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“Institutional Representations” concerning “Eastern Immigrants” in the Portuguese Society

Maria Manuela Mendes
p. 117-138


« Représentations institutionnelles » des « immigrants de l’Est » dans la société portugaise. Dans cet article, l’auteure analyse le repositionnement du Portugal, devenu pays d’immigration après avoir été longtemps presque exclusivement un pays de départ. Après l’arrivée des originaires des pays africains de langue officielle portugaise) (PALOP) et du Brésil s’ajoute   depuis 2000 une « nouvelle vague d’immigrants », provenant de l’Europe de l’Est (principalement Ukraine, Moldavie, Roumanie et Russie). Ces arrivées viennent complexifier et diversifier la composition socioprofessionnelle des immigrants ainsi que l’image que le discours populaire et médiatique diffuse sur ce qu’est « être immigrant ».
Cet article se centre sur l’analyse des représentations sociales construites par les bénévoles des associations humanitaires qui interviennent directement et quotidiennement auprès d’immigrants russes et ukrainiens. Comment ces organisations se représentent-elles ces populations ? Quels éléments identitaires sont-ils attribués à ces immigrants ? Dans leurs discours, la tendance est à l’essentialisation de la différence. Les acteurs socio-institutionnels valorisent peu les traits et les aspects physiquement visibles, mais principalement les pratiques et les valeurs culturelles, c’est-à-dire, la « différence culturelle ». Ces organisations contribuent ainsi activement à la construction du stéréotype de « l’immigrant de l’Est » au Portugal.

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1Having as background a wider research whose main objective has to do with identification, characterisation and comprehension of the representations and emotions lived by Russian and Ukrainian immigrants in situation of discrimination in the Portuguese society, this article is aimed to discuss, though not exhaustively, some of the preliminary results of a work of somewhat exploratory kind in which 45 interviews were made to the socio-institutional agents (Private Institutions of Social Solidarity, Trade Unions, Masters’ Associations, Schools, Associations of Immigrants, Institutions of Central and Local Public Administration, etc.) with direct and daily intervention in migrant and non-migrant minority populations who live in and around Lisbon Metropolitan Area and Setúbal peninsula. Along this discussion, contrasting positions and articulations will be focused by representatives of the mentioned institutions in what concerns the social representations built around the identities hetero-attributed to the immigrants from Russia and Ukraine. In this context, the discussion will concentrate on the differentiation between immigrants and the major society.

Visibility of The Migratory Waves From Eastern Europe in Portugal

  • 1 Anne de Rugby states that tendency started a little before, more precisely in the middle 70s (Rugby (...)

2In the 80s1, some Mediterranean European countries (Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal) started figuring as immigration places, whereas before they were just exclusively suppliers of workmanship. A kind of synchrony between emigration and immigration. In this decade and the following the restrictions to the entrance of economic immigrants increased, in international context and particularly in Europe.

3In Portugal, the recent increase of immigration is considerable. The migratory pressures from poor or economically and politically weakened countries, the relations of historical, cultural, political and geographical proximity with Africa and Brazil, the ageing of our demographic structure, conjugated with the needs of workmanship in some specific sectors of activity, constitute some factors which justify the transformation of the statute of our country in the context of international migratory movements – from a sender country into a host country of international migratory waves.

4The visibility of the immigration phenomenon and its concentration in some territorial spaces, like the metropolitan area of Lisbon, is something that becomes more perceptible from the 80s on. Our country has been marked by different migration waves, corresponding to time periods and differentiated immigrant groups. Between 1980 and 1990, the predominant immigrant groups came from Cape Verde and Brazil. During the 90s, the immigrant communities from PALOP (African Portuguese Speaking Countries) became bigger and diversified; besides the Cape Verdeans, it is considerable the number of immigrants from Angola and Guinea, though Brazilian immigrants keep the highest rate. In 2001, the number of effective immigrants from Eastern Europe exceeded the authorised entrances (permission of stay) of African and other European immigrants. And if our country traditionally attracted in a dominant way international immigrants with little qualified workmanship, the new wave of immigrants from the East turned more complex the socio-professional composition of immigrants. Indeed, among the migrant waves whose destination is our country, from 2000 until nowadays a wider diversity of origins and a larger complexity linked with the phenomenon can be observed.

  • 2 Autorizações de Permanência or Stay Allowance is a legal mechanism created in 2001 by portuguese go (...)
  • 3 Source SEF (Foreigners’ and Borders’ Services), provisional data from 2004.

5Until the end of 2004, the number of immigrants with their situation legally authorised via Stay Allowances2 (Autorizações de Permanência in portuguese language) reached 64 730 Ukrainians (+1 360 Residence Permission3 or Autorização de Residência), 12 647 Moldovans, 10 944 Romanians and 7 053 Russians (+1 124 residents). The Government granted a total of 183 832 Stay Allowances (Autorizações de Permanência) for all immigrants. But these numbers are supposed to be higher, if we add to them those who haven’t got their legal situation yet, may be more 100 000 or 120 000, according to unofficial resources (Churches, Trade Unions, NGO’s).

6In 2000 and 2001 the daily press referred to these immigrants in the following way: they have a better facility of “integration” among us, as they easily learn the Portuguese language, they have a larger geographic mobility, externally the visible or imagined differences are not so markedly contrasting with those of the Portuguese population (namely the skin colour, the texture of the hair, the structure of the bones, the way they dress, the cultural and educational level). The image generally projected by the common discourse as well as by the media was at the beginning a positive one; these immigrants, differently from others with whom we have a longer experience of co-presence, easily arouse informal solidarity, “they don’t get in trouble”, “they are better educated”, “they are cheering up the small towns”, “they have good qualifications” (Neto, 2001), it is “easier to deal with them”. However, as time goes by, that image has suffered some jerks due to the association that the media widespread about these immigrants being linked to well structured extortion groups that practise an organised and violent criminality.

7Owing to its colonial past, Portugal appears not only in the political and common speech but also in the media, as a country of “soft customs”, of easy miscegenation with other peoples; it is also said that racism in Portugal has never reached the same configurations as in the past Anglo-Saxon colonial contexts. We can hardly find someone who openly declares to be racist. So in Portugal it is quite common the idea that there is an “easy miscegenation of the Portuguese with other peoples” (Vala org., 1999: 55) namely with the ones from the PALOP who are now in Portugal, and that easily leads to the conclusion of a certain inexistent racism in Portugal. Nevertheless, such beliefs are invalidated both by the scientific polls and also by the ones carried out by the media along the years. The latest studies show us that the racist beliefs organise themselves in national context in a very similar way to what happens in other European countries. Therefore, in Portugal, as well as in other European countries “the anti-racist norm works on flagrant racism, but not on the subtle” (Vala org. 1999: 55).

8Pettigrew and Meertens (in Wieviorka, 1993) show the existence of new forms of racism which materialise in a “disgusting or flagrant racism” and in a “subtle racism” or “subtle prejudice”. Pettigrew and Meertens emphasise that this latter type is differently named according to the geographic contexts, in France as a new underlying racism, in Germany as latent prejudice, in the United Kingdom as new racism, in the Netherlands as daily racism and in the USA as rejection racism, symbolic racism and modern racism (in Wieviorka dir. 1993: 109). Flagrant racism assumes a violent, direct character, whereas the subtle is veiled, distant, “cold”, reserved and indirect (Pettigrew and Meertens, in Wieviorka dir., 1993: 110).

  • 4 This survey was carried out by an international research network, whose main objective is to get to (...)

9The results of the EES (European Social Survey)4 concerning the first wave of inquiries held in 2002/2003, with which we tried to analyse the opinions and attitudes of the Portuguese compared with the natives from other countries (except from France), show us that there are some variables of anchorage of the perception of immigrants as a menace, the values associated with economic well-being, the integration of immigrants, the political conservatism, the values of equality (universalism versus power (more vertical social relations). The belief in menace is essentially associated with racist beliefs and socio-political conservatism and not so much with situations of economic fragility and social disintegration as it is commonly supposed. When it is asked in what way people of the same race or ethnic group should be allowed in the country, 17,7 % do not hesitate to say no one should be allowed versus 6,2 % in other countries. When it concerns the coming of immigrants of other race or ethnic group, the numbers rise to 23,2 % in Portugal and 11,1 % in the other countries. More than 60 % add that they are totally against (nobody allowed) or partially against (only some allowed) the entrance of immigrants from poorer countries and other European countries, compared with 43 % of the inquired in other countries.

10Portugal’s position is relatively above the European average in what concerns the attitudes of opposition to immigration, sometimes even assuming extreme attitudes.

  • 5 In 2002 a high number of no-answers were checked, mainly concerning indicatorssuch as “values and s (...)

11Lages [(coord.), 2005] carried out a research about the image of the Portuguese towards 3 immigrant groups (Brazilians, Eastern and from PALOP), where the concepts of flagrant and subtle racism were used. The author drew up the conclusion that from the three considered origins, the Eastern and the African immigrants are the most rejected ones. But the most surprising results are within the subtle racism. The Eastern immigrants, followed by the Africans, in 2002, were considered by the Portuguese as more different, as in all the questioned items, more than a half of the inquired people answered these immigrants were “a little” or “very different” from the Portuguese5. In 2004, once more, it happened that the African and Eastern immigrants were the ones the Portuguese considered more different, though they are quite close in what concerns their cultural differences. (Lages coord., 2005: 17).

12Nevertheless, it is surprising the attitude of underestimation that marks the evaluation the Portuguese make of the contribution given by immigrant and ethnic groups (Indians, Europeans of the EU, Africans, Brazilians, Gypsies) to the Portuguese society (Garcia org., 2000). It is underestimated and not acknowledged the economic role of foreign workers associated with a certain ideological construction that privileges the socio-cultural aspects of the immigration, namely the dissimilarities, and that erases their role in the economy (Cegarra, 2002: 47) Not only can we frequently find a paternal attitude towards black immigrants, but also an attitude of clear rejection (sometimes straight and radical) towards gypsies.

13We must also point out the fact that foreigners are always blamed for every harm, namely by political parties and xenophobic social sectors and that is more evident during the periods of economic crisis when the idea that the foreigner is a direct competitor of the national, is widespread. The media often transmit a monolithic idea about immigrants and non-migrant minorities, almost always associated with “troubles” (Jouët and Pasquier, 2001). Both in the popular speech and in the scientific one the tendency to the essentiality of the difference is frequent. As for the Eastern immigrants, also bearers of alterity, the levels of differentiation are thinner and less ostensible.

14Differently from other minor populations (migrant and non-migrant) also present in the Portuguese society, for the major society the eastern immigrants respect the central values of the dominant society, The dissimilarities of these immigrants towards the major society tend to be minimised or even softened; on the other hand the residual, partial and easy to assimilate differences become more evident.

15Thinking about the difference automatically implies thinking about hierarchies. The difference is not neutral; Simonetta Tabboni states that “il n’y a pas de différence sans inégalité” (in Wieviorka et Ohana, 2001: 73). The acknowledgement of the difference means the attribution of a higher or lower quality to a certain group. Some cultural minorities are sometimes victims of inferiority based on the difference. At its height the affirmation leads to the destitution of humanity to a certain group of individuals.

  • 6 His position within the group where he migrates to “is essentially determined by the fact of not ha (...)

16The interaction with a foreigner (internal and external) or with the stranger is generally marked by some ambivalence. According to Simmel (1986), a foreigner is simultaneously nearby and faraway6. The ambivalence reflects the asymmetrical relation in term of power in the chart of interaction between the two parts.

17The identity of the group is also produced by the major society based on the perceived “difference”; it may be a name, a religion, the skin colour, a history, an ethnic belonging… There is a hetero-image, which imposes itself, it may be a stigmatised image (real identities versus virtual ones) (Lapeyronnie in Wieviorka, M. dir., 1997: 261-4).

18In this process of social differentiation, the actors determine in relation to others, distances and borders more or less rigid (process of identisation) (Pinto,1991: 218). The construction of identities is always supported by alterities (real or of reference). The difference of the Other is based on what is considered as an essential difference in relation to the I.

19The identities are constantly negotiating in the context of the all-embracing society. The frontiers between Us and the Others are fluid and dynamic, being updated and re-updated in a situation of interaction, either among group members or non-group members. In this relational dynamics it’s necessary to attend to the processes of attribution of a category, processes of classification that interfere in the interaction between “Us” and “Them”. The identity is built up in the relation between the categorisation by the non-members and the identification with a particular group. Tajfel (1983) considers that the processes of social categorisation allow the subject to organise the information he receives from his environment, privileging some characteristics and undervaluing others. The establishment of a category demands, on the other hand, the constitution of the inverse category. In this sense Tajfel’s perspective takes into account the influence of others on the elaboration of the subject’s perceptions (according to Lipiansky, Taboada-Leonetti, Vasquez, 1997: 14).

20Starting from “the identity towards the other”, the speech of the socio-institutional actors is attended to, therefore it allows to foresee elements that denounce representations built up from real or imagined interpersonal relationships – possibly “virtual social identities” (Goffman (1988) [1963]).

21The elaborated representations may come out distorted, some of the attributes of the object (human) may appear overvalued, others undervalued, while others may inclusive be eliminated, even though they make part of the object. In this elaboration process it is necessary to pay attention to the social position and specific situation of each group, which contributes to the specificity and distinctiveness of the representations.

22Generally, the sociologist comes across already constituted representations which have diverse forms. Sometimes those representations integrate elements from the scientific, political moral speech that contribute to their legitimation. These are some of the factors that impose to the sociologist the definition of his object (Champagne, 1990: 89). It is then necessary to analyse the “collective representations” in their durkheimian significance, which, once constituted, become partially autonomous realities (Champagne, 1990: 71), and which are conveyed by the social-institutional actors that intervene in these immigrants.

23To represent or be represented constitutes an act of thought by which a subject becomes acquainted with an object (Jodelet, 1994: 37) and interacts. Processes that come from a social psychic dynamics intervene in its production. They are configured as ways of social reconstruction of the reality, and build themselves in the social interaction, “conflicting and constituting” (Windish in Jodelet, 1994: 177). They are also a demonstration of the categorisation process, and one of the main functions of the social representations is to make the individuals familiar with what is strange, having as basis the cultural categories; to allow to classify and nominate people, situations and objects, to compare, to explain and to objectify behaviours.

24The discussion of the preliminary results of the analysis of the interviews is not supposed to be a mere description of a set of exotic curiosities, nor even an attempt to romanticise the alterity.

25How do the socio-institutional actors who intervene in these populations symbolise this meeting with the alterity?

26The speech about the difference shows in a certain way the knowledge or dominant ignorance of the socio-institutional actors about this population. In what concerns distances, the socio-institutional actors don’t value much the features or physiological and physically visible aspects, but mainly practices and cultural values, that is, the “difference” is essentially cultural. We are going to analyse next “the know-how about the others”, based on these immigrants newly arrived in the Portuguese society.

Elements of Differentiation Between Immigrants From Russia and Ukraine and Nationals

27With a strong will of integration, some of the representatives of Russian and Ukrainian Institutions tend not to value the differences and say they look like the Portuguese, as first of all they are all Europeans. Others refer that the cultural differences are very marked and the meaning they attribute to the experience of alterity is that of strangeness: when they arrived everything seemed strange and they were frightened. They speak about “a cultural and psychological shock”, and the best way to deal with the situation is to create a certain distance. Yet, mainly the Portuguese representatives say that there are huge differences, though these may escape one’s notice, or be almost imperceptible. But for the immigrants associations the situation is quite different, Danilo belongs to an immigrant association and says:

“(…) and here in Portugal, when one arrives, one gets a psychological shock also because here we have no home, no friends, no family and this country is strange to us and one begins to keep distance from the others”. (Male, 27 years, Ukrainian).

28The designations used to name the analysed immigrants are diverse. The Portuguese who were interviewed speak about Eastern Immigrants, but also of “Slavonic people”, sometimes specifying the original nationality; the representatives of the Russian and Ukrainian Institutions prefer to use other designations that demonstrate the melting grade and incorporation of belonging – “our”, “our people” and “our fellows”.

29Some of the elements that facilitate the marking of the difference and the visual identification of these immigrants are going to be enunciated. These elements are present in the stereotype that the host society has already built up: the fair coloured hair and eyes, fair complexion, higher stature, straight curvature of the spine and neck, a more traditional way of dressing and the fact that they always hold a plastic bag (from supermarkets).

30Some of the national representatives establish a demarcation line between the Eastern immigrants categorised as Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians and Belrussians) and the non-Slavs (Romanians, Bulgarians and Moldovans), more similar to Latins. Rosário works in a NGO and points out some physical marks:  

“(…) the Slavs generally have more common physical features: fair skinned, fair eyed, fair haired, medium height, very big feet, over size 45, straight neck, not bent like ours… The Moldovans look more like the Latinos because they are close to Romania, they are darker… many of them with fair or green eyes, they even look very much like the Portuguese. The Belorussians are paler, fairer.” (Female, 34 years old, Portuguese).

31In general and mainly to the Slavs some attributes are prescribed to their “way of being”: they are closed, introverted and reserved, in contrast to the nationals, classified as open people, extroverted and expansive. Carlos represents a Trade Union and emphasised these personal qualities:

“(…) they possess two fundamental characteristics: they can clearly express what they want and naturally due to the times we are living with a certain fear; it’s not fear, it’s a kind of retirement, little expansion, a certain introversion. But what seems to me is that they are sincere, straightforward, they know what they want, but they are very introverted. (…) Now, even with the ones I have dealt more with – the activists, the delegates – they get on well, they get in touch with, they are fraternal, but they are reserved. I think the word reserve is the most adequate”. (Male, 48 years, Portuguese).

Table 1: Synthesis of the elements of differentiation between immigrants from Russia


> Portuguese representatives: Eastern Immigrants, “Slavonic people”, the original nationality;
> Russians and Ukrainian representatives: “our”, “our people” and “our fellows”.


> the fair coloured hair and eyes;
- fair complexion;
- higher stature;
- straight curvature of the spine and neck;
- a more traditional way of dressing;
- a plastic bag (from supermarkets);

ATTRIBUTES related with the WAY OF BEING

> Portuguese representatives: they are closed, introverted and reserved, “they don’t laugh nor even smile”;
> Russians and Ukrainian representatives: Eastern immigrants are more open than the Portuguese, even because this behaviour is a kind of ‘façade’ (transitory and superficial)

Table 2: Synthesis of the elements of the differentiation between immigrants from Russia and Ukraine and nationals


> they are respectful, accomplished, persistent, hard-working, curious, responsible, disciplined, punctual, upright, demanding, organised, patient, rigorous, cultured;
> they have a high capacity of adaptation and mobility;
> they have a high capacity of working and availability for the work, and they are not demanding concerning wages;
> they are competitive, they like to be the best and they are ready to make their best and win;
> they show a strong will of affirmation by displaying their skills and abilities, and by making the most and taking advantage of the opportunities they are offered.
> they have a strong sense of discipline and the respect they show towards authority.


> the initial coldness is nothing but a protection and defence mechanism which vanishes as time goes by, being replaced by a too emotional involvement;
> they are sentimental, sensitive and they feel nostalgia;
> when they speak they don’t use gestures, they don’t recur to facial expressions and they speak in a low tone;
> the private space is also the favourite scenery of the immigrants for group activities;
> they show distrust in relation their fellow countryman and the host society;
> they are perceived as being frank (they even hurt), sincere, ingenuous, authentic, straight, frontal, they say everything they think; they have no sense of what is “socially correct” to say or not;
> they feel a certain fear in establishing intimate, deep and open relationships with the Portuguese; they are afraid of being misunderstood and target of negative criticisms;
> they make acquaintance with the people from their homeland;
> they? don’t feel much at ease in the relationships with the Africans


> the loneliness and the isolation of the immigrants appear in the speech as a possible cause of their alcohol dependence.
> these immigrants are involved in conflict situations; these are situations of aggressiveness, physical violence and revenge.

32Nevertheless this opinion was essentially expressed by the socio-institutional Portuguese representatives. The consulates, newspapers and Associations of Immigrants have a different opinion: Eastern European immigrants are more open than the Portuguese, even because this behaviour is a kind of “façade” that appears in the social interaction, but it has essentially a transitory and superficial character. Galina belongs to the direction of an immigrant association and said:

Opposite to what we usually think that Russian or Eastern immigrants are, let’s say, close, they are actually very open. I’m thinking that a Portuguese who speaks a lot is also open, but he’s not so… let’s say, it’s the way of behaving but it’s not the way of thinking of the Portuguese, it’s a matter of education, of behaviour. I’ve never heard a Portuguese saying ‘no’ to something I’ve asked for. He says “Yes, tomorrow morning, next week ,yes, of course, we’ll solve the problem” and nothing is solved. This doesn’t happen in Russia.” (Female, 53 years, Russian).

33Some of the interviewed people, namely the Portuguese, also say that these immigrants are very cold and distant, “they don’t laugh nor even smile”, comparing with the nationals or even with other immigrant populations (Africans and Brazilians). José is technician in an employers association in the sector of the construction and points out this difference:

I think there is an effort of the Eastern immigrant to look like the Portuguese. As a matter of fact the temperament and behaviour of the Eastern immigrant is similar. I’m not going to say that it’s similar to the Portuguese, but it’s similar… it makes part of their features, they are Europeans, aren’t they? For example, when an Eastern immigrant travels by bus or underground he doesn’t speak loud, unlike an African ‘How ’r’ u, guy?’ that’s a real mess, peace and joy, but it’s the contrary of Eastern immigrants”. (Male, 52 years, Portuguese).

34The technicians who have cultivated a closer relationship with the immigrants consider that the initial coldness is nothing but a protection and defence mechanism which vanishes as time goes by, being replaced by a too emotional involvement. In some situations relationships of strong affective dependence is created.

35The Russian and Ukrainian representatives say that contrarily to the implicit theories about the temperament of the Eastern immigrant, these immigrants are sentimental, sensitive and they feel nostalgia (similar to the meaning we give to homesickness (“saudade”), a word unknown by immigrants) for their homeland. They add that they were brought up to repress and hide their feelings, not to expose them in public places and in front of others. They were socialised not to show what they feel, they don’t want to show who they are, as Andriy said: “if I show my feelings, I show what I feel” (Male, 32 years, Ukrainian, Association of Immigrants). In this context, in the social interaction they assume a kind of visual close: “visually we don’t open, but when we open visually that means everything” (Irina, female, 35 years, Ukrainian, Association of Immigrants).

36They emphasise that they have another way of speaking – when they speak they don’t use gestures, they don’t recur to facial expressions and they speak in a low tone. Laughing or crying on the street or other public places is not socially acceptable either, as well as talking about personal subjects. Feelings and personal subjects should only be shown privately. Due to lack of knowledge, most people build up a distorted image of these immigrants and they accuse them of being cold and distant, people without feelings. Irina is Ukrainian and notices some differences in what concerns public behaviour:

That maybe we’re already used to close, to hide our feelings, for example, you shouldn’t cry in public. I come back home, I cry in a way that my son can’t see It’s impolite to laugh on the street. I can only laugh in an appropriate place, a comic show where humorists tell jokes and anecdotes, to laugh like a drain, no. It’s a matter of education, it’s not because they are cold…” (Female, 35 years, Association of Immigrants).

37On the contrary, the Portuguese are perceived as individuals who systematically speak very loud in public places, and who have no problems in talking about private and even intimate subjects publicly:

They talk so that everybody can hear”. (Irina, female, 35 years, Ukrainian, Association of Immigrants).

38The private space is also the favourite scenery of the immigrants for parties and group activities, whereas the Portuguese prefer public places like a café, the restaurant, etc. instead of a private space. On the other hand, they refer that they welcome people at home more easily, while the Portuguese seldom host friends or colleagues at home; they prefer to meet in public places. For the latter home is a place reserved for the family, thus assuming a bigger formality in the interpersonal relationships, as Irina explains:

It’s very different from what we’re used to, because I think that before we were more open and it wasn’t very hard for us to stand, go out and arrive at my neighbour’s or friend’s - I’m not saying family, family is out of question - it’s not for dinner, it’s not to eat free, it’s to talk, but when we go to another person’s home, we begin talking children start playing, men smoke and talk about their problems, women talk about theirs…” (Female, 35 years, Ukrainian, Association of Immigrants).

39Distrust was one of the most pointed characteristics, being inherent to the way of behaving of these immigrants. They fear above all their fellow countrymen and also the institutions and subjects of the host society, although not so much. It’s clear their distrust towards the Associations of Immigrants and Trade Unions. They prefer to recur to intermediaries (of individual character) for disbelief in the public Portuguese institutions and because they feel a shame to solve any problem in the courts of justice. During the first stage of their stay in Portugal, these immigrants generally gave up denouncing situations of exploitation and discrimination owing to the slowness of our judicial system.

40Other adjectives are invoked to characterise the Slavonic immigrants: melancholic, sad, shy (because of their language difficulties they are afraid of not being understood), invisible (they want to pass unnoticed), accessible (they are people of easy communication) and nice. In situations of social interaction the Eastern immigrants are perceived as being frank (they even hurt), sincere, ingenuous, authentic, straight, frontal, they say everything they think; they have no sense of what is “socially correct” to say or not; they seem to be gifted with “few social competencies”, as Rosario points out:

They are extremely nice, when they lose their initial shyness, so, they are very sweet, relatively ingenuous, they are not ill-tempered, they aren’t bad in the sense of having second intentions, they are very frank, very sincere, sometimes it’s positive, other times it may be negative, when they put their life into risk because they say everything they think, Sometimes they are a bit coarse because they don’t know there are things that shouldn’t be said, they are very straight and that’s very funny…”. (Female, 34 years, Portuguese, NGO’s).

41There seems to be a big barrier between the host society and immigrants in what concerns friendship and more intimacy relationships. To this extent, the cultural difference seems to be perceived as an insurmountable obstacle, namely in intimate relations between male immigrants and portuguese women. Andryi explains the strangeness of the social distance:

There is, there is, there, i haven’t got enough information now, but there are lots of weddings… even real weddings. It’s like this, from my own experience, very difficult, we are very different.
When no one depends on nobody, it’s almost impossible, I think it’s impossible, absolutely impossible. It’s almost impossible because we have different cultures… But it’s great.
Interviewer: But don’t you think that has to do with discrimination?
No, no, no, no, no, … that’s indeed a cultural shock because both are willing, but it doesn’t work
”. (Male, 32 years, Ukrainian, Associations of Immigrants).

42The interviewees speak about the existence of a certain fear in establishing intimate, deep and open relationships with the Portuguese; they are afraid of being misunderstood and target of negative criticisms. They like being listened to, opening their heart, but owing to cultural differences they don’t manage to establish that sort of relationship with the Portuguese. They make acquaintance with the people from their homeland; the nets of sociability among people from different nationalities seem not to cross much. It is in the job market that they deal more with the nationals, as well as with other nationalities and ethnic communities. The interviewees refer the fact that these immigrants don’t feel much at ease in the relationships with the Africans; for many of them it’s the first time they get in touch with Africans, revealing in their interaction some racial prejudice. This opinion is clearly shown by a representant of the Catholic Church:

They have… there’s some difficulties in the relationship, though coming from the same country in Europe, we notice some difficulties of relationship; we notice that with the Ukrainians and others, so, a kind of rejection, and as for the Russian, the Russian language, for example. And then we also notice that that doesn’t happen only outside, it happens in prisons, too. So they don’t deal with blacks, so… they have …so… in the migratory panorama the same attitude of those from the East towards the blacks… so they are not willing to… so I think that it’s only here where they make this intercultural experiment, so it’s with immigration they do it… Ukrainian choir, but still some difficulty from them, to make acquaintance with the world of the blacks”. (Rui, Male, 41 years, Portuguese).

43These immigrants still refer that they have another concept of friendship: while the Portuguese are more superficial in their friendship relationship and easily applies the word friend – “everyone is a friend”; Russians and Ukrainians reveal a bigger selectivity and demand and they only consider as friend someone who is able to do everything for the other, as Andriy says:

“(…) sometimes, there’s problem, big problem, because people see it’s a Portuguese person, they run to him, they think he’s a friend, and that’s all. When I call someone as friend that’s because he’s my friend, I do everything for him. If I say I do everything for him, that means I do everything for you. It’s not like the Portuguese. After the first drink the Portuguese have already a friend, I do everything for you and there’re here, there’re differences and there’re some difficulties to understand each other.” (Male, 32 years, Ukrainian, Associations of Immigrants).

44The loneliness and the isolation of the immigrants appear in the speech as a possible cause of their alcohol dependence. For the representatives of the immigration countries the consumption of alcohol appears as a specific cultural practice, moulded by the original society of the individual. They don’t drink during the week, only on Friday evenings and at weekends, but when they drink, they drink heavily, and those who do not drink are repudiated and censored; not drinking is not socially well accepted. The association of these immigrants with alcohol was one of the ideas most emphasised by the institutional agents. Andriy represents the immigrants associations and try to justify and rationalize this situation:

“(…) it makes part of our culture, we can’t start having lunch without a drink. But you, well, here the Portuguese start the day with a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, brandy, beer, wine again at lunch, beer, beer at the end of the day another old brandy, well, they have always a little alcohol. We don’t do the same. If we begin the day with a small glass of Vodka, either we stop then or we’ll drink all the Vodka around. Well, there isn’t, if you want to drink and drink and drink and drink and drink … until you’re drunk, there’s no limit. Here there’s a great difference and then you reach a certain limit, and then… it’s all over.” (Male, 32 years, Ukrainian).

45The stigma of violence is also associated with these immigrants. The interviewees point that conflict situations in which these immigrants are involved are frequent; these are situations of aggressiveness, physical violence and revenge.

46Among the interviewed socio-institutional actors seldom do the statements make reference to the forms of criminality usually associated with these immigrants, which the media call as” mafias” or “mafia organisations”. In the host country, some of the immigrants are leading figures, while others are victims of criminal organisations. In Portugal they promote illegal immigration, extortion, menace and permanent violence practices on their fellow citizens. One of the representatives of the SEF (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras- Foreigner and Border Services) shows the way such organisations are structured, which, in his opinion, reflect the reality and way of functioning of the countries where these individuals come from. Thus he states:

“The Slavs (those who make part of the criminal organisations) have more aggressive characteristics and they integrate more easily in complex schemes and of more compartmentalised information (one only knows until a certain point and it is not necessary to know more than one knows, the rest is another one’s task), it is a kind of “informal police State”. Any event may degenerate into violence. Because of the state of degradation and corruption of the state institutions in their home country, these immigrants do not take the Portuguese public institutions seriously (e.g. police, SEF, courts…)”(Paulo, male, 42 years old, Inspector of Foreigner and Border Services).

  • 7 See “Le Portugal entre émigration et immigration, le Portugal et les défis d’une société pluricultu (...)

47Although nowadays the emigration fluxes are less studied, Portugal is still a country of emigrants7, and F. Luís Machado (2003) has no doubts that emigration is also a factor of immigration. Thus being, these and other immigrants tend to occupy the “vacancies in the job market left by the Portuguese who emigrate to occupy similar but better paid work places in other countries”, like Switzerland, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, England and Ireland among others. (Machado, 2003: 183-4). As time goes by, the dependence of the Portuguese economy and of the job market towards the immigrant workforce has been growing, and it’s not only in the building sector and public building, but also in other sectors like personal and domestic tasks, hotels and restaurants and tourism. This Eastern European immigration, usually qualified or even highly qualified, is integrated in the less qualified and minor sectors of the job market, usually in building or in the less qualified sectors of industry and services. Some of the interviewed consider that such a situation makes the immigrants feel strongly frustrated and highly dissatisfied since their expectations were thwarted or postponed during their stay with us. One of the representatives of the NGOs shows the high expectations that some of these immigrants had and that failed:

The expectations were those someone had sold to them when they bought the pack to come to Portugal: that the wages were very high, about 1000 Euros a month, that they would easily find a house, automatic legislation (…), that life was quite easy and, indeed, they never found that, most of them were abandoned by the mafias, with a big debt to pay… and without anything or anyone to help them, so, absolutely desperate. This situation made them come to this service, starting with Portuguese, then they heard we could also help, then they came to see what we could give.” (Rosário, 34 years old, Portuguese).

48Nevertheless, the performances of these workers in the job market, as well as the valorisation they attribute to work are positively evaluated by the interviewed. Thus, in the job market, the socio-institutional actors are unanimous in considering that we are facing a workmanship very appreciated by employers because they are respectful, accomplished, persistent, hard-working, curious, responsible, disciplined, punctual, upright, demanding, organised, patient, rigorous, cultured, because they learn fast and they have got learning habits, and also because they have a high capacity of adaptation and mobility, and they tend to accept everything in a passive way without complaining (although a more demanding attitude is shown by the youngest).

49In general and comparing with national citizens and with other migrant populations, namely with Africans and Brazilians, for the interviewees the Eastern immigrants are good workers, they have a high capacity of working and availability for the work, they are not demanding concerning wages, they have good qualifications; they are competitive, they like to be the best and they are ready to make their best and win. In this context, they show a strong will of affirmation by displaying their skills and abilities, and by making the most and taking advantage of the opportunities they are offered. It is worth emphasising their strong sense of discipline and the respect they show towards authority inculcated under the Soviet period, as Rosario, a representative of NGO’s points out:

So, they are people with a fantastic working capacity, all of them, most of them are used to working and that’s all for working as well as the students are for studying and they are very good students after they start leaning the language, because they are there to learn and that’s all. So they study very hard and until now, all the ones I know become the best in the class at the end of the Christmas term. They themselves say “I have nothing to do but study, I must be the best”, but that can be harmful, there are people with the same capacities and actually they were prepared to do their best and win, but it’s there with much effort and much rigour.” (Female, 34 years, Portuguese).

50The institutions emphasized that here in Portugal, the priority of these immigrants is the work. This is the main reason for being in Portugal. Work is faced in a scrupulous way, namely the timetable, the rhythm and the production. The work dignifies man and it is the only legitimate means of subsistence, it was something incorporated in the former Soviet Union. The self-esteem of the individual is mainly acquired by performing his professional activity, by affording self-fulfilment, as Irina shows:

In our country, the person who is not working is considered almost a criminal, there is even an article in our Penal Code that states that the one who hasn’t worked for six months without a just cause, may be forced to work, may be condemned to hard works, may be obliged to work… for example … I don’t know how you call here community services and … so for us Russians the only respectable means of subsistence is work and that means that those who do not work have no right to eat…” (Female, 35 years, Ukrainian, Associations of Immigrants).

51Solidarity takes place among very close relatives, spreading to the individuals of the same nationality only in extremely serious situations. Some of the interviewees declare that among these immigrants there are no mechanisms of informal solidarity; in general they don’t ask for social support, they only ask for a job and they don’t like to be dependent on institutions, they try to subsist by themselves and face charity help as a humiliation. These immigrants don’t look for the paternalism and charity that characterises some of the institutions that intervene in the populations. These individuals don’t know anything free of charge; in their original society “everything has a price”.

52In 2000 and 2001, when the presence of immigration from the East became more visible, the media and some institutions of social support gave much relevance to the matter o the school qualifications of these immigrants. The socio-institutional agents make reference to the levels of school qualifications pointing out that, although these immigrants possess an average schooling superior to the Portuguese (at least 10 years of schooling), they have “found out” that most of them are not graduated, they only have a technical course (2 or 3 years after 10 years of schooling). The quality of the work done by immigrants is also demystified; they are no better workers than the national citizens and other immigrants, because they perform activities for which they have no qualifications (as they are over qualified), nor have they professional experience in the areas of labour insertion in the host society.

53The education they can give to their children is their main worry; the parents want their children to graduate. That’s why we find among immigrants people who are over 50. Most workers have migrated in order to help their children, grandchildren or the parents (low retiring pensions). They make a strong investment in their children’s education, and that implies not only a good school education but also their children’s participation in extracurricular activities (music, sports, etc.). These immigrants differentiate from the host society because of the form and style of their children’s education. Discipline, demand, respect for rules and obedience are prior aspects, as well as the preoccupation to transmit universal values. It’s a style of education with certain strictness, comparing with what happens in the host society. The Russian and Ukrainian representatives compare the educational system and the education style given by Portuguese families and in a critical term they consider we are too permissive with children’s education; but in general there are no rules; the educational system doesn’t bet on rigour and demand and the given schooling is “very weak”. This and other stereotyped ideas are discursively widespread, mainly by institutions led by immigrants, who thus state their superiority in an immigrant context, namely facing the major society.

Final Notes

54In fact, many diverse opinions cannot be found among the socio-institutional actors; nevertheless, some divergences cannot help being perceivable among the interviewed who are in charge of those institutions, either those led by Portuguese or those led by Russians and Ukrainians (in the attributes related with the way of being, stigmatized images). In some situations, the Portuguese interviewees just reproduced the common knowledge and the information conveyed by the media, namely concerning the visual identification elements, the attributes related with the way of being, and the stigmatized images. Whereas some of the interviewed whose representatives are Portuguese reveal some relational proximity and a certain knowledge though superficial towards these immigrants, that goes beyond the common sense and knowledge coming from the media, mainly in what concerns the behaviour of the social agent in interaction with the others.

55Regarding the host society the immigrants from the East are simultaneously strange and foreign and the social integration of this population is a prior worry in the speech produced by the socio-institutional actors concerning the difference between Eastern immigrants and other minorities towards the major society. It appears as a goal inherent to the action of some of those socio-institutional actors. In spite of the linguistic difficulties and cultural dissimilarities, the Eastern immigrants show a strong will of integration in the society that hosted them, and there is even a self-identification between these immigrants and the national citizens (Portugal is an emigration country), turned easier by the empathy associated with their physical appearance and by a certain admiration for their school qualifications.

56Between 2000 and 2001 these immigrants have lived a “golden period”, when they were given a certain empathy and acceptance, based on supposed affinities. They were even considered the immigrant group that so far has received support from NGOs (either lay or connected with Church) and also governmental. The designation “Eastern immigrants” emerges as an amalgam, without content, that aggregates individuals and very diverse and contrasting immigrant groups (Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Moldovans, Bulgarians and so on). They are non-communitarian citizens and although they are Europeans, they enjoy a status of relative vulnerability compared with other immigrant groups with which Portugal keeps cultural, historical, social, linguistic, or even political and diplomatic bonds, that are stronger and supported by their colonial past and by a more symbolic than material strategy of creation of a Portuguese transactional space. The category or label had its effect as regards the production of characteristics that identify these individuals as coming from Eastern European countries. The labelling assumed an active role in the construction of the perceptions and representations as regards the interviewed socio-institutional agents. Yet, mechanisms of social domination underlie any kind of labelling process. Characterising behaviours and cultural differences and considering them as aspects that typify a population or social group is settling, turning those populations essential and important. To be an Eastern immigrant is performing as he is perceived and shared in interaction with the ingroup and the outgroups.

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1 Anne de Rugby states that tendency started a little before, more precisely in the middle 70s (Rugby, 2000).

2 Autorizações de Permanência or Stay Allowance is a legal mechanism created in 2001 by portuguese government in face the large number of new migrants from Eastern Europe. It’s a kind of temporary stay permission, only for a year and if the migrant the person has a legal work contract. Every year the person must renew the permission and have a new legal contract.

3 Source SEF (Foreigners’ and Borders’ Services), provisional data from 2004.

4 This survey was carried out by an international research network, whose main objective is to get to know and analyse the changes in what concerns values, attitudes, perceptions and behaviour patterns in 22 European countries. This survey is usually carried out every two years. The results on 2002/2003 were publicly presented in Portugal in May 2004, and it’s important to point out that then the results in France were not contemplated. That is, the results do not refer to the expected 22 countries, but to 21. See ICS/ISCTE and FCT (2004), EES Inquérito Social Europeu, Resultados Globais, Lisboa, without any other references.

5 In 2002 a high number of no-answers were checked, mainly concerning indicatorssuch as “values and sexual behaviours” and “customs and traditions”. At least one in four inquired people did not manage (or did not want to) express her opinion about these subjects. In some cases, this rate was more than 50 %. Among the three considered immigrant groups, more than 60 % of the Portuguese did not answer the item “values and sexual practices” concerning the Eastern immigrants (Lages e Policarpo, 2002).

6 His position within the group where he migrates to “is essentially determined by the fact of not having made part of it from the beginning” and by owning a high capacity of mobility. Vide Georg Simmel (2004), Fidelity and gratitude and other texts, Lisbon, Relógio d’Água, pp. 133-8.

7 See “Le Portugal entre émigration et immigration, le Portugal et les défis d’une société pluriculturelle”, Migrance nº 15, 1999. Baganha (2001) speaks about 100 thousand annual outings in A cada sul o seu norte: dinâmicas migratórias em Portugal, in Boaventura Sousa Santos Org., Globalização: fatalidade ou Utopia?Porto, Afrontamento, pp. 135-159.

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Maria Manuela Mendes, « “Institutional Representations” concerning “Eastern Immigrants” in the Portuguese Society », Revue européenne des migrations internationales [En ligne], vol. 23 - n°1 | 2007, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2010, consulté le 30 mars 2017. URL :

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Maria Manuela Mendes

Assistant Professor of Sociology. Faculty of Architecture of the Technical University of Lisbon / Faculdade de Arquitectura da Universidade Técnica de Lisboa, R. Sá Nogueira (Pólo Universitário - Alto da Ajuda), 1349-055 LISBON / LISBOA, PORTUGAL.

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