Portugal giving citizenship to migrants during covid-19: a step forward in Human rights

di Juline Lefevre Lancelot - 31 Maggio 2020

from Lille, France

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00105

Portugal giving citizenship to migrants during covid-19 : a step forward in Human rights 

“At this time it is more important to guarantee the rights of the weakest, such as immigrants” declared Eduardo Cabrita, the current Minister of Internal Administration of Portugal. (Henriques, 2020). According to Cabrita, “ensuring access for migrant citizens to health, social security, employment stability, and housing is a duty”.   

Portugal is one of the European countries that is keeping a low death toll during the coronavirus crisis. As this country shares a border with Spain, one of the most infected countries, it seems to be an unexpected accomplishment. On May the 20th, Portugal had 29  432 infected with covid-19, whereas Spain had 232  037. There is a considerable gap, hence Portugal seemed to have successfully contained the virus at the beginning of its spreading. 

Therefore, the main difference between Portugal’s crisis management compared to other European countries is the protection of migrants. Antonio Costa’s center-left government decided to regularize their status to protect them during this crisis (Collet, 2020). This step needs to be emphasized as it is an example of Human rights. In times of crisis, the weakest usually are even more endangered, that is why the procedure of Portugal represents an unexpected case. 


Portugal : Protecting the migrants to protect society 

The granting of citizenship has begun right after Portugal declared the emergency state and closed its non-essential public services on March the 18th. Its aim is to contain the spreading of the virus by protecting everyone in society. This process grants health care and social security to the migrants that are applying to citizenship (Barrio, 2020). In other words, these migrants have automatically the same rights as Portuguese citizens. Similarly, the government reviewed all the authorizations that expire during the crisis. Thus, the people that previously could not access health care can now be taken care of if they contract the virus. In that way, Portugal can treat everyone at home if they have any symptoms. So, the virus can be held from spreading and is contained easier. 

Therefore, these new citizens are now eligible for labor compensation in case of suspension of the employment contract. That means that migrants, as they are the most precarious, are not forced to work to have a salary (Barrio, 2020). Consequently, they will not keep working to ensure an income to live if they have contracted coronavirus. On the contrary, without this protection, the virus would undoubtedly spread easier. 

Even if this measure does not concern all migrants, and will last until July the 1st (Euronews, 2020), it is a real step forwards in Human rights. In fact, the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner underlines the significance of the right to health for migrants (OHCHR | Migration and Human Rights, n.d.). This procedure represents an improvement as it brings the country’s handling of migrants closer to the one promoted by the UN. So, it conveys a new hope for migrants in Portugal.


A step forward in migrants’ rights in Portugal

This improvement of migrants’ rights may have a prequel in Portugal politics. Last year’s general election was driven by a debate linked to migration. Indeed, there was a controversy on whether citizenship should be given to all children that are born in Portugal. It was disputed for two main reasons (Ramiro, 2020). First, it would give citizenship to millions of children, and some people thought that it would disadvantage Portugal on the economic level. Then, this subject was also controversial because of the European Union convention. In fact, EU member states grant citizenship through one’s descent. That means that in order to have citizenship, one must have at least one of their parents born in the country. However, this debate did not lead to a new law in favor of an easier citizenship requirement. 

Consequently, the legalization of migrants during the crisis is a considerable step in Portugal’s politics. We could even assume that it would change its legal paradigm (Ramiro, 2020). In fact, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Eduardo Cabrita  associated the protection of migrants as a “duty” in the context of the coronavirus spreading. Nevertheless, we can question the temporary characteristic of this measure. After the crisis, could Portugal go back to its former tougher system ? It seems that the country has taken a step that can not be taken back. This politic of inclusion can be considered as bold, but it represents a victory for progressive politics and marginalizes isolationist logic (Ramiro, 2020).

Moreover, being the only country to do so is remarkable from a human rights perspective. It could inspire other European countries, where the protection of migrants represents a considerable issue during the health crisis.  


The issue of migrants’ situation in France 

Portugal seems to have contained the virus from its beginning by protecting the weakest, whereas other countries seem to have trouble doing so. For instance, in Montreuil, France, a group of 270 migrants men live in a 7534 sq ft  (700m2) warehouse during lockdown (Lévy-Vroelant, 2020). Since the beginning of the health crisis, French media depict them as a “sanitary bomb”. However, it seems that it is not a priority for the government (Lévy-Vroelant, 2020). 

The government’s help is depicted by those migrants as not enough. Indeed, the French government gave them food, but not enough medical care : they only saw doctors once in two months (Lévy-Vroelant, 2020). The government waited for several of them to be infected with covid-19 to send medical care. Migrants have the feeling that politicians handle them in order to keep them from contaminating other people and not for protecting them (Lévy-Vroelant, 2020).

Therefore, French deputies from the left-wing ask for a temporary regularization of migrants in France under the argument that protecting migrants would protect the whole society. The case of Portugal reveals that in times of crisis, solidarity is even more effective. Portugal regularized migrants’ status to protect society as a whole. The country has rapidly identified that it could not fight the spreading of coronavirus if some people are left out of the health system. For its government, it would be paradoxical to impose a lockdown when the most precarious can not stay at home and be treated. (Collet, 2020).

Moreover, as Louis Gallois reminded the French National Assembly the right to asylum is written in the French Constitution (Rey-Lefebvre and Pascual, 2020). This reminder demonstrates that during a crisis, the right of those who are the most fragile are even more questioned. 


What conclusions we can make for the future 

Portugal demonstrates that protecting migrants can benefit the whole society. Indeed, during a health crisis, the government can not ignore the needs of thousands of people and let them in great danger. If we follow the Human rights declaration, it would not be acceptable. It would be even more damaging because it puts its society in jeopardy. The response to a health crisis must be collective and includes everyone, even if some of them do not have citizenship yet. 

In addition to being a step forward for migrants, the example of Portugal is a step forward for society as a whole. This shows that human society works best in a crisis when all people are treated equally and can have equal rights. Moreover, Portugal could inspire other countries. With a national debt of around 119 % of its GDP (Ramiro, 2020), Portugal is not the wealthiest country. So, if it can grant health and social rights, others should be able to do the same. 

During crises, solidarity must be even stronger. Nevertheless, Portugal’s example represents a paradigm change, because History clearly illustrates that the most fragile are more endangered when a crisis occurs. It has been 72 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and countries today are still expected to make improvements. We can also expect our societies to learn from the coronavirus crisis that migrants are a real part of society. 



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Autore dell’articolo *Juline Léfèvre-Lancelot. Studentessa di Political Science, Law, Economics and Interntional Relations at Sciences Po Lille.


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