In the fields, greenhouses and vineyards near the central Portuguese town of Almeirim, migrant workers from Asia abound. Indians prune vines, Thais pick raspberries, Nepalese harvest broccoli destined for Britain and Pakistanis harvest sweet potatoes for France.
According to estimates by civil rights organizations, there are more than 3,000 migrant farm laborers in this region alone, and probably well over 30,000 across Portugal. Most of them are in the country semi-legally, still waiting for their Portuguese papers. Many live in inhumane conditions, often working more than 10 hours a day and brutally exploited by dubious temporary employment agencies that place them on farms.
Social worker Catia Sequeira of NGO Proabracar is one of the people who looks after the migrants in Almeirim, helping them with documentation. Previously, Asian laborers were lured mainly to the Alentejo region in Portugal's south, home to a booming berry cultivation industry. Today, they are everywhere—the growing popularity of Portugal's agricultural exports has only increased the local companies' appetite for cheap labor. The number of illegal migrants has grown ever larger, says Sequeira.
The Portuguese authorities became aware of the problem just last year, when the Covid pandemic broke out. It was decided to legalize all those who could prove three months of paid work and social security contributions. But that did not solve the problem: The Portuguese immigration police needed months, often up to a year, to examine the applications. Some of the applicants lived in residential containers or were crammed into derelict houses, forced to depend on mafia-like employment agencies.