Austerity Diasporas – Portugal and Migration

Lisa Rodan continues our “Austerity Diasporas” series, with a second post related to her ongoing PhD research into the experiences of Portuguese migrants affected by the 2008 crash and ensuing austerity. The first post focused on social changes leading up to the 2011 Austerity measures. In this post, Lisa describes the influence of migration on Portuguese culture and history, sharing some of the main messages emerging from her fieldwork with migrants in the UK.

Mass migration is a concept that has shaped Portugal since the 15th century. The cultural sentiment of saudade for that which is missing or lost echoes within literature, discourse and the very soul of the Portuguese. According to any Portuguese you will ever meet, saudade is untranslatable to those whose country has not been shaped by chronic partings and longings to return.

So what’s different now? Throughout my research, my respondents have all been quick to point out the answer. Of the 110,000 Portuguese who left their homeland in 2013, a third now had degrees. Graduate migration was double what it was 10 years earlier. According to Joana, 35, a molecular biologist who did her PhD in Spain before moving to London where she has just had her first child, this was a structural problem born during the golden years of early EU membership – “that explosion of university education was short-sighted,” she says, “the labour market couldn’t cope with all the graduates. For me, I love my country but what would I do there? There is nothing for me there professionally.”

“The middle class is dead” says the father of another of my respondents. A 60-year old doctor with two jobs and three children studying and working abroad, in his opinion it all started going wrong with the Euro. “This is no longer a localised crisis, where you can just migrate and establish new communities, it’s a global one and where is it felt most? In the same countries who only a generation ago were welcomed into the European ‘family’ with open arms.”

Levels of cynicism vary according to the individuals behind those statistics. Carrying values inherited from post-EU prosperity, they don’t talk of ‘migration’, which is associated with rural, uneducated movement, but ‘adventure’, ‘opportunities’ and ‘choice’. In some cases, historical class divisions are noticeable- about a quarter of my respondents claim “no-one had migrated before”. Further probing revealed they meant “no-one like me”. These are the descendants of factory owners, landowners or the long-standing urban middle classes. In other words, a section of Portuguese society that had generally left travelling abroad for work to poorer country folk. For most of my respondents however, migration is a vibrant part of their family history. Many have parents or grandparents who had travelled to work in French hotels or Swiss construction sites, often commuting between there and their families back in the villages of (mainly) northern Portugal.

Regardless of family background, what the current generation have in common is the expectation of a standard of living based on the model their parents were able to provide for them growing up. Plentiful opportunities for work, eating out, travel. “Not luxurious, but a good life” is the common refrain. The Erasmus university exchange scheme is often mentioned as a rite of passage, following a childhood of holidays around Europe. “We are children of the EU” says Nuno, 32, an architect with an Italian wife, “it feels more natural to make a life here in London than anywhere else.” He presents the crisis as a positive thing, facilitating his decision to leave.  Susana, 34, a nurse, agrees. “I didn’t have to come, I had a job. I just wanted a better one! One where I could grow, start my life. It’s not like it was in my father’s day, he had no education and had to leave just to find work so he could support us.”

Dancing around claims “it’s not about work” however, professional success is the narrative that dominates and is interwoven with frustration at the lack of opportunities to progress and have a comparative standard of living back home. Despite initially being firm to differentiate their experience of migration as distinct from earlier generations, as I got to know my respondents I began to note a continuity of experiences. Many people referred me to a cultural concept known as desenrascar– another of those enigmatic Portuguese expressions which is variously described as ‘getting by’, ‘making do’ or ‘hustling’. Nearly three quarters of the people I spoke to had parents who had worked outside of Portugal at some point in their lives. Of these, many of them were also the children of retornados– the name given to the three quarters of a million Portuguese who were repatriated from Portugal’s African colonies after her empire crumbled in the 1970s. “Angola, Mozambique…those countries were all part of Portugal at the time,” they tell me, “so it wasn’t really migration. It was just going somewhere else in Portugal to try your luck.” Even Joana with her PhD and criticism of Portugal’s unrealistic expectations of the 1990s later tells me about her family’s route from Guinea-Bissau and her siblings now scattered around the world, adding “that’s just the way it is in my family, you are expected to migrate…it’s more unusual if you don’t!”

I did not meet a single person who came to the UK without knowing of someone already here. Sometimes a distant cousin or a long-lost childhood friend, reunited through Facebook, but in several cases a close family member. The social, financial or practical support of existing communities in both London and Portugal established a form of transnational movement equally, or perhaps even more, connected to each other than at any time in the past. Digital communications, a product of the same raging technological progress that crippled economies and crushed social systems have enabled deeper continuities with home and more extensive local networks in the latest chapter in a long history of movement out of a periphery country towards the global centres of power.

Lisa Rodan is a third year PhD student in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent where she is working with three colleagues on an ESRC funded project entitled Household Survival in Crisis: Austerity and Relatedness in Greece and Portugal.

For the past 12 months Lisa has been carrying out ethnographic interviews with university educated, Portuguese people in their 20s, 30s and early 40s in London, supplemented by time spent in Portugal where she has been lucky to meet some of their families. In a series of posts Lisa will share her initial analysis of some key themes arising from her fieldwork data, which she began to collect in June 2016 just after the Brexit vote. These encounters have ranged from one-off interviews to valued friendships and time spent with each other’s families. The content of the series will be a very close reading of  fieldwork notes in their raw form. Lisa welcomes any input and suggestions from interested parties.

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