Portugal: High and rising emigration in a context of high, but decreasing, unemployment

Emigration is at its highest since 1973 due to high unemployment, job insecurity and deteriorating working conditions. Recent data indicate that an increasing proportion of emigrants are highly qualified, stoking concerns of a 'brain drain'. Meanwhile, official statistics show a drop in unemployment in 2015, but various organisations dispute the figures, arguing that certain population groups are wrongly excluded from unemployment statistics.


​Portugal has the highest emigration rate as a proportion of population in the European Union. More than two million Portuguese people (20% of the population) now live outside the country. It is estimated that more than 485,000 workers left Portugal between 2011 and 2014 to seek better living and working conditions. The demographics have changed recently, with a greater proportion of emigrants having higher qualifications. This is closely linked with the destruction of jobs and labour market deterioration, which has resulted in very high unemployment.

Emigration trends

Current emigration rates are the highest they have been since 1973, according to a report from the Emigration Observatory (OEm) (in Portuguese, 3.2 MB PDF). The report notes that Portuguese citizens emigrate predominantly to European destinations. The UK is the most popular destination (receiving 30,000 in 2013 and 31,000 in 2014), especially among young people with higher qualifications (such as nurses). France and Germany are the next most popular destinations.

Portuguese emigration to OECD countries is relatively gender-balanced but with a slight, and growing, overrepresentation of women; women constituted 52% of those who emigrated in 2011. The number of Portuguese people with higher qualifications living in OECD countries grew by 87.5% between 2000–2001 and 2010–2011, representing approximately 10% of the total number of Portuguese emigrants in 2010–2011. However, this increase in better-educated emigrants is mostly the result of an increasingly high level of qualification in the Portuguese population rather than a higher incidence of emigration from skilled sectors. Most Portuguese emigrants continue to have relatively low skill levels; in 2010–2011, 61% were educated to primary level only (in Portuguese, 3.1 MB PDF).

Unemployment trends

Unemployment figures have been a subject of controversy recently, with government, social partners, academics and civil society offering different perspectives on the official unemployment statistics.

Unemployment rose significantly during the financial crisis, from 12.7% (13% for women and 12.3% for men) in 2011 to 16.2% (16.4% for women and 16% for men) in 2013. Recent data from Statistics Portugal (INE) show that unemployment fell in 2015 (in Portuguese). Between the first and the third quarters of the year, the unemployment rate decreased from 13.7% to 11.9%, representing the largest decrease in recent years. In the third quarter of 2015, there were 70,100 fewer unemployed people compared with the same period in 2014. Portugal had not recorded such a low rate since 2010.

These figures were widely used by the government that held office until 26 November 2015 to demonstrate the success of their policies. However, trade unions, academics and civil society, in general, see these figures very differently.

The General Confederation of Portuguese Workers – National Trades Union (CGTP-IN) has said that recent employment policies encouraged emigration as a means of economic adjustment. It also argues that the last government focused only on the drop in unemployment, ignoring significant job losses in Portugal in recent years.

The CGTP-IN used INE data to show that, between 2008 and 2014, 617,000 jobs were destroyed (in Portuguese, 149 KB PDF). This represents 12.1% of total employment in Portugal. In the same document, CGTP-IN argued that unemployment figures are higher than those shown in statistical data because the official unemployment figures do not consider discouraged workers, who are no longer registered as unemployed, or the underemployed, who want to work more hours but can only find part-time jobs. Also invisible in the official figures are the vulnerable people who are given employment-insertion contracts to enter the labour market and people who have internships promoted by the Institute for Employment and Vocational Training (IEFP). Both groups are included in the employment statistics, even though they do not have formal job contracts or comparable pay. If all these categories were considered, according to CGTP-IN, the actual rate of unemployment and underemployment in 2014 would rise to 24.3%.

This perspective is shared by a study published by the Portuguese Observatory of Crisis and Alternatives (in Portuguese, 479 KB), which holds that the official unemployment rate provided by INE has underestimated the level of unemployment since 2013. Furthermore, the study uses IEFP data to show that an unprecedentedly high number of unemployed people are enrolled in vocational training and employment programmes (planos ocupacionais de emprego). Since 2011, participants in these schemes have not been counted as unemployed. In 2008, people in occupational programmes represented about 6% of the total unemployment figure; in 2013 and 2014, they represented 21% and 29% respectively. This study also analyses the increase of discouraged unemployment, underemployment and migration. By adding the number of emigrants and discouraged unemployed to the official figures for the economically active population, it concludes that unemployment might not be on the downward trend that official figures suggest.

Unemployment, emigration and educational qualification

The number of people withdrawing their registration as unemployed because they plan to emigrate has increased continuously and significantly. In 2013, the IEFP registered 38,550 people withdrawing their registration, 23,855 more than de-registered in 2008 (an increase of 62.3%). Although in 2014 the number of withdrawals fell (31,314) compared with 2013, this still remains well above the 2008 numbers. Between January and October 2015, the IEFP recorded 21,704 withdrawals because of emigration.

The emigration of highly qualified (and mostly young) men and women has also been an issue in policy debate. In a recent interview, researcher Rui Pena Pires, who is Coordinator of the OEm, stressed that even though most Portuguese emigrants are unqualified, this level of emigration should concern policymakers. The emigration of highly qualified people is closely linked with the freezing of admissions and career development in the public sector (in Portuguese) as part of the 2011 bail-out agreement reached with the so-called Troika. He added that this is because the public sector is the largest employer of university graduates in Portugal.

The employment status of researchers in Portugal and its relationship to brain drain was the focus of a recent report (in Portuguese, 1.2 MB PDF). The authors conclude that 73% of the 1,820 research fellows sampled have a precarious employment relationship and face great difficulty finding a stable job. Most of the researchers questioned (77.8%) had never had an employment contract. Only 22.2% stated that they had had at least one employment contract with access to full social protection and labour rights. This employment relationship seems to influence the intention to emigrate. Excluding the respondents who have already emigrated, the report shows that of those who do not have an employment relationship, including research fellows, 39.1% are willing to emigrate, 21.5% do not think about it, and 39.3% are undecided. As for those who have an employment relationship, 30.8% are willing to emigrate, 38.8% do not think about it, and 30.3% are undecided. 

Brain drain has thus become a specific matter of concern. Results from the study Brain drain and academic mobility from Portugal to Europe (in Portuguese, 310 KB PDF) show that the emigration of the skilled Portuguese population has been increasing significantly. Since 2008, more than 20,000 skilled individuals have left the country seeking work (against 8,000 in 2007). The health sector is particularly affected, given the high numbers of nurses and, more recently, physicians emigrating to escape unemployment, lack of career opportunities and job insecurity.

The emigration of nurses to the UK deserves particular attention. According to a 2014 study of nurses working in the UK (in Portuguese and English 655 KB PDF), two-thirds of these nurses are young people who are either looking for their first job or who have lost their job. Emigration not only allows recent graduates and unemployed professionals to get a job, it also helps them further their careers through promotion.


Portugal traditionally has had high migration outflows, but emigration has been increasing in recent years. The rise of unemployment, job insecurity and precariousness, combined with deteriorating working conditions set against the backdrop of the financial crisis, has led to a fast and significant increase in emigration. An increasing proportion of those leaving are young, female and highly qualified.

In the public and policy debate, emigration and unemployment are closely intertwined. However, there are different interpretations of the emigration and unemployment trends. Recent studies suggest that unemployment and job precariousness are the main reasons that underlie the high, and growing, number of emigrants. At the same time, emigration has contributed to the recent slight decrease in Portugal’s official unemployment figures. 

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