Brain Drain, Portuguese-Style

Between a country like Portugal and the Philippines there is a tremendous gap that is basically the difference between a developing Southeast Asian country and an advanced European nation. Ranked 43rd among 186 nations in the United Nation’s Human Development index, Portugal is at the bottom of the top tier of affluent countries to where Filipinos predominantly immigrate. These include most of Europe, North America, some Middle Eastern countries, Australia and New Zealand. The Philippines is ranked 114th, being just essentially ahead of some South American and Central Asia nations, as well as most African countries.
Ribeira d' Ilhas beach, in Portugal. Tourism is one of the main sources of revenue for the struggling Portuguese economy. (Photo by Tiago Gutierrez Marques)

Ribeira d' Ilhas beach, in Portugal. Tourism is one of the main sources of revenue for the struggling Portuguese economy. (Photo by Tiago Gutierrez Marques)

Portugal, just like many other geographically peripheral European countries like Greece and Ireland (and to a smaller extent, Spain and Italy) has been particularly affected by the European financial crisis and economic austerity programs. Thousands of people have left the country in the last few years in search of greener pastures. With high levels of unemployment (just over 15 per cent in the first quarter of 2014) and temporary employment and low salaries by Western European standards, Portuguese skilled and unskilled immigrants have been relocating in droves predominantly to neighboring European countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland. These countries have much stronger economies and a more vibrant labor market. Even physicians, traditionally one of the most stable and secure professions in Portugal, have started to leave in significant numbers in the last few years. The situation of nurses is far more serious and about one in three nurses is leaving the country partly out of economic need.

Moreover, Portugal is currently the European Union nation with the lowest fertility rate, and unlike the Philippines, the population is aging and likely to shrink significantly in the coming decades. People are just not having babies for economic reasons, and many who do are having them in their new host nations.

Some of my Filipino relatives have quite rightly pointed out that Portugal’s situation is not any different from that of the Philippines. I must confess that my initial reaction was one of outrage. How could you possibly compare the two countries? Despite its economic woes and steady impoverishment, Portugal is a First World country and mass immigration is something you would not expect in a European Union member state. After all, Portugal benefits from Western standards in everything from sanitation to health care and education. It is an extremely safe country that belongs to the European Union, has low levels of violent crime and is not prone to natural disasters like the Philippines. And with a lifestyle and year-round mild climate that resembles that of California or Australia, you might wonder why people from countries with a tradition of immigration like the Philippines are not moving there in droves.  

TAP Portugal is the equivalent of PAL in Portugal. This plane is parked at London's Gatwick airport and is about to leave to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. The UK is now the leading destination of Portuguese migration. (Photo by Tiago Gutierrez Marques

TAP Portugal is the equivalent of PAL in Portugal. This plane is parked at London's Gatwick airport and is about to leave to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. The UK is now the leading destination of Portuguese migration. (Photo by Tiago Gutierrez Marques

The truth is, the reality is far gloomier and reveals serious long-standing and unresolved problems.

The Portuguese economy remains weak and stagnant and is not producing enough jobs for locals, let alone for immigrants. The justice system is inefficient and lenient (the highest punishment is 25 years in prison) and perhaps, not surprisingly, corruption is still rife in the political arena and the highest circles of power, even if not on the same scale as corruption in the Philippines. The cost of living and living standards in Portugal are almost on a par with that of wealthier Western nations, but without corresponding salaries. The average net monthly salary in Portugal in 2013 was 984 euros, which is roughly half of the European Union (EU) average (1,972 euros), and far from the Danish average salary, the highest in the EU, at 3,739 euros.

Despite my initial hostile reaction, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that even developed nations like Portugal are not exempt from mass immigration. It’s not the First World or Third World status of countries that dictates whether it is chiefly an exporter rather than host of a foreign workforce. What is happening in Portugal is indeed not very different from what has always been the case in the Philippines.  

Philippine Ambassador Philippe J. Lhuillier and Filipino community volunteers hold a fundraiser afor the Typhoon Yolanda victims. (Source: Official Gazette)

Philippine Ambassador Philippe J. Lhuillier and Filipino community volunteers hold a fundraiser afor the Typhoon Yolanda victims. (Source: Official Gazette)

In fact, Portugal also has one of the great diasporas of the world, with the difference being that the country is also now exporting doctors, nurses, scientists, engineers, architects and not just low-skilled workers like in the 1960s, when it was isolated under a dictatorship, considerably poorer and not yet a member of what was then called the European Economic Community (the European Union today). Compared with Filipinos, however, Portuguese citizens face far fewer obstacles in terms of mobility and visa access, and are even entitled to move freely and work in other European Union nations without any need for visas. Furthermore, Portuguese citizens are moving predominantly (though not solely) to neighboring European countries that have virtually abolished their borders. Aided by Europe’s highly developed, low-cost airline market, it is very easy for immigrants to go home more often compared with Filipinos who often relocate to the other side of the world and only get to go back once a year.  


The Portuguese economy remains weak and stagnant and is not producing enough jobs for locals, let alone for immigrants.

But these apparent “perks” should not serve as any source of consolation. Emigration has tremendous social consequences for any nation that directly or indirectly pushes people away towards more prosperous countries. Loss of gifted workers and the splitting of families (and sometimes breaking them up) are just two of them.

Having said this, and while the Philippines is currently experiencing a climate of optimism and sound economic growth, government officials should bear in mind that merely climbing the socio-economic gradient through economic growth does not necessarily ensure a better future for its population or stop a brain drain. Growth must be translated into well-paying jobs and careers with prospects of professional development. I’ve tried to demonstrate this with the example of brain drain from a developed and reasonably affluent Southern European nation. People who move to other countries to find a job or improve their professional situation should be doing that out of personal choice, not out of need.


Tiago Gutierrez Marques

Tiago Gutierrez Marques

Tiago Gutierrez Marques is a Filipino-Portuguese physician and writer currently on a fellowship in medical journalism and editing in the United Kingdom. He graduated from the University of Lisbon in 2005 and completed a family medicine residency program in 2011. 


More articles by Tiago Gutierrez Marques:

Come Join Me In Portugal
January 1, 2013
Tiago Gutierrez Marques reminds us that Magellan "discovered” the Philippines, but Filipinos have yet to discover his homeland, Portugal.

Notes From A Medical Mission
June 5, 2013
A Portuguese Filipino doctor shares his view of Philippine healthcare. 

At Last, Filipino Cinema In Portugal
July 10, 2013
Independent Filipino films are rippling into European consciousness.