Portuguese Head to Former African Colonies to Escape Euro Crisis

When Marcio Charata lost his well-paying job in southern Portugal two years ago, he fired off resumes to all his contacts. Determined to survive the economic woes strangling Europe, he secured 20 interviews — but no job. So he set his sights on a faraway and unlikely market: Mozambique, Portugal’s once war-torn former colony.

Today, Charata is a senior executive at a Mozambican media company, joining thousands of his fellow Portuguese who have arrived here in recent months seeking refuge from the euro crisis. “This is an oasis in the desert,” Charata, 33, said with a smile.

Faced with mounting unemployment, rising taxes and cuts to social welfare programs, many Portuguese are travelling to former colonies in search of work, to the very places their colonial ancestors were forced to leave more than a half-century ago — countries such as Brazil, Angola and Mozambique, which boast some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, fuelled by vast deposits of oil, minerals and other raw materials.

Sub-Saharan Africa, to be sure, is no economic promised land. Much of the continent still struggles with high poverty, disease and unemployment, and businesses face major hurdles, including corruption and red tape.

But the Portuguese arrivals are an indication that the continent is on the move economically. The middle class is growing in many African countries, as are large infrastructure projects. Foreign investors are scouring the region for opportunities, while trade with China is expanding. The World Bank predicts that one-third of all African countries’ growth rates will top 6 percent this year, with many nations’ economies swelling more rapidly than the East Asian tiger economies.

From 2009 to 2011, the number of Portuguese who registered with their embassy in Maputo increased about 21 percent to nearly 19,000, and the embassy estimates that more than 23,000 Portuguese live in the regions of Maputo and Beira, Mozambique’s second largest city. Many new arrivals are highly skilled professionals, including architects, engineers and doctors.

The number of Portuguese companies expressing interest in investing in this southern African country has more than doubled this year, from 10 visiting delegations last year to 22 this year, according to the Mozambique-Portugal Chamber of Commerce.

Across this capital city, restaurants and cafes are filled with recent Portuguese immigrants. Portugal’s national airline has increased flights to Maputo from once to three times a week.

“Everyone is feeling the pinch of the economic crisis, and Mozambique offers a lot of opportunities,” said Goncalo Teles Gomes, Portugal’s consul general in Maputo.

“People think this is El Dorado,” he added, referring to the legendary “lost city of gold” that has captivated explorers for centuries.

Portugal ruled Mozambique from the 16th century onward, breeding what would become a shameful colonial legacy, including the forcing into slavery of thousands of locals. In 1964, fighting erupted between liberation fighters and the colonial authority, eventually leading to Mozambique’s independence in 1975.

Subsequently, most Portuguese fled in fear or were expelled by the new government, leaving the country in economic disarray. A 15-year civil war followed, killing nearly a million people before a peace deal was signed in 1992.

The turbulent history between Mozambique and its former colonial master is not lost on many of the new Portuguese arrivals. “I’m not proud of what my ancestors did,” said Charata, who arrived here 11 months ago. “This is an ironic situation. We’re trying to make a second life in the very country that we were expelled from.”

Mozambique’s gross domestic product has grown at an average of 7.2 percent over the past decade, even though the country remains one of the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped. With new discoveries of coal and natural gas, the country could become a major exporter of minerals over the next decade. Many new Portuguese arrivals are heading to the coal-rich town of Tete in the northwest in search of work.

Giant yellow construction cranes soar into the sky in Maputo, where a building boom is underway to feed the appetite of its growing middle class.

That’s why construction worker Manuel Silva, 37, arrived here two months ago. In Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, building activity had come to a halt. So when a Portuguese company offered him a contract, first in Angola, then in Mozambique, he readily accepted. In Maputo, he earns 50 percent more than he made in Lisbon. And his salary gets paid in Portugal.

“My family needs money. We have four kids to feed,” Silva said.

Urban planner Ana Martins, 31, left her Portuguese government job last year because she was worried that the euro crisis would bring more austerity measures. In Maputo, she is the director of a Portuguese architectural consulting firm, earning three times what she made in Lisbon, with an apartment, car and other perks. Every week, she said, she receives e-mails from Portuguese seeking work in Mozambique.

In January, her husband plans to move here, as well. He is a doctor, and he said the medical industry in Mozambique is growing, with more hospitals and clinics seeking trained professionals. “In Portugal, we have no future to grow our careers,” Martins said.

Among Mozambicans, reaction toward the Portuguese influx is mixed. Some say the immigrants bring much needed expertise in construction, technology, banking and industry to this rapidly growing nation.

“They are an advantage, not a disadvantage,” said Andre Massina, 27, a Mozambican engineer who works with foreign companies. “They are coming here to create something new. They are creating jobs here.”

But others see the wave of arrivals as a form of neo-colonialism. In interviews, Mozambican construction workers expressed resentment at the higher wages paid to workers from Portugal for doing the same work. “They use us and they insult us. They don’t treat us very well,” said Paolo Domingos, 21, a Mozambican construction worker. “I prefer they go home and never come back.”

It’s still not easy for Portuguese to find work in Mozambique. For every foreign worker employed by a local company, several locals have to be hired by law. Foreigners must navigate a slow-moving developing-world bureaucracy, in which it can take months to get work documents.

And for every Portuguese who finds work, others have little success. Under pressure because of the crisis at home, they arrive with unrealistic expectations of quickly finding a job. In Maputo, where rents are soaring and most goods are pricier than in Portugal, the immigrants’ money quickly runs out — and they are forced to fly back home.

“They come with lots of financial problems, with little money and much hope,” said Nuno Pestana, owner of Taverna, a well-known Portuguese restaurant. “Then the money runs out, and so does the hope.”

Many Portuguese companies also find it difficult to gain a foothold in Mozambique. “You have to invest a lot of money, and it could take years to succeed,” said Ema Soares, executive director of the Mozambique-Portugal Chamber of Commerce.

Still, 400 Portuguese companies have registered to meet her team at a Lisbon trade fair this month to explore investment opportunities in Mozambique, a 25 percent increase from last year. “They all want to escape the crisis,” she said.

Charata understands. Most of his friends back home are jobless and worried about the day their unemployment benefits run out. He said he has made a big effort to blend into Mozambican society. Although he earns less than half of what he made in Portugal, he has no plans to leave in the near future.

“The worst scenario is to go back to Portugal,” Charata said. “For the next five or 10 years, it will be hard to have a good life there.”

– The Independent