Portugal toughens migration rules after swing to the right

FILE PHOTO: Portugal's new government swearing-in ceremony, in Lisbon

By Catarina Demony and Patricia Vicente Rua

LISBON (Reuters) -Portugal announced on Monday a new plan that will toughen some immigration rules, following in the footsteps of other EU countries and days before Europeans head to the polls in an election set to tilt the bloc's politics to the right.

"We need people in Portugal willing to help us build a fairer and more prosperous society," said Portuguese Prime Minister Luis Montenegro. "But we cannot go to the other extreme and have wide-open doors."

The government will outlaw a widely used mechanism called "manifestation of interest", which for years allowed non-EU migrants without an employment contract to move to Portugal and request residency after paying social security for a year.

The end of the mechanism, which has already been promulgated by the president, means migrants must have a employment contract before moving to the country. Entry of qualified professionals, students, those from Portuguese-speaking nations and people seeking family reunion will be prioritised. The government provided no details on the type of "qualifications" it referred to.

According to Montenegro, there are currently around 400,000 pending regularisation processes, an issue the government hopes to tackle by creating a task force, restructuring the newly established migration and border agency, and increasing staff.

The plan illustrates the rightward shift in politics in much of Europe, as governments try to fend off the rise of the far-right by being tougher on immigration.


The far-right is rebounding in Portugal following a general election in March, which was won by a slim margin by the rightist Democratic Alliance (AD). The AD is governing without a majority and needs support from far-right party Chega or the centre-left Socialists to pass legislation.

The anti-immigration, populist Chega is the third-largest political party in Portugal, having quadrupled its parliamentary representation to 50 lawmakers.

Chega's leader Andre Ventura said the plan, of which some measures still have to be approved in parliament, did not go far enough, describing it as "weak" and "ineffective".

Far-right and conservative parties are expected to make gains in this week's European Parliament elections, potentially tilting EU politics towards a tougher approach on law and order and border security.

Around 800,000 migrants live in Portugal, nearly double from a decade ago. Around 14% of taxpayers are migrants, contributing over 1.6 billion euros to the economy in 2022, while receiving about 257 million euros in social benefits.

Even though migrants make significant contributions, they are more likely to have precarious jobs and lower salaries, according to the Migration Observatory. In a 2023 report, the observatory said some sectors would collapse without foreign workers.

Under the previous Socialist government, in power for eight years since 2015, Portugal had one of Europe's most open migration regimes, although migrants have long complained about severe delays to obtain residency and other documents.

The delays have left many struggling to access housing and jobs.

Socialist leader Pedro Nuno Santos said the end of the "manifestation of interest" mechanism could lead to problems for those who arrive without a work visa, warning people might be left in a "inhumane situation with no way out".

(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Patricia Rua; Editing by Leslie Adler and Toby Chopra)