Portuguese emigration after World War II

Portuguese Emigration After World War II


The northern Portuguese landscape is dotted with old houses that are architecturally exotic, with plenty of small, picturesque towers and innumerable decorative elements. One also finds new houses, architecturally reminiscent of northern European cottages, with black roofs and large windows. Then there are expensive suburban houses, which their owners have covered with colorful tiles. A significant number of these are currently being built or enlarged.

These are the houses of former or present-day emigrants. The older ones are known as Brazilian houses and the more recent as French houses. Seemingly out of context, they dot the traditional landscape and constitute the most obvious material evidence that emigration has been a constant feature of modern Portuguese life.

Although Portuguese migrated to the United States, Venezuela, Germany, and Luxembourg (to name just a few of the countries where sizable Portuguese immigrant communities have settled historically), the labeling of these houses is rooted in the country’s migratory experience. Up to the 1950s, Brazil received more than 80 percent of Portuguese migratory flows, and France approximately half from that period on.

The objective of this chapter is to present a general overview of the Portuguese migratory experience from World War II to the 1980s. It is, however, important to emphasize that Portuguese migration has been a significant historical process for centuries, one that has changed not only the country’s landscape but also its way of life and its people’s mentality.

The analysis presented here is based on the assumption that Portuguese emigration is essentially an international labor flow, which has changed according to the demand for labor in the international market of the macro geographical system to which the country belongs. Its evolution has depended not only on the potential migrants’ assessment of available rewards for labor abroad, but also on the political sanctioning of the “recipient” nations and the strength of the migrant network active at both ends of the trajectory.

Migration Policies: The Legal Framework

The Marshall Plan gave Western Europe the means with which to launch its postwar economic recovery. (1) Southern Europe and other peripheral regions covered the initial labor shortages resulting from war casualties, and later substituted native labor in the so-called dirty and low-paid jobs. Thus, between 1958 and 1973, the six countries of the European Economic Community issued eight million first work permits to facilitate a mass transfer of labor from the peripheral south to the industrialized north of Europe.

It was only from the 1960s on that Portugal began to participate substantially in this intra-European transfer of labor. This can be shown with an analysis of foreign arrivals in France between 1950 and 1974. France was a major destination for migration in this period and the preferred destination for Portuguese emigrants. Between 1950 and 1959, Italians represented more than half of the total foreign inflow. In 1960, Spaniards equaled the number of Italians entering France, with each of these nationalities contributing 30,000 migrants to a total of 72,600 arrivals. The Spaniards replaced the Italians as France’s main suppliers of foreign labor from 1961 to 1965, and were in turn replaced by the Portuguese from 1966 to 1972. From 1962 on, Portugal’s share grew constantly. In 1970 and 1971, Portuguese migration peaked. In an overall total of 255,000 arrivals in 1970 and 218,000 in 1971, the Portuguese contribution represented 53 percent (136,000) and 51 percent (111,000 migrants) respectively. (2)

The Portuguese did not simply replace the Italians and the Spaniards numerically; they also took up jobs left vacant by them in public works, construction, and the domestic and personal service sectors, as well as in agriculture. (3) An analysis of the structure of the active native and foreign labor force in France also suggests that the labor market was segmented, with certain jobs specifically taken up by foreign laborers in the public works and construction sectors. (4)

The oil crisis of 1973-74 and the restrictive immigration policies of receiving countries halted the influx of foreigners. Up to then, however, the major recipient European countries had “open door” immigration policies. The same cannot be said of Portuguese migratory policy. Indeed, until 1974, individual freedom to emigrate was subordinated to the economic and imperial aims of the state. According to Article 31 of the 1933 Constitution, “The state has the right and the obligation to coordinate and regulate the economic and social life of the Nation with the objective of populating the national territories, protecting emigrants, and disciplining emigration.” The Estado Novo tried to attain three key goals with this policy: to meet the country’s own labor needs, to satisfy its interests in Africa, and to benefit from emigrant remittances with a supervised export of labor.

In order to insure the attainment of these goals the Estado Novo enacted several policy measures concerning emigration. Thus, in 1944 the issuing of ordinary passports to any industrial worker or rural labor was interdicted; in 1947, after a temporary total ban on emigration, a special government agency, simultaneously dependent on the Foreign and the Interior ministries, was created to regulate and supervise emigration. The Junta da Emigração aimed to implement a quota system that defined the maximum number of departures by region and occupation, after taking into account regional labor needs and the structure of the active population.

According to the same logic, several bilateral treaties were signed in the 1960s with the Netherlands, France, and the Federal Republic of Germany. These treaties, which explicitly aimed to maximize economic returns from emigration to these countries, were accompanied by an order to the Emigration Services to allow a maximum of thirty thousand legal departures a year, and by a total ban on the legal departure of those engaged in specific occupations. (5) The combined effect of these policies was to ensure a migratory flow that the state considered beneficial to the country’s labor supply and to its economic development.

The rationale behind this last set of governmental policies has to be linked to the new economic model of development endorsed by the Estado Novo during the 60’s. In fact, while the previous model of economic development favored the labor-intensive traditional industries in northern Portugal and rural development, the new model favored the creation of a leading modern industrial sector in the Metropolitan Area of Lisbon. It was thought that this new industrial sector in conjunction with emigration would absorb the rural surplus. It was also thought that this industrial sector, along with the banking and insurance sectors also centered mainly in the Lisbon area, would absorb the majority of skilled or highly skilled workers and professionals. In fact, neither of these groups was particularly inclined toward emigration.

On the eve of the 1974 Revolution, the state was ready to promulgate an unprecedented liberal law, justified on the grounds that emigration was highly beneficial for Portugal because it promoted gains in productivity and the rationalization of production methods. The law concluded with the following statement: “Emigration, which acts as a positive factor in modernization and the rationalization of labor, contributed greatly to the progress and development of the country.” (6) Individual freedom to emigrate and return were finally written into the 1976 Constitution. By that time, however, most European countries had shifted to a “closed-door” policy.

The Evolution of Migration Flows

Between 1950 and 1988, the Portuguese Emigration Bureau, the Secretaria de Estado de Emigração, registered 1,375,000 legal departures. (7) Of these, five countries absorbed 82 percent (see Table 10.1). This official picture should be compared with French and German sources, which state that the number of Portuguese migrants entering these two countries, during this period, was 1,259,000 immigrants. (8) Even revising Portuguese emigration figures taking into account only these two destinations, emigration between 1950 and 1988 totaled at least 2,152,000. This means that during this period, at least 36 percent of Portuguese migrants left the country illegally. (9)

No systematic study has ever been made of clandestine migrants. The study of illegal Portuguese migration in other historical periods, as well as available information on illegal departures to Europe after World War II, however, indicates that clandestine flows differ significantly from legal ones. Illegal Portuguese migrants tend to be isolated and unskilled males in their prime; this increases the likelihood that legal flows do not accurately reflect actual migratory flows between 1950 and 1988. (10)

One corrective for the discrepancies in the official figures is to examine the relative attraction of the principal recipient countries. According to French and German records, we can correct the distribution in Table 10.2. Table 10.1 (Legal Departures)) shows that the two preferred European destinations (France and Germany) attracted 35 percent of the total between 1950 and 1988, and that the three overseas destinations (Brazil, Canada, and the United States) attracted 47 percent. Table 10.2 (Legal and Illegal Departures), by contrast, indicates that the two key European destinations accounted for 59 percent of the total, and the three overseas destinations for just 30 percent, in the same period.

TABLE 10.1 Principal Destinations of Portuguese Legal Emigration, 1950-1988 (in thousands)

Legal DeparturesPercentage
United States19314.0

TABLE 10.2 Principal Destinations of Portuguese Emigration, 1950-1988 (in thousands)

Legal and Illegal DeparturesPercentage
United States1939.0

We can also correct the yearly totals by destination (see Table 10.6), which helps to obtain a better sense of the evolution of the “true” Portuguese migratory flow. The first remarkable change indicated in Table 10.6 is the intensity of growth of the total migratory flow. The annual average number of departures jumped from 33,000 in 1955-59 to 55,000 in 1960-64, 110,000 in 1965-69, and 134,000 in 1970-74. The average declined drastically to 37,000 in 1975-79, the same level of average annual departures attained in the initial period (1950-54). Numbers decreased even further to 17,000 average departures between 1980 and 1988. This intense and sustained growth in the 1960s and early 1970s can be attributed to the Portuguese migratory flow to Europe, particularly to France, which absorbed 60 percent of the total migratory flow in this period.

Figura 1 – Não digitalizada.

São precisos os dados para construir o gráfico.

The data from Table 10.6 can be visually summarized in Figure 10.1. Both Table 10.6 and Figure 10.1 show that Portuguese emigration grew constantly and substantially from 1950, when departures numbered 22,000, to 1970, when departures numbered 183,000. It declined from 1971 to 1988, as departures dropped from 158,000 to 13,000. The peak years of Portuguese emigration after World War II occurred between 1965 and 1974, when the annual average number of departures reached 122,000.

It can also be inferred that three major changes in preferred destinations took place between 1950 and 1979. In the first decade (1950-59), the overseas flow was clearly dominant. Indeed, of the 350,000 departures, 327,000 (93 percent) went overseas. A single country, Brazil, absorbed 68 percent of the global total of departures. In the following decade (1960-69), the overseas flow lost its relevance. Europe attracted 68 percent of the total number of departures, with France absorbing 59 percent of the global total. This shift occurred in 1962-63. In 1962, total departures numbered 43,000, of which 24,000 went overseas (57 percent) and 19,000 went to Europe (43 percent). In 1963, the total number of departures numbered 55,000, of which 22,000 (41 percent) went overseas and 33,000 (59 percent) to Europe. Europe clearly dominated between 1963 and 1977, but from then on, overseas destinations became dominant again. The European share fell from 56 percent in 1977 to 43 percent in 1978 and 39 percent in 1979. In the last period, 1980-88, overseas destinations accounted for 51 percent of all departures.

The change in the relative weight of migratory flows overseas is not the only noticeable shift. Although they tended to decrease in absolute terms, overseas flows did not register any dramatic change before 1979. They did, however, register a major change in the absolute and relative weight of the receiving countries. In the early 1960s, the contraction of the flow to Brazil was quite dramatic: the average annual number of departures to that country fell from twelve thousand to three thousand between 1960-64 and 1965-69. The United States and Canada took Brazil’s place during this period; the annual number of departures to the United States rose from three thousand in 1960-64 to ten thousand in 1965-69, and to Canada the total rose from four thousand to six thousand.

It is thought that lack of information on illegal migrants creates a bias in the relative weight of each sex, in the distribution by age group, and in the distribution by marital status. Origin and distribution by economic activity are meant to be the characteristics least affected, if not in absolute at least in relative terms. This analysis will therefore focus on the more reliable factors. Table IO.3 shows the distribution of Portuguese emigration by region of origin.

Because the contributions of the islands and the mainland are quite different in terms of their respective shares in total flows, their direction, and the characteristics of their migrants, they will be treated separately. Between 1950 and 1988, the islands’ migratory flow accounted for 21 percent of the total, and was overwhelmingly directed overseas. The Azorean flow went to the United States and grew markedly during the 1960s and the 1970s, particularly after the United States passed the 1965 amendments favoring family reunification in the concession of U.S. immigrant visas and revised its national origin quota system, in place since 1968. These measures increased the share of southern European migration and the Portuguese quota of entry with it. (11) Madeira’s flow contracted markedly after the 1950s, when Brazil ceased to be a major destination, and has remained at a relatively low level since.

TABLE 10.3 Percentage of Portuguese Emigration by District, 1950-1988

C. Branco1.435.171.943.331.15
V. do Castelo4.645.632.974.633.52
Vila Real5.543.883.984.324.21
Total mainland78.4183.1274.5179.5176.50
Total number of emigrants342,928646,962392,5171,382,40789,562

The flow from the mainland in the period 1950-88 represented 79 percent of the global flow. It was essentially directed toward Europe, particularly to France and Germany. It is possible to conclude from Table 10.3 that three regions of the mainland – the Lisbon interior, the Alentejo, and the Algarve – were poor sources of emigration. Together these three regions supplied only a total of 111,000 migrants between 1950 and 1988. This figure is lower than the total of any of the other five regions considered individually. The heaviest suppliers of the period were the coastal regions, always contributing more than half the total migrants. The northern coast alone provided 305,000 migrants (26 percent of all the mainland flow).

An analysis by periods shows that the most remarkable change is in the numbers leaving from the Lisbon coastal region. In the 1950s, this region had only 8,500 emigrants. The number rose to 64,000 and 60,000 during the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, when France and Germany became the preferred countries of destination. The Lisbon coastal region became the country’s main migratory area between 1980 and 1988, representing 24 percent (22,000 migrants) of mainland total legal flows.

This change seems to be connected to a major difference between the composition of migration flows overseas and to Europe. When directed overseas, migration was essentially from rural areas, both on the mainland and on the islands. When directed to Europe, it was increased linked to the most urban and industrial areas. Current trends show an even clearer intensification of this pattern, as documented by the growth of the Lisbon coastal region.

Key Migrant Characteristics

An analysis of the economic characteristics of the legal migrants will help complement the characterization so far done. Table 10.4, which summarizes legal migrant characteristics between 1955 and 1988, indicates that of the economically active migrants who left the country legally, 26 percent in 1955-59, 38 percent in the 1960s, and 50 percent in the 1970s were engaged in the secondary economic sector. Equally relevant is the increase in the annual number of departures from this sector. It rose from 5,000 in 1955-59 to 10,600 in 1960-69, clearly pointing to the greater attraction that European labor markets exerted over the urban and industrial sectors.

As noted earlier, inferences from the legal registers on sex-, age-, and marital status-are risky. Nevertheless, Table 10.4 permits two conclusions. First, the flow overseas that was dominant in the 1950s was more male dominated and tended less toward family reunification than the European flow. Second, the European flow experienced a first wave in the 1960s, a flow dominated by isolated departures of single or married males in their prime, followed by a second wave in the 1970s, consisting largely of family reunification flows, as suggested by the growing share of children under 15 years of age and the number of married female migrants.

TABLE 10.4 Characteristics of Legal Migrants, 1955-1988


TOTAL ACTIVE77,327100.00281,177100.00167,245100.0036,510100.00

SOURCE: SECP, Boletim anual, 1980-81,1988.

aEmignnts aged 10 or older.

French sources confirm this change in composition. Between 1960 and 1971, workers represented 68 percent of the Portuguese arrivals to that country. From 1972 to 1979, on the other hand, they represented only 37 percent, and from 1980 to 1988 just 36 percent. (12) Both Portuguese and receiving country data also indicate that after 1970, a growing number of Portuguese immigrants either decided or were forced to return to Portugal.

Return Migration

The myth of the return is deeply embedded in Portuguese emigrant culture. It plays a role in the decision to leave, and it is an important reason why, before World War II, men migrated while women stayed, even though many men never returned. (13) Portuguese emigration to Europe in the 1960s initially fit this traditional pattern. After a decade, however, family reunification became a new trait of Portuguese emigration because of the proximity of the host societies, new means of transportation, and labor opportunities for women in the receiving areas. (14) Yet even then, the desire to return was not abandoned.

The number of returnees, their sociodemographic characteristics, their social reintegration, and its economic impact are perhaps the most researched topics in recent migration studies. (15) From these studies, it is possible to make several observations. After ten to fourteen years of working permanently abroad, the objectives that led a significant number of men to leave Portugal, and later to call their families to join them, apparently were attained. Various factors, moreover, seem to indicate the culmination of a cycle of family migratory projects. For example, the number of yearly returnees grew: seven thousand in the 1960s, thirteen thousand in the 1970s, and fifty-two thousand in the 1980s. (16) Among the returnees, 25 percent in 1970 and 32 percent in 1980-81 were between the ages of I and 19. And 86 percent of returnees were already married when they first emigrated.

Predictably, returnees were mostly male (71 percent of the total). This was because migratory flows were male-dominated until the 1970s, and because for a significant number of migrants family reunification and second-generation educational prospects in host societies made staying there appear more favorable than returning. (17) Most returnees were originally connected to agriculture in Portugal, and 90 percent returned, if not to agriculture, at least to their communities of birth. More than half were over 45 years old, and one-third were older than 56. Of those who went to France, 56 percent worked in construction and public works.

Returnees followed a dominant economic trajectory. Before emigration, 45 percent worked in agriculture and 18 percent in construction. As emigrants, 37 percent worked in construction and 32 percent in manufacturing. (18) On returning, 38 percent worked in agriculture, 18 percent in construction, and 17 percent in small trades or catering. It is important to note that only 59 percent of returnees opted for an active life, and that the majority of those working in agriculture or small businesses were self employed.

For the majority of these returning migrants, emigration was a success story. (19) A house, major appliances, a car, a small trade or restaurant, the opportunity for wives to stop working, the return to the region of departure, and a varying, but frequently reasonable, level of savings all guaranteed upward mobility.

As far as the Portuguese economy is concerned, however, returnee contributions are debatable. The overwhelming majority of returnees either are illiterate (12 percent), have no formal schooling (24 percent), or have attended only primary school (56 percent). New skills acquired have not been easily transferable; nor are former emigrants interested in taking up the same jobs they had abroad. They have used their savings primarily for consumption rather than productive investment. It is undeniable, however, that they have made a major contribution to regional development, and that with more adequate policies, their contribution could increase.

We have described the main features of the Portuguese emigration and return migration. In the last part of this section, we will try to assess its impact on the Portuguese economy and demography.

In demographic terms, the impact of emigration between 1960 and 1979, the heaviest period, represented 47 to 55 percent of the country’s natural population growth. Yearly migration rates during that period varied from 5.3 to 6.1 migrants per thousand inhabitants, while the annual average number of departures was 82,419. In the same period, returns are estimated to have been between 30,000 and 37,000; Portugal’s annual natural population growth was 95,693. Thus, net migration can be estimated at between 45,400 and 52,400. Based on the 1970 census (total population 8.569 million), the yearly migration rate between 1960 and 1979 must have oscillated between 5.3 and 6.1 migrants per thousand. (20)

For intercensus periods the numbers were as shown in table 10.5. It is important to remark that these figures do not account for total impact, because migration caused a significant part of the country’s demographic potential to go unfulfilled.

TABLE 10.5 Demographic Evolution, 1951-1981 (in thousands)

Natural GrowthEffective GrowthNet Migration

In economic terms, between 1973 and 1979, emigrant remittances represented 8.22 percent of the gross domestic product; between 1980 and 1989, the number rose to 10 percent. As a percentage of the GDP, remittances varied between 5.6 in 1975 and 12.1 in 1979, according to the Instituto Nacional de Estatística. Considering the relative weight of remittances in relation to the country’s exports, the figures are even more impressive. Remittances increased from 13 percent of the country’s exports in the 1950s to 25 percent in the 1960s and 56 percent in the 1970s.

These crude indicators illustrate the impact of Portuguese emigration on the country’s economy and demography, but they do not tell whether that impact was beneficial. The latest econometric simulations to measure the trade-off between emigration and remittances suggest that “past emigration had positive welfare effects, which means that the positive effects of remittances dominate the negative welfare effects of depopulation. However, the annual growth of domestic production has been slowed down by about half a percentage point.” (21)

Changes in the 1970s

With or without state permission, by the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the Portuguese were leaving the country in increasing numbers. Sociologists and historians working during those years stressed the duality of Portuguese society and the imbalances of the country’s economic structure as the main factors driving a growing number of migrants out of the country. (22) Economists prefer to emphasize pull factors, and they name the wage differential between Portugal and the receiving countries as the main factor driving Portuguese emigration. (23) According to one recent study, changes in the productive structure in the 1960s created high natural rates of unemployment and chronic underemployment in the agricultural and family craft sectors, thereby giving a growing number of Portuguese men in their prime strong reasons to migrate to improve their lives. (24)

The push-pull factors analyzed in these works were obviously important, but for the most part, they ignore the condition that if international labor flows are indeed demand-oriented, the response of each individual does not depend on the evolution of the labor market in the host country alone. Indeed, the evolution of migration after 1974 clearly reflects the impact of other factors, namely, the political sanctions of the recipient nations and the strength of migrant networks active at both ends of the trajectory. Without taking these factors into consideration, how can the extremely low migratory flows of the period be explained?

Economic recession in most of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries after the mid-1970s, and conditions in Portugal in the aftermath of the 1974 Revolution, were aggravated by the forced return of four hundred thousand Portuguese from the former African colonies, along with one hundred thousand troops. Emigration was abruptly halted by the receiving societies in the early 1970s, which aggravated the economic situation. All these factors, plus the legal prohibition of firing and dismissing employees, led the private sector to avoid new permanent labor contracts. This change, in turn, brought about major changes in the national labor market. (25)

Unemployment jumped from 86,000 in 1974 to 222,000 in 1975, and continued to grow. In 1980 the number of unemployed was 340,000, and by 1983, the figure had reached 446,000 thousand, or 10.5 percent of the active population. Furthermore, as economists Jose Barosa and Pedro Pereira note, “(measured) unemployment does not tell the whole story, as a survey of the Ministry of Labor found 95,000 workers in 1983 to be wageless.” (26) As they also point out, the labor market began to show signs of recovery in 1979, after new legislation in October 1977 gave the private sector flexibility to hire workers over a fixed period. Unemployment finally decreased, dropping to 8.5 percent in 1985, to 7 percent in 1987, and to 5.7 percent in 1988. Even today, an increasing number of the new jobs are still based on short-term contracts.

As noted earlier, Portuguese migratory flows to Europe peaked in 1970 and tended to decrease thereafter, but it was only after the oil crisis 1973-74 that great and sudden reductions were observed. The drop in migrant workers was even greater, at least until 1986. For France, the data indicate that workers dominated the migratory flow to that country until 1971. Between 1972 and 1977, their relative share fell but remained significant. From 1978 to 1985, the flow was overwhelmingly composed of family members. For 1987-89, the three last years for which information is available, workers were dominant, although less than before; they represented 74 percent of the 17,000 immigrants arriving in France.

Deteriorating economic conditions and mass return migration from the former colonies undoubtedly increased migratory pressure in this period; annual average departures, however, fell from 122,000 per year between 1968 and 1975 to 22,000 per year between 1976 and 1988. Economic factors alone cannot explain the contraction in flows in the latter period. Restrictive migratory policies in the traditional recipient countries and the lack of sizable migratory networks functioning in other destinations left potential migrants temporarily without alternatives. Portuguese scholars wrote the obituary for Portuguese emigration to Europe in 1985 at an international meeting called “Portugal and Europe: The End of a Migratory Cycle.” (27) It was too soon, however. Indeed, Portuguese emigration to Europe is, once again, a significant phenomenon. In fact, a new European migratory cycle, this time mainly directed to Switzerland, took off during the 80’s. Just between 1986 and 1993 more than 117,000 Portuguese permanent immigrants entered that country. (28) It should come as no surprise if in some years’ time, we see the Portuguese landscape enriched with a new set of houses, perhaps labeled Swiss houses. When they appear, they will once again give evidence of Portugal’s most constant modern historical phenomenon: emigration.

TABLE 10.6 Portuguese Emigration by Destination, 1950-1988




FranceGermanyOther EuropeTotal EuropeTotal%