Vast numbers of Ukrainian refugees have crossed borders to escape the horrors of war in the last month. But as things stand, they may simply be fleeing one violent situation for another: exploitation and abuse by unscrupulous employers and harsh policing.
The British public has rightly criticised the slow and meagre actions of the UK government towards settling Ukrainian refugees, but many other European nations have risen to the task of hosting the exponentially growing number of people fleeing the country. Poland, where more than two million have crossed the land border, has seen thousands of families offering to host Ukrainians in their homes. Germany has begun opening reception centres and immediately granted the right to work for adults and access to education for children. And France, Spain and Italy are expecting to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees in the coming weeks.
In Portugal, the prime minister, António Costa, has guaranteed Ukrainians seeking refuge immediate settlement and integration into Portuguese society through provision of temporary protection measures to ensure the right to work and access to social services. This is not without precedent. Portugal has been singled out recently by institutions such as the UN High Commission for Refugees and the European Commission for its provision of “exemplary refugee policies over the years” and for “leading the way in refugee hosting”. It was heralded internationally in 2020 for temporarily regularising large numbers of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to improve access [to] the national health service, social services, and work. In response to the current Ukrainian refugee crisis, Costa has affirmed his commitment to welcome refugees to Portugal with “dignified conditions… [and] concrete opportunities to work”, even launching an official governmental platform for Portuguese employers to specifically hire Ukrainian citizens.
However, the experiences of Ukrainians – and other migrants – in Portugal have led to questions over the validity of the rosy image painted by the country’s government and international bodies.
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Ukrainians arriving in Portugal will not be pioneers. A significant Ukrainian community already exists in the country, established over the past two decades, with numbers reaching a peak in the late 2000s when Ukrainians constituted the country’s second-largest migrant population. At that time, Ukrainian immigrants were exceeded in number only by Brazilian residents.
Following the onset of the Russian invasion in late February, Costa highlighted the “very positive experience of the extraordinary Ukrainian community that has lived in the country for almost 20 years” as a principal reason for offering strong support for refugees. New arrivals would have a ready-made community and support network, and in some cases be able to reunite with family members from whom they’d been separated through pre-war migration as well as the current conflict.
Many Ukrainians have settled comfortably throughout Portugal over the years. They’ve kept their culture alive through the establishment of several supplementary Ukrainian schools for children and over a dozen associations for Ukrainian folk dancing, as well as other educational and cultural programmes. However, they typically work in the construction and domestic service sectors, in jobs that are typically labour-intensive and socially undervalued, with relatively low earnings.
Abuse and exploitation
There have been numerous accounts of abuse, exploitation and trafficking of Ukrainian workers in the Portuguese labour market, and they have experienced similarly poor working conditions to that of other minoritised groups in the country, including Chinese, Brazilian, African, Roma and other eastern European migrants. The troubling realities of migrant labour in Portugal were recently reported in the British media, with the Guardian publishing a piece that presented the exploitative conditions and police aggression faced by Nepalese and other South Asian migrants working as agricultural labourers.
Many Ukrainians find entry into the Portuguese labour market through the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. New arrivals will likely experience the very same conditions of overcrowded and dilapidated housing and state violence as documented by other migrant farmworkers.
The poor treatment of Ukrainian migrants in Portugal was brought into stark focus in 2020 following reports of the death of Ihor Homeniuk, a Ukrainian citizen, who was kicked, beaten and left to asphyxiate in a detention centre in the Lisbon Airport by Immigration and Border Service agents. Over the past few years, African and Brazilian migrants have also raised serious allegations of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of border police. The death of Ihor Homeniuk and the larger picture it paints of the use of state violence in Portugal was included in an annual report published by Amnesty International on the state of the world’s human rights as an example of the “failures in the protection of people during border procedures”.
There have been numerous accounts of abuse, exploitation and trafficking of Ukrainian workers in the Portuguese labour market
The growth of labour migration to Portugal has created a steady stream of workers who are made exploitable and precarious by their national and ethnic identities. They fulfil an increasingly essential role in the national economy with the hope of one day being rewarded with an EU passport. Ukrainians have assumed this valuable yet dangerous role in the Portuguese labour market for the past two decades and the nation has come to depend greatly on the economic capital they generate. As those in Britain have seen in the context of labour shortages resulting from coronavirus and Brexit, fruit which is unpicked by migrant hands is left to rot on the vine.
While countries like Portugal should be lauded for taking a more welcoming and proactive stance in accepting and integrating refugees into society than countries like the UK, the conditions that migrants are subjected to in their host countries must be interrogated further. In this case, an environment rife with exploitation, abuse and precarity has marked the experience of Ukrainians in Portugal for decades. Supporting policies that protect and assert the human and labour rights of all workers would ensure migrants have not fled one violent situation for another.
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