LISBON, Portugal — Plenty of European leaders have a problem with refugees, but António Costa’s is unusual: the Portuguese prime minister can’t get enough of them.
Costa has unilaterally more than doubled the quota allocated to Portugal under a European Union program to relocate refugees languishing in Italy and Greece.
The 10,000 he’s agreed to receive is a drop in the ocean compared to the over 1.3 million people who have flooded into Europe over the past 14 months.
Yet the offer from small, economically challenged Portugal looks generous set against the line taken by countries shunning the EU plan, which is designed to relieve the Greeks and Italians by resettling 160,000 refugees around the 28-nation bloc.
“This crisis is a threat to European values,” Costa told parliament before flying off to last week’s EU summit. “We have to be resolute in tackling it, to maintain the essential value of human dignity.”
He wants Portugal to set an example of European solidarity, as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and others resist refugee relocation.
So far, however, just 149 refugees have trickled in to Portugal under the relocation plan.
That pitifully low number is due, Portuguese officials insist, more to the inefficiencies of the EU plan than any lack of readiness on their part.
They point out that Portugal is still in third place — behind France and Finland — in receiving refugees under the plan.
After welcoming a first planeload of 64 refugees flown directly from Greece on March 7, the government is studying an appeal from refugee support groups for an EU-funded air-bridge to bring in many more and serve as a model for other countries.
It’s unclear, however, how many refugees are willing to swap Greece for Portugal, rather than pursue their goal of reaching Germany, Sweden or other preferred northern destinations.
As record numbers of refugees poured into the EU last year, Portugal got just 872 asylum requests. That included 19 Syrians, five Iraqis and four Afghans — the three nationalities at the forefront of the flow into Europe.
By far the largest group heading to Portugal was Ukrainian — seeking to join compatriots who make up the country’s biggest non-Portuguese-speaking immigrant community.
A group of 74 Syrians did show up in late 2013 after a circuitous journey through Turkey, Morocco and Guinea-Bissau. Portuguese authorities put them up in a seaside vacation complex outside Lisbon, but they disappeared days later, thought to be headed for Germany.
“Many of the refugees don’t know Portugal, they have no idea of the conditions that have been prepared here to receive them. We have to make an effort to inform them of the opportunities,” says Rui Marques, coordinator of the Refugee Support Platform, which is pushing the air-bridge plan.
There’s across-the-board political support for Costa’s policy of encouraging more Middle Easterners to head for mainland Europe’s westernmost country.
It’s not hard to find malcontents muttering about refugees posing a security risk or burdening already tight finances, but Portugal, along with neighbor Spain, is an exception in a Europe where support for ultra-rightist groups has surged in response to the refugee influx.
A nationalist party that ran on an anti-refugee platform in last October’s general election picked up a mere 0.5 percent of the vote.
In parliament last week, the center-right opposition united behind a motion backing the refugee policy of Costa’s Socialist administration. A resolution condemning the closing of borders in Europe won unanimous support.
“It’s desperate how Europe is flailing about, unable to find a response to this tragedy,” complained conservative lawmaker Pedro Mota Soares. “Ten successive summits have failed to produce answers.”
Cynics suggest the big hearted refugee policy — given the lack of actual refugees — is an easy way for Costa to make friends in Berlin and Brussels as he seeks to persuade eurozone budget hawks to grant space for his drive to “turn the page on austerity.”
It’s a charge the government hotly denies.
“Portugal is not aiming to win points with its policy on refugees, or to gain capital that could be used in other areas. This is not our motivation,” Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva said during a recent meeting with foreign journalists. “Providing a welcome to refugees is an obligation under international law.”
For citizens worried about the cost in a land struggling to consolidate a fragile recovery after years of recession, Costa promotes possible economic benefits.
Memories of the retornados
The open Portuguese approach has its emotional side. Few families here were left untouched by the country’s own refugee crisis in 1975, when up to 1 million people — a tenth of Portugal’s population — fled to the motherland from Angola and four other newly independent former colonies in Africa.
Memories of quaysides crowded with retornados clutching their meager belongings are etched deep in the national psyche.
“The return from the colonies has left Portugal with a very significant experience in this area,” says Marques. “What Portugal did in 1975, shows what Europe could do if it had the will. Proportionally it would be like Europe taking in 56 million people, yet it’s failing to handle one million.”
More recently, Portugal has also won kudos for successes in integrating foreign migrants. It ranked second to Sweden in MIPEX 2015, an EU-funded survey of integration policies in 38 developed countries.
Portugal, however, has fewer immigrants than most EU countries. It’s more of an exporter of people — over a fifth of its population live abroad, the highest rate in the EU after Malta.
Foreign-born residents make up 8.2 percent of Portugal’s population according to the EU statistics agency Eurostat. That compares to around 12 percent in Germany, France and Britain, and over 15 percent in Belgium, Austria or Sweden.
Integration has been eased because most immigrants hail from Portuguese-speaking nations like Brazil, Cape Verde or Angola that share a cultural affinity with their new home, or other European countries led by Ukraine and Romania.
There are fewer than 4,000 from Middle Eastern or North African countries, according to latest official figures from the Portuguese immigration service.
Portuguese officials acknowledge concern that a sudden influx of newcomers with unfamiliar origins could upset the broad pro-refugee consensus, but they feel that’s a risk worth taking given the stakes.
Lisbon’s biggest concern is the refugee crisis’ potential to wreck the Schengen pact on free cross-border travel within the EU, or even to inflict irreparable damage on the union itself.
“If every country treats the refugee problem as a problem for its neighbor, Schengen is finished,” cautions Santos Silva. “That would have devastating effects for the European economy and for European integration.”
Although his minority administration governs with permission of leftists who are lukewarm or hostile to the EU, Costa is an avowed euro-enthusiast.
Like the center-right opposition, the government views EU open borders as essential for an economy heavily dependent on European investment, exports to other EU countries and remittances sent home from workers in the north.
By welcoming refugees, Costa hopes to do his bit to rebuild tattered European unity.
First he needs to attract refugees with their sights set on Germany, Sweden or other countries reputed for generous welcomes and where many have friends and families. The government acknowledges the difficulties in persuading them to head instead for a faraway country with little renown as a land of economic opportunity.
“Refugees are citizens with rights … they cannot be obliged to establish themselves in one or another country,” says Santos Silva. He’s hopeful, however, that once EU countries “all assume their responsibilities” to open up, the refugees will choose their destinations in a more rational way.”
They might be tempted by a pilot program to settle refugee families in rural central Portugal that’s receiving international attention — including from the U.N. refugee agency — as a possible model for others to follow.
“They are happy here,” says Nataliya Bekh, coordinator of the project that placed 20 refugees from Syria and Sudan in the historic fortress town of Penela last November.
“Their children are safe. They are learning Portuguese. Now we’re looking to find them jobs.”
She says the foundation she works with is ready to receive 200 more. “I’m using my experience as an immigrant to help these people,” explains Bekh, who arrived from Ukraine in 2003.
“Portugal is a very welcoming country,” she said in a telephone interview. “When we came here, people were so kind to us.”
She puts that down to Portugal’s emigration experience. “We asked people why they were so kind to us, and they’d say it’s in the hope their relatives living abroad would also be treated kindly.”