Portugal: Immigrants bear brunt of rising unemployment

Immigrants are among the groups particularly affected by rising unemployment and deteriorating working conditions in Portugal. A recent study has looked at how three main groups of immigrants, from Brazil, Cape Verde and Ukraine, access the country's labour market. It also analyses their specific difficulties when unemployed, particularly in applying for social protection.


Over the last decade in Portugal, unemployment has persistently grown (although the increase has slowed since 2014). Immigrants have been among the groups most affected. This is a new and somewhat paradoxical phenomenon, given that immigrants come to Portugal to take jobs in sectors traditionally short of labour – such as construction and public works, personal and domestic services, care services, and hotels and restaurants.

A study published in December 2014 demonstrates the increasing over-representation of immigrants among those who are unemployed (in Portuguese, 2MB PDF).

Commissioned by the High Commission for Migration, the study looks at how three main groups of immigrants – from Brazil, Cape Verde and Ukraine – access the labour market. It also analyses the specific difficulties they encounter being unemployed, particularly in applying for social protection.

The economic sectors where most immigrants work have been greatly affected by the financial crisis. This makes immigrants even more vulnerable on the labour market. The survey looked at whether their particular exposure to unemployment is simply a consequence of the crisis, or if the following factors also play a role:

  • incompleteness of integration policies;
  • inadequacy of social protection systems;
  • inconsistencies in the control of the informal economy;
  • lack of capacity of public employment services to address the needs of specific groups.

The research adopted both a quantitative and qualitative methodology, using the following approaches:

  • focus-group interviews with unemployed immigrants (12 participants; overrepresentation of nationals from Brazil, Ukraine and Cape-Verde);
  • exploratory online survey addressed to unemployed immigrants (59 participants);
  • desk-research (for example, press reports and legislation);
  • statistical analysis.

Unemployment and access to labour market

Immigration in Portugal evolved from a situation of sectoral concentration (with men in construction, and women in domestic services) to one of relative sectoral and occupational dispersion. It is clear, however, that most immigrants work in sectors particularly affected by the crisis. Furthermore, significant numbers of immigrants (from eastern Europe and Brazil, for example) are overqualified for their occupations, and are exposed to underemployment, low pay, low-quality jobs, poor job security, and cyclical unemployment. Informal and/or undeclared work is also frequent, especially among migrants from Cape Verde.

The number of unemployed immigrants has been growing continuously and consistently, as has the ratio of immigrants to native Portuguese workers who find themselves unemployed. Statistical evidence on unemployment rates, together with the slowing of labour migration flows since 2009, suggest that immigrants are among the social groups most vulnerable to the effects of the current crisis. 

From 2009 to 2012, unemployment rose significantly in Portugal from an average of 9.5% to 15.7%. In the same period the average unemployment rate of non EU migrants rose from 17.3% to 29.1%.

The overrepresentation of immigrants in unemployment statistics is confirmed by the figures for registered unemployment in the public employment services. These data confirm a growth in the number of foreign citizens registered as unemployed of 152% between January 2003 and January 2012 (from 16,389 to 41,316). In comparison, during the same period, the number of Portuguese nationals registered as unemployed rose by 54% (from 386,323 to 596,346).

Immigrants from Brazil, Ukraine and Cape Verde show a similar pattern of registration as the unemployed registered with the public employment services, with a greater increase after 2009. The growth of registered unemployment has been particularly high among Brazilians, tripling between 2004 and 2012. This may be related to the effect of the crisis on particular sectors and also to the precarious labour contracts that this group largely holds.

Unemployment and access to social protection

Immigrants’ problems on the labour market are illustrated by their higher unemployment rate, lower job quality and/or over-qualification. These difficulties are compounded by the problems they have claiming unemployment benefits.

The number of foreign recipients of unemployment benefits rose from 6,866 in 2002 to 41,601 in 2010. Between 2010 and 2012, Brazilians accounted for the greatest number of foreign recipients of unemployment benefits. This reflects their relative weight in the resident foreign population as well as their overrepresentation in unemployment.

However, in January 2012, only 46% of the registered unemployed immigrants were receiving unemployment benefits, while 56.3% of registered unemployed Portuguese were receiving benefits.

For the three groups studied, the analysis shows a general decrease in the coverage of unemployment benefits between 2010 and 2012. However, the rates differ by group:

  • eastern European citizens (a decrease from 63.8% in 2010 to 49.8% in 2012);
  • Brazilian citizens (from 61.8% to 52.6%);
  • citizens from a Portuguese-speaking African country (from 51.6% to 35%).

These data suggest that some immigrant groups have less access than others to social protection.


Migration in Portugal has been remarkably dynamic in the last 30 years, with people arriving from different countries, leading to a complex picture of migration flows. From being, historically, a country of emigration, Portugal began to be recognised during the 1990s as a country of immigration. However, more recently, it has shifted once again to being a place of emigration.

These dynamics have occurred in parallel with job losses over the last few years, and the resulting very high unemployment. Immigrants have been badly affected by the financial crisis, especially those people working in the sectors most directly affected and those who do not have a long-term residence permit. Their plight has been insufficiently addressed; the study referenced above is the first attempt to shed light on the topic.

Based on their analysis, the authors suggest several ways of tackling the specific difficulties faced by unemployed immigrants. These recommendations do not just focus on immigrants’ needs: they are relevant to the population as a whole and include the following:

  • preventing long-term unemployment;
  • planning limited-scale measures, oriented to companies’ needs and to the specific conditions of localities;
  • improving the supply of social care services, making them accessible to immigrants in particular;
  • investing in the education and qualification of workers;
  • consolidating the legal instruments that regulate the entry and stay of immigrants;
  • safeguarding the basic rights of immigrants regarding access to employment and social protection.


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