MAPUTO, Jul 11 – Thousands of Portuguese have fled their country’s economic hardships all the way to Mozambique, a former colony at the southern end of Africa, where a booming economy promises jobs and a better future.
“It is summer ten months out of twelve here,” said Mafalda Soares at a party in honour of Lisbon’s patron saint, Antonio, in the Mozambican capital Maputo, where fried sardines were served to the tunes of Fado music in the background. She arrived two years ago before things got really bad back home.
“When I send emails home I have new things to tell because this is a growing economy and things are happening, whilst there they are cutting budgets and cutting people,” she tells AFP.
Portuguese, especially the young, are fleeing unemployment that may surpass 15 percent in their home country which entered recession last year. They head out to former colonies — first Brazil, then Angola, now Mozambique.
The latter promises seven percent growth on the back of a natural resource boom — global significant natural gas and coal deposits.
Around 25,000 Portuguese live in Mozambique – most Maputo. Arrivals have increased over the past two years and the Portuguese consulate now registers 100 newcomers a month, though not everyone bothers to sign in. Portuguese airline TAP doubled its flights from Lisbon to Maputo this year to meet the demand.
Diogo da register Cunha, 42, came to Maputo in March when clients’ inability to pay their bills forced him to give up his baby lettuce farm. Today he sells imported bubble gum and whisky to shops.
“I did not have many options. Either continue going down or pay my debts and leave,” he said.
“I have a salary even if I have to live with my uncle. I see hope in all aspects of life. Not just work but socially too.”
Portuguese emigration goes back to the time of Vasco da Gama. Only 10 million remain in their homeland, while 15 million others are spread around the globe. Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho last year advised jobless young people to emigrate.
Virtually all Portuguese left Mozambique after the colony gained independence in 1975. Some began trickling back twenty years ago after the end of Mozambique’s civil war but the new wave of immigrant waiters, drivers, carpenters and construction workers is causing disquiet amongst locals.
“They take positions that Mozambicans could have,” said Hortencio Lopes, the head of civil society group the Centre for Mozambican and International studies. Only the top two percent of society occupy professional posts.
“Qualified people tend to stay in Portugal and the least qualified come here. They are bringing their problems here,” he said.
“Mozambique does not want to be colonised twice.”
But Portuguese consul Graca Pereira disputed the claim.
“That is not true. The Portuguese create jobs,” she argued, pointing to the Mozambican government’s quota system requiring companies to employ ten locals for every foreigner. But she admitted the rules are bent in “special” cases, usually large construction projects.
Yet the end isn’t rosy for everyone.
Business graduate Jose Soares is reluctantly returning home after his local employer decided he was too expensive.
“The owner opted to hire three Mozambicans instead,” he said.
“I did not come here to colonise anyone. I came to do my job and teach people.”
Many others are worried that salaries for foreigners are falling now that new immigrants are flooding the market.
“Two years ago the work of a foreigner was highly valued, now the demand is the same but the supply has increased dramatically,” said Fabio Giao.
The upside is that labour costs are a fraction of what they would be in Europe. The 24-year-old started a catering company this year because of the quick returns on low initial investment.
It is exactly these low minimum wages and rising inflation that have been fuelling growing discontent amongst Mozambicans who feel they are being left out of the economic boom. Riots erupted in Maputo in 2010 over food price hikes.
For now, that anger is not directed at foreign investors, but newcomers fear rising government corruption and simmering discontentment will boil over.
For them Mozambique is not a permanent home.
“You need friends high up in government to stay here,” said Giao.
“I am not thinking of staying here long term. We don’t know what is going to happen. We see great opportunities, but great risks.”