Return migration and aging rural areas in the time of Covid-19

Disclaimer: this post was first published on 24 March 2020, but I tried to update it regularly… Last update: 30 April (day of the declaration of the State of Calamity, to replace the State of Emergency).

The academic community is extremely involved in the debate on the Covid-19 pandemy. And this does not only concern the ones in public health, microbiology and medecine. Migration scholars too are following closely the news. Just as an illustration, my colleague Thomas Lacroix has created a thread where he compiles articles on the topic.

In fact, people who experience migrations are particularly vulnerable at this moment. Decent housing, health insurance coverage, the possibility to work from home, virtual social networks to deal with the social isolation, language command, and savings… all what I don’t really have to think about… some are haunted by the lack of it every minute the last few weeks.

Situation of immigrants in Portugal:

Despite the lockdown, undocumented immigrants kept working hence increasing their vulnerability. Among them, a large part are originally from Brazil, working but yet without residence.

To make sure they could access services, on 27 March, the government issued all pending demands for visas, regularizing migrants in Portugal. Some, like Italian writer Roberto Savianio, declared that this move was historical. But representatives of the civil society, while praising that step, also wonder to which extent it can exclude a large part of migrants who were not in a process at the home office, and how it will be dealt with after the sanitary crisis. At the moment, the regularisation is considered temporary – just the time of the Emergency State, declared from 19 March to 2 May so far. But some health centres do not comply and refuse the access (see in Caldas da Rainha).

However, the government seems to be following this rather open-minded agenda, with the announced resettlement of 1000 unaccompanied children from Greek camps to Portugal.

Those who are employed or self-employed should be able to benefit from the support funds the state has unblocked. But how so, if one does not read Portuguese? A Portuguese immigrant in Luxemburg translates decrees and documents for them!

In the Algarve region, an agricultural worker was diagnosed, and 59 of his co-workers were quarantined, considered at high risk. The workers were sharing three houses, living 20 to 30 together. In the Odemira region, accommodation solutions are implemented to quarantine agricultural workers. But with the spring, the need for agricultural workers is rising. An article published on 29 April suggests that some discussion happens to shift tourism-based migrant workers to agriculture.

As for Lisbon, on 19 April, I see that the members of the Facebook group of my neighborhood become frantic, posting pictures about an evacuation in the main street, and claiming that “this is a disgrace”. I sense something migration-covid19 related. And indeed, a case declared in a hostel where 200 lived, mostly migrants and refugees, called for the evacuation of the building, and the testing of all its residents. On 20 April, results showed that 99 were sick, with 70 more awaiting for the results. On 21 April, they were housed in an air base, where they are isolated in separated rooms.

Portuguese emigrants willing to return

If Portugal has received increased numbers of immigrants since the 1990s, it is still an emigration country. As Portugal declared the State of Emergency and closed its borders, a friend in Brazil told me that flights from Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were maintained in order to repatriate Portuguese nationals, in those two cities. Diaspora networks seemed to match with flights’ schedules. And from end to March to mid-April, 48 Portuguese from Venezuela were rapatriated to Portugal.

The repatriation of nationals is one concern of all States which are closing their borders. But keeping people at home is another. Like in France, Portuguese have been tempted to take advantage of rural life when the lockdown started. However, organising a vacation in the countryside comes with some issues: it spreads the risks of contamination to remote areas, which do not have the infrastructure to treat patients in need of intensive care! Hence, there have been calls asking Portuguese to stay in their flats – even if it’s not as green as grandma’s garden…

In the region where I carry out my research, local leaders have been extremely worried of reverse (even though temporary) migration. Mayor of Bragança Dias tries to make returnees respect the quarantine, pleading that villages are the residence of a quite aging population. End of March, three differents articles were published in the Luxemburg based Contacto, in Expresso, and in Zap. And in fact, some of the participants to my research are back home…

The same applies to the other regions that are traditionnally regions of out-migration. On 25 March, Sapo news has published that 57,000 emigrants are coming back to Portugal (a mix of forced inactivity and the soon approaching Easter holidays they claim), putting at risk the local population. An entire village in the Braga region is isolated because an emigrant from France came back for a baptem and contaminated others.

Vila Real’s mayor asked emigrants not to come back for Easter. As the State of Emergency was renewed on 2 April, to last at least until 17 April 2020, the Prime Minister Costa and the President Marcelo both asked emigrants not to come back for Easter, hence reinforcing regulations regarding cross-region circulation. Some days later, the Minister of Foreign Affairs made a similar call to the Portuguese community abroad.

However, some still take their own cars to cross the borders and come back. This is the case of Portuguese seasonal workers from Swiss. Some Portuguese in France also come back to assist relatives in need, or because they have been laid off. The local newspaper of the Leiria region published an article where some who decided to come back tell how they tried to respect the quarantine.

Published in Público, 1 April 2020

Bragança area and the southern Algarve region have put in place quarantine for people arriving from abroad, but the Ministry of Health has found that this was done without national coordination, hence, it suspended the restriction of circulation on 24 March! Its representatives claim it has to be approved at national level first. But some leaders have find it was a lack of courage.

As for Portuguese students abroad, Publico journal has realised an investigation on Erasmus students, available here.

Situation after Easter holidays:

For the Easter holidays, the lockdown was made more severe, with the prohibition to circulate outside of one’s municipal boundary. But what about after Easter? On 19 April, the state of Emergency was prolonged to 2 May. Some workers need to go back to work, as those Portuguese workers who need to get back to Switzerland.

What about the Portuguese who stayed abroad?

If I just mentioned articles published regarding emigrants who wish to come back, some also stayed abroad, even when they lost their job. The government has put aside an envelop of 600,000 Euros to assist them, and made available online and phone services at consulates and embassies.

A lot work in sectors where they feel quite exposed, such as the construction sector in Luxemburg. Some just try to make the best out of the lockdown, such as this dentist who testifies here.

Expresso also published an article related to the suspension of loan’s payments, including for emigrants abroad who bought a house in Portugal.

Rumours had spread that the Easter holidays’ regulations will apply this summer, but a Luxemburg-based newspaper reassured the emigrants that they will be able to go back to Portugal this summer.

With the lockdown being extended, Portugal also started to repatriate bodies of its emigrants for funerals…

To follow the situation in Portugal, the Ministry of Health updates the data here.

This time is definitely one of increased anxiety for everyone. Hopefully, when it will end, we will have the time and possibility to reflect on issues related to mobility, vulnerability and geographies of health and care.


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