The shrinking Portuguese village and its emigration politics

This week, and after a month of investigation, the mayor of the Italian village of Riace – the most symbolic of the villages that have developed an immigration policy – was arrested, and the immigrants living in the village will be removed

I first came across the story of Riace and his charismatic mayor last year, when I saw the documentary film Un Paese de Calabria. Two elements can be connected to the experience of the villages I aim at surveying during this research project: the demographic loss villages such as Riace have experienced during the large waves of out-migration decades ago; and the extent to which immigration has been central to the daily lives of the villagers. As a matter of fact, many remember being themselves or having family members being immigrants; and they remember helping smuggling immigrants – those experiences can be extended to the ones of villagers in northern Portugal.

From this month to August 2020, I will work on villages in the north-east of Portugal, located in the region of Terras de Trás-os-Montes, Guarda and Castelo Branco. As one can see on this map, the red markers represent cities that include more than 50,000 residents (such as Castelo Branco), the ones in green, more than 20,000 (such as Bragança), while the majority of the municipalities, in blue, are in fact villages with less than 20,000 residents.

Pre-selected municipalities for fieldwork – MigRural project

Once I figured what was the repartition of the villages and cities in these areas, I looked for demographic statistics. And I could not believe what I was seeing: all the region experienced a huge loss of population between 1961 and 2011, with some villages like Vinhais or Miranda do Douro losing two thirds of their residents.

I therefore immediately wonder if migration was seen as a viable option to attract new residents to these shrinking villages. The international immigration numbers are actually rather low (a few hundreds at most for a city like Bragança), so I looked at return migration. Even though I could not find (yet) numbers, I found this: the repartition of GAE – the municipal office in charge of supporting returning emigrants – in the areas I will study is incredibly important.

What I see, is that for each city and village marked, the yellow marker indicates the presence of a GAE in October 2018. How exciting to see the correlation!

Presence of GAE in pre-selected municipalities – MigRural project

There are obviously close to zero answers, and at least ten new questions now. But the relations between the demographic loss experienced the last decades, the emigration experiences of inhabitants in the region (directly or through relatives and neighbours), and the institutional network put in place today, are already interconnected and should be further explored.


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