26 April 2019
Thanks to its demographic uniformity, Portugal has been less prone to extremism and terrorism. Photo:
Thanks to its demographic uniformity, Portugal has been less prone to extremism and terrorism. Photo:

Why Portugal may be the last safe sanctuary in Europe

As both the US and Europe have been haunted by Islamic terrorism in recent years, it begs the question: which is the safest country in these troubled times?

In March last year, the Islamic State (IS) mentioned the name Portugal when the jihadist group was claiming credit for a terrorist attack in Brussels, saying that “today it is Brussels and its airport, and tomorrow it could be Portugal or Hungary.”

According to the US-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), what the IS was doing was just boasting about its capabilities of striking any corner of Europe, and that the comment shouldn’t be taken as a signal that the group was actually targeting Portugal next.

MEMRI believes that Portugal is, in fact, facing much less terror threat compared to many of its European neighbors.

According to the analysis of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), Portugal is the third safest country on earth after Iceland and New Zealand.

Some might find the notion that Portugal is “still” safe pretty surprising, because after all, Portugal is a NATO member state, not to mention that it, along with Spain and the UK, sent troops to join the coalition forces led by the US during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

However, to understand why Portugal still remains a safe country these days compared to its European neighbors, we must first examine the country’s demographics.

Throughout history, Portugal has remained a country of emigration both during the so-called “Age of Discovery” between the 15th and 18th century and the period of economic downturn in the early 20th century, when the number of people leaving the country always outnumbered that of foreign immigrants, most of whom came from its overseas colonies.

It wasn’t until 1974, when the right-wing autocratic regime in Lisbon finally fell from power amid the “Carnation Revolution”, and when Portuguese colonies in Africa such as Angola and Mozambique were engulfed by civil war, that Portugal saw its first massive wave of immigrants.

In the decade that followed, Portugal worked aggressively to integrate into the new socio-economic order of Europe, and became a member of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1986. And thanks to its EEC membership, Portugal received a lot of subsidies from Brussels for its manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

As a result, the country witnessed a substantial economic growth and infrastructure boom during the 80s, which attracted hundreds of thousands of foreign immigrants from its former colonies to find jobs and seek a better life on its soil.

In the 90s, immigrants to Portugal became more culturally and ethnically diversified, with many of them being Eastern Europeans, Brazilians, South Asians and Chinese.

However, despite the influx of foreigners since the mid-70s, nowadays immigrants and their direct descendants still only account for 13 percent of the total population of Portugal, the lowest proportion across Western Europe.

Today Portugal is home to a sizable Islamic community. However, these Islamic immigrants have little connection with the Middle East and North Africa since the vast majority of them came from South Asia, which explains why Al-Qaeda and IS infiltration is rarely seen among them.

Lisbon, which embraces humanitarian values, has been highly receptive to refugees from the Middle East. Yet most refugees often chose other wealthier European countries such as the UK, France, Germany and Spain over Portugal as their final destinations. As a result, according to official figures, so far only around 480 Middle East refugees who had fled IS invasion eventually settled in Portugal.

Another interesting thing about new immigrants to Portugal is that unlike many immigrants to the West from developing countries who have found themselves labeled as the underprivileged class, many immigrants who settled in Portugal have in fact become the modern-day aristocrats.

For example, a lot of luxury homes in high-end residential areas across Portugal have been snapped up by cash-flush and big-spending Angolan immigrants who have made a fortune in the oil industry back home. These wealthy immigrants are basically immune to Islamic fundamentalism and IS propaganda.

Unlike the neighboring Spain, separatism and ethnic conflicts are hardly a cause for concern in Portugal, thanks to its demographic uniformity, a characteristic that makes the country less prone to extremism and terrorism.

As such, as long as Portugal can continue to keep a low-profile, chances are, the country might gradually become the last sanctuary in the backyard of Europe.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 7

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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