Portugal Eases Path to Entry With New Law

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oleg Bartkiv gave up his job as a doctor's assistant in Ukraine to come here for a job paving roads. It hasn't been easy, but he feels that he's on the way to a better life.

"I want to see the whole world, not just Ukraine," the 24-year-old said. "I want to see the United States and Canada most of all. It's my dream."

Bartkiv may well make that dream come true: He's one of about 90,000 people who have already benefited from a new Portuguese immigration law that enables workers who entered the country illegally or on tourist visas to legalize their status.

As long as he keeps working, he can extend his stay indefinitely and eventually get permanent residency or Portuguese citizenship. That in turn would open doors to work elsewhere in Europe and allow him to travel freely in the world. This is because of European Union rules on free movement of labor and the generally high wages and minimal visa hassles that Western Europeans enjoy.

The law, which took effect in January, is the EU's most liberal in terms of granting legal status to workers who are in the country without proper documents. Its enactment marks Portugal's transformation from a poor country that for decades was a major exporter of labor to one of Europe's faster-growing economies, with a strong demand for immigrant labor.

Census data released last month show that in the last decade, immigrants exceeded emigrants by 361,100 in Portugal. That accounted for 80% of the growth that brought the country's population to 10.3 million.

The new immigration flow reflects changes sweeping all of Europe as Cold War divisions continue to break down.

Of legalized immigrants in Portugal, 52% are from the former Communist states of Ukraine, Moldova, Romania or Russia. Some were smuggled in illegally, sometimes borrowing money to pay high fees to organized gangs. Many others enter Germany or Austria on tourist visas, then travel without facing further passport checks to Portugal, where they can get renewable one-year working visas after finding jobs.

The new law allows anyone who presents a valid work contract to legalize his or her stay.

For would-be workers from Bulgaria, a former Communist state that last year won the right for its citizens to enter most EU countries without visas, things are even simpler. If they have the money, Bulgarians can fly to Lisbon, find a job and obtain legal status.

Americans can do the same thing, and 23 of them had taken advantage of the law as of mid-August--compared with 30,773 Ukrainians.

"It's a lot of work: 12 hours a day, six days a week," said Yanko Georgiev Yankov, 28, a Bulgarian who gave up factory work that paid $50 a month to take a roadwork job in Portugal paying $900 a month. He said he's happy and expects to stay for three or four years, perhaps going home once for Christmas.

"I like everything," Yankov said. "I feel safe. The police are good; they don't give me trouble."

Dmytro Drobot, 37, a Ukrainian who gave up a factory job a year ago to work on Portugal's railways, is also doing well economically, sending much-needed money back to his wife and three children.

"It's a normal life here," he said, while adding that he doesn't want to be separated from his family too much longer. "I will work until the new year and then go back."

The traditional sources of foreign labor here have long been Portuguese-speaking Brazil and former Portuguese colonies in Africa.

But visa requirements for travelers from these countries have been toughened in recent years--in parallel with the elimination of border checks between most EU countries--so it is now easier for a Ukrainian to enter Portugal than it is for a Portuguese-speaking African or Brazilian.

Fleeing dismal economies back home, Eastern Europeans often are more desperate to find work when they arrive than are Africans or Brazilians, who are more likely to have networks of friends or relatives in Portugal, said Fernando Ka, head of Aguinenso, an immigrant support group.

"Some Africans don't accept [just] any kind of wage," Ka said. "The Eastern Europeans, some come here and cry for us to give them food and find them jobs. . . . These people work for any wage. Employers prefer them. They work weekends. They work more time. They just say, 'Yes.' "

Race also plays a role in the preference of many employers for hiring Eastern Europeans, Ka said, even though most Portuguese say their society is not racist. "They'll get more opportunities than black people," he said.

Virgilio Leitao, 46, a farmer from the former Portuguese colony of Sao Tome and Principe off the western coast of Africa, said his one-year stay in Portugal has been a big disappointment, despite his fluency in Portuguese.

"Things are going very badly for me," said Leitao, who knows little about the new law and has made no effort to get legal status. "When I get work, sometimes people don't pay me. . . . I'm thinking of going back."

Although Eastern European countries may seem at first glance to have no cultural ties to Portugal, there is at least a bit of a connection, said Jose Leitao, high commissioner for immigration and ethnic minorities.

Immigration from that region got started largely with Romanians, who speak a Latin-based language similar to Spanish and Portuguese, so they can surmount the language barrier rapidly, he said. They were followed by immigrants from Moldova, where the majority of the population is ethnic Romanian.

As for Ukraine, although its Slavic language is unrelated to Portuguese, word about opportunities in Portugal appears to have spread across the border from Romania and Moldova, Leitao said.

The attitude of most Portuguese toward immigrants, be they from Eastern Europe, Africa or Brazil, is relatively open, said Graca Lavor, director of the legal support center at Casa do Brasil, a social service organization.

"Portuguese society," she said, "is essentially a very receptive society."

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