How much do we know about refugees and immigrants? This issue is a major problem of the last decades and, although you can find all types of data about refugees arriving to countries like the UK and Germany, there is very little to no information about this subject in minor countries like Portugal. Although this Iberian country has not received as many immigrants and asylum seekers, it is undoubtedly their problem too. In fact, Portugal offered to accept 10.000 people, more than 3 times the amount it was assigned. Thanks to Refugees Welcome Porto and an interview with a volunteer in the Portuguese Immigration Centre, I have been able to collect some important information that will be useful to understand the procedures immigrants have to go through and how it is to live without papers.
We should always keep in mind that the terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker” do not refer to the same thing. Refugee refers to an individual that has fled from his country and has a permit (i.e. legal papers) to stay in a different country from his. On the other hand, asylum seekers are those in the process to become refugees. As such, when they arrive to Portugal to seek asylum, they have to present themselves to the authorities or the SEF (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras), who has 20 days to decide on the admissibility or inadmissibility of the asylum claim. If the decision is negative, the applicant can solicit a re-appreciation of its case. If it is approved, the applicant is either recognised as a Refugee or issued a Temporary Residence Permit valid for two months and which can be renewed for periods of 30 days until the final decision. With this permit, asylum seekers are allowed to work, to study, to attend professional training courses, and to apply for a tax contributor card. In other words, if you are not a refugee and do not have this permit, you do not have access to any of these rights. Concerning health care, asylum seekers, stateless persons and refugees, regardless of whether they are holding a Residence Permit (temporary or not), are entitled to medical assistance and medication.
But who exactly is being detained? As detailed by Portuguese immigration laws, asylum seekers lodging or asking for an application at ports of entry and any foreign citizen who unlawfully enters or stays in national territory may be detained. But this does not end here. It seems very easy for immigrants to become undocumented and illegal, and be detained by the authorities, for instance, if your passport expires and you do not renew it. Moreover, immigrants can only be held at airports or other ports of entry for a maximum of 7 days, and the detention order needs to be validated by a judge. Nevertheless, they can be held beyond that time frame if there is a risk of absconding or a failure to comply with the voluntary removal order. At detention centres this time frame is extended to 60 days, but if you are an immigrant already living in Portugal, you are offered an alternative to immigration detention centres: the obligation to report to immigration or police authorities, and home confinement using electronic surveillance. To what extent this is granted we do not know yet.
Naturally, all detainees have a high chance of being deported if their documents are not valid or approved by a judge, but this is more complicated than it seems at first. Countries are not allowed to deport people whose countries of birth are at war or have been declared unstable by the UN. For instance, Afghanistan has become more peaceful in the last fifteen years and, although being still one of the most unstable states in the world, the UN has declared it stable and Afghan asylum seekers can now be deported. However, deportation involves a lot of costs and agreements. As a case in point, if Portugal wants to deport someone to Morocco, first they have to contact them in order to confirm if they will accept him. If Morocco refuses, then Portugal is obliged to maintain the person in the country. On the other hand, if you are deported, you are allowed to apply for a visa again to that same country after a period of 3 years.
On top of that, while their documents are being processed, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants are detained at the Immigration Detention Centre in Porto, namely Unidade Habitacional de Santo António, for a maximum of 60 days, after which they are released for 21 days and can be detained back again after that time frame. The problem is that even when they are released, they still do not have legal papers, which means that they cannot get jobs nor rent a house, and they go homeless. Sometimes, the only way for them to get food and a place to sleep is by actually being detained to the detention centre, where they may find both good and bad conditions.
The Unidade Habitacional de Santo António is managed by SEF, which collaborates in delivering services at the facility with IOM (International Organisation for Migration), JRS (Jesuit Refugee Services), and Médicos do Mundo (Doctors of the World). SEF also manages short-term holding facilities located at the airports of Faro, Lisbon, Funchal, and Ponta Delgada, and other border central stations. The facilities include an outdoor green space; common areas with tables, sofas and two TVs; a child-friendly zone equipped with toys and cribs; a canteen; and the rooms, which are divided by gender and located in different floors. It has been reported, nevertheless, that the facilities lack adequate recreational facilities. Moreover, the total capacity of the centre is 36 people (30 adults and 6 children), which is barely enough space for the increasing influx of immigrants and asylum seekers in Portugal. This means that sometimes detainees have to sleep on the floor because there is not enough room in the centre. Many of them are even sent back to the detention facilities at the airports, which can be more fittingly described as jails. On the other hand, detainees at the centre have access to the Internet and telephone cards (to personal phones in some instances) for a certain price, and are allowed two hours of phone calls and four cigarettes per day. It is nevertheless true that the centre has certain security rules. For instance, journalists are not allowed in the facilities, detainees have to be together at all times, and there are some objects that they are not allowed to have, such as scissors, belts, shoe laces, pens or pencils, and anything that could be used as a weapon.
All in all, there are still many things beyond our understanding and we cannot claim to comprehend the entire journey of becoming stateless, but we can help make these people’s lives a little bit better, and a great example of this is Gail, a volunteer at the Immigration Detention Centre in Porto that helped me understand this strange world of politics and immigration laws. She pointed out several times throughout our conversation how important it is to help this minority directly in order to make an impact: “I think that when you are doing volunteering, it is important that you have a connection with the people you are helping. It is not like putting money in an envelope every month or something like that. You need to see what you are doing so that you can either adjust your behaviour or your attitude, or be able to talk about it at first hand. You can get reports on how well your money is doing in a volunteering, donation or charity situation, but your reward should be seeing the people you are helping. If you see someone who needs help, you can do something about it straightaway. I cannot help these people become legal, but I can help them feel better. Many of these people have a lot of problems, and sometimes it is just being there and remembering their names and where they come from that makes a difference.” So, if you feel like you are not doing enough and want to collaborate in a solution, helping those who arrive to your country, and showing them your language and culture, may be a fun and life-enhancing way to do it. You can always count on associations like Refugees Welcome or Programa Mentores Para Migrantes to help you through this process and make the most out of it (see the link below for more information).