow rather interesting.”