When the church deals with migration and settlement

On 22 January 2019, I participated in an event organised by Caritas Portugal, and the Parliament of Portugal, entitled: Pacto Global para as Migrações Ordenadas, Seguras e Regulares – da sua adoção à implementação nacional. The main objective of the event was to provide an assessment of the activities carried out in Portugal since the Global Compact signed in Marrakesh on 10 and 11 December 2018.

I decided to attend for one reason in particular: I wanted to hear “how” people spoke of migrations and refuge in Portugal, especially in an auditorium of the Parliament. The programme was appealing, with various actors intervening including the head of the Parliament, Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues, the head of Caritas Portugal, project managers of the Caritas MIND project, of FORUM (Fórum das organizações católicas par immigração e asilo), of IOM Portugal, but also immigrants’ organisations’ representatives, private sector’s representatives and one mayor (and not from a random place: from the area I study, Trás-os-Montes!).

My first surprise was the religious character of the encounter. From the first speeches, the calls of Pope Francis, before the drafting of the Global Compact and after yet another human tragedy in the Mediterranean sea, were reminded several times, while passages of the bible relating to hospitality were displayed on PowerPoint presentations. The presence of religious organisations was also notable. A colleague of mine explained that Caritas Portugal was more explicit about its catholic imprint than European counterparts; and that the head of Parliament who first intervened was actually a member of the catholic branch of the socialist party (!).

Then, and to the best of knowledge and my understanding of Portuguese, no one actually discussed the full title of the compact which provides “safe, orderly and regular migrations”. On the contrary, the “safe and legal channels of immigration” were seen as an important point of the activities put in place. The MIND project does have a pillar addressing “the causes of forced migration”, but the results were not exactly looked at…

When it came to settlement in Portugal, speeches were a bit more encouraging. The head of Caritas, and others that followed after, insisted that the ultimate goal was not the integration of immigrants and refugees to the receiving society, but their inclusion, which he distinguished by saying that inclusion concerned us all. In sum, he and others after him, seemed to believe that society was dynamic and could change with new comers arriving. He also reminded that Portugal was a country of emigrants, and should remain open. Nevertheless, I did write in my notebook the following sentence, heard in one of the interventions: “we ought to correct the cultural aspects that are not compatible with our civilisation”. I was sceptical that actions would therefore follow the inclusion discourse…

Another dimension of the speeches was that of active participation of immigrants and refugees. The day started with a reminder that 450 billion dollars of remittances were sent last year, equalling three times development aid. “Migrants and development” are one of the projects of the MIND project; and “full development of migrants and refugees”, an objective of the FORUM. An invited scholar even reminded the “lucrative business of smuggling”, where criminal networks benefit more than States from immigration. With this in mind, looking at the contribution of immigrants was encouraged. This type of discourses is very much in line with the changes that occurred the last decade, where immigrants are evaluated along their performance and participation.

To activate the objectives of inclusion and participation, the speakers agreed that cooperation was needed, between the different states, but also among multiple partners, while keeping a sense of coherence. Civil society actors reminded the need to design projects with migrants, as well as to open spaces of debate where agency can be activated; and spaces of representation. However, the latter also demanded that structural constraints be contemplated. They pointed out that migrants lack opportunities to become representatives, to work, and to access legal channels… For instance, one person asked: “how many immigrants are judges, teachers and in the police?” while another said: “how many Blacks can you vote for?”. In Portugal, that praises itself for being a non-racist, pluralist country, those questions are met with anxiety.

Some sentences were more optimistic, and I ought to transcribe them too. Firstly, participants agreed that “we have to deconstruct the fact that migration is seen as a problem”. As one participant suggested that “migration should become an option and not an obligation”, another reminded (and maybe that could be one critic towards the title of the Global Compact) that the vulnerability of people who do not benefit from international protection systems cannot be ignored, and should be addressed urgently.

The last speech of the day was that of the mayor of Bragança, a northern peripheral city. Initiatives that the mayor presented resounded strongly with the marketing strategies of poorer cities, especially those who can count on immigrant groups and minorities! From scholarships to foreign students, to the future museum of Lusophone communities or the 16th edition of Bragança e a Comunidade Internacional, the mayor listed diversity-based projects that could potentially lead to urban development. I was very much excited (research-wise. I am not sure if to rejoice about the quick adoption of the diversity/urban development discourse) to hear this, since I have published on the topic (even though it was on Israeli towns). So, to be continued…

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