LISBON, Portugal — Spain and Portugal have for decades lured poor immigrants from their former colonies. Now, in a historic role reversal, these one-time empire builders are seeing legions of frustrated young people head to old dominions in quest of a better life.
Europe’s ruinous debt crisis and job-sapping economic miseries are reshaping migration trends, with a generation of home-grown talent grabbing at the chance of economic rewards on continents once treated with disdain.
Portuguese are packing their bags for booming Angola and Mozambique in Africa, and for emerging economic powerhouse Brazil, where there is a shortage of engineers to prepare the country for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Spaniards are being drawn to their former colonies in Latin America.
While analysts say the true scale of the new migration is still hard to determine because official statistics lag behind trends, anecdotal evidence and fragmentary data point to what’s going on.
Portugal’s Emigration Observatory says the number of Portuguese registered at consulates in Brazil jumped from 678,822 in 2009 to 705,615 the following year.
In Angola, the number went from almost 57,000 in 2008 to just over 74,500 in 2009. The number of Mozambican residence permits granted to Portuguese in 2010, meanwhile, was up almost 13 per cent on the previous year, to nearly 12,000.
Spanish electoral registers show around 30,000 Spaniards moved to Argentina between June 2009 and November 2010 — an 11 per cent increase over that period. Some 6,400 went to Chile — a jump of 24 per cent in the same timeframe — and 6,800 headed for Uruguay, an increase of 16 per cent.
In Spain, where one in five are out of work, opportunities in Latin America have become a magnet for those whose career hopes are thwarted by a grinding recession.
“The emerging markets are where it’s happening, that’s where the jobs are,” says Jorge Borges, a 35-year-old Portuguese civil engineer.
Disheartened by bleak career prospects in Portugal, whose crippling debt crisis pushed it this week to seek a bailout like Greece and Ireland, Borges crossed the border five years ago and tapped into Spain’s building boom.
Then the overleveraged Spanish economy also collapsed, and Borges recently lost his job. Now he wants to move on again, but Europe’s wretched economies are not an option — and his online job hunt is targeting vacancies in Brazil and Angola, distant Portuguese-speaking countries.
“The first chance I get, I’m going overseas,” Borges said from Zaragoza, Spain, where he is awaiting the call to go abroad.
Brazil in particular is a magnet. The Latin American giant is recruiting foreign civil engineers and architects to meet demand for major public works projects, including more than $200 billion — close to Portugal’s annual GDP — in energy infrastructure. Brazil’s economy grew 7.5 per cent in 2010, the highest growth rate since 1986, and is expected to expand by more than 5 per cent a year through 2014.
“The big drive is to Brazil,” Carlos Matias Ramos, president of Portugal’s national association of engineers, says of recent emigration among his members. He adds: “They’re mostly young people.”
Spain is struggling to overcome nearly two years of recession triggered by the collapse of a real estate bubble. In Portugal, a decade of scrawny growth drove unemployment to a record 11.2 per cent last year and left it saddled with monumental debts.
Ireland and Greece, other debt-stressed countries that took bailouts last year, as well as more robust France and Italy, also report they are bleeding talent as young globe-trotters take flight.
“The first to leave (in a crisis) are always the ones with the most marketable skills,” says Demetrios Papademetriou, the president of the non-profit Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. who also chairs the World Economic Forum’s migration task force.
Smart, creative and dynamic graduates provide vital fuel to stoke national economies, and the flight of this generation is “one of the most consequential byproducts of the (European) crisis,” according to Papademetriou.
He says he has warned Europe’s political leaders that the brain drain demands just as much attention as fiscal measures devised to reduce the crushing national debt at the heart of the continent’s current troubles.
“They are losing the people who can get them either out of the crisis long-term or who will be needed to start and fuel the recovery,” Papademetriou said in a telephone interview.
Spanish architect Xavier Casas may be one of those people. He gave up his business in Barcelona a year ago after work dried up and moved with his Argentine wife Luciana to Rafaela, a town 530 kilometres north of Buenos Aires.
“We’re working flat out now,” the 31-year-old said, adding that he encountered a continent that “is really thriving.”
Marta Lopez-Tappero, a migration expert at the Adecco international recruitment agency in Madrid, says Latin America has become a modern day El Dorado for Spaniards.
Lopez-Tappero profiles the typical Spaniard looking for a job in Latin America: male, aged 25-35, and highly qualified, especially in engineering, architecture or information technology.
In a rare public comment on Spain’s economic difficulties, King Juan Carlos chose to highlight the graduates’ predicament in a recent ceremony where he handed out scholarships for foreign study programs.
“I sincerely hope and wish that when your time comes to return home there are more jobs for you and that you can stay here because we really need you at the moment in Spain,” the monarch told the assembled students.
Portugal’s low-voltage economy can’t absorb the best-educated generation in its history.
More than 60,000 graduates are idle in their prime. Many more are in low-pay, dead-end jobs.
A recent song by pop group Deolinda set young people’s grievances to music and went viral online as it struck a chord with a generation. The song, called “What a fool I am,” lists their gripes, including being stuck at home with their parents despite investing years to polish their CVs.
One group of twenty-something graduates turned the music into a battle cry. Through a Facebook page they organized national protest marches last month, and more than 100,000 turned out in a dozen Portuguese cities.
“Not taking advantage of our generation … is national suicide,” says 25-year-old Alexandre Carvalho, one of the organizers.
Carvalho and his co-organizers want to pursue careers in Portugal but, he says, “it’s hard to stay. We’ll probably end up going abroad.”
Many Portuguese despair of their country of 10.6 million people, long one of the continent’s poorest, ever attaining average European standards of income. The past decade has delivered anemic economic growth of less than 1 per cent a year. And an EU survey in February found that only 5 per cent of Portuguese expect their standard of living to improve over the next 12 months.
Alvaro Santos Pereira, a researcher at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, estimates that between 1998 and 2008 some 700,000 Portuguese left their country. Many headed to two of the world’s top 10 fastest-growing countries — Portuguese-speaking Angola and Mozambique.
Margarida Marques, a sociology lecturer at Lisbon’s New University who studies post-colonial migration trends, says Angola, which produces 20 per cent of the world’s diamonds and is using billions in oil revenue to rebuild after an almost three-decade civil war following the departure of Portugal’s colonial administration, is also sucking in skilled Portuguese labour.
Marques shares the story of a former student who several years ago set up a recruitment agency that takes Portuguese to the southwest African country.
“He’s rich now,” she says. “There’s a lot of demand.”
Bernardo Marques, a 32-year-old electrical engineer, moved to the Angolan capital Luanda a year ago, lured by a monthly salary four times what he was making in Portugal.
Like many emigrants around the world, he’s ready to sacrifice a few years away from home to save a nest egg that will allow him to buy a house and set up his own company when he returns.
For that, he’s willing to put up with African hardships — the stench of open sewers, the potholed roads, the extortionate prices for shabby apartments, and being confronted daily by evidence of what he calls “shocking” poverty.
Being far from home is bearable, he says, because there are so many other Portuguese there, gathering at Luanda’s new shopping malls and upscale restaurants.
“In some places it’s like being in Portugal,” he says.
Associated Press writers Jorge Sainz in Madrid and Vicente Panetta in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.