The Meaning of Detention on Life Trajectories and Self-Identities: the Perspectives of Detained Migrants in a Removal Centre in Portugal


Migrants need the consent of the host country to enter and stay in its territory as the right to “immigration” itself does not exist. States have the autonomy to regulate access to their territory with a variety of rules depending on the type of migration. One of the mechanisms of control that states use, and a means for the management of immigration, is administrative detention. This study intends to reflect on the phenomenon of detention of non-national migrants in Portugal, from the perspective of the agent. While the Portuguese legal frame may be broadly aligned with the European and the international frames and in wide compliance with the human rights’ expectations, our concern focuses on how the individual lives the experience of being institutionally and legally labelled as an irregular, deprived of freedom. The experience of dealing with deviance, which by its turn results from a condition external to the individual, is a phenomenon to which citizenship and migration studies still need to pay more attention.

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    Detention centres for migrants stand usually for facilities conceived for detaining individuals who entered irregularly, or whose residence permit has expired, or who are waiting for their deportation as an additional penalty after a criminal sentence. The designations may, though, vary across countries. For instance, in Portugal as in France, centres may be called centres of retention, temporary installation centres, etc., as the very word “detention” is perceived as conveying the idea of “arrestment” of people.

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    A study by Lages et al. (2006) in Portugal shows the ambivalence in Portuguese society regarding the rights of immigrants and their repatriation. In this study, the majority of Portuguese recognize the right to family reunification to immigrants and the right to vote or naturalization. However, 79.5% of the participants of the study agree with the expulsion of an immigrant who has committed a crime or, for 61.3% of the participants, when they do not have work. On the other hand, 76% of the Portuguese participants of the study agree with the regularization of migrants but not if they are unemployed (repatriation being preferable in this case) for 75% of the participants.

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    “The Return Directive”—Directive 2008/115/EC of the European Parliament and of The Council of 16 December 2008 on common standards and procedures in Member States for returning illegally staying third-country nationals.

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    This directive is controversial because it considers detention as a legitimate device in dealing with migration flows, and this may contradict the idea of safeguarding migrants’ human rights (Borges 2012). This directive, however, is also responsible for the harmonization of legislation among several European countries aiming at limiting the possibility of abusive use of detention.

  8. 8.

    Law 102/2017 available at

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    Law 26/2014 available at

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    Article 65 of Asylum Law—They are also “subject to the duties of foreigners resident in Portugal.”

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    Temporary Installation Center. “Temporary” because this center was meant to be temporary until the construction of new one.

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    Portugal has also detention facilities at the airports of Lisbon, Oporto and Faro, considered as transit detention facilities once the entry into the country is denied at the “border”. At the Islands of Azores and Madeira, there are also detention facilities used usually for “the shortest possible time before migrants are transferred to Lisbon (GDP 2017).

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    However, in 2017, the Portuguese Ombudsman reported that there is a lack of adequate space and conditions for families and children that can guarantee privacy to families or a lack of equipment for children (GDP 2017). The report, titled “Treatment of Illegal Foreign Citizens or Asylum Seekers in Temporary Installations or Similar Sites” authored by the Portuguese Ombudsman refers that in 2015, 108 persons were detained at the UHSA and 148 persons in 2016.

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    As the research experience at the UHSA took place between 2013 and 2014, the data here refers to those two years only. In 2013, there were 162 migrants at the UHSA (JRS 2014)—the lowest number recorded since the opening of the center. Three children and one pregnant woman were also detained among the migrants. During 2014, the UHSA received 163 migrants—131 men and 32 women—from 37 nationalities and one stateless person. Brazilians were the most represented, followed by Ukrainians and Guinea-Bissau citizens. In 2014, contrary to previous years, there was also a prevalence of citizens from Cape Verde at the UHSA.

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    The year 2009 registered the highest number of legal permanent non-national residents (457.306) in Portugal. Since then, the numbers did not stop falling until reaching the lowest total in 2015 (397.724). In 2016, likely as a consequence of the signs of economic recovery of the country, the population of permanent non-national residents grew again to a total of 407.504. This was the highest level recorded since 2010 and a 24% increase relative to 2015 according to the OECD International Migration Outlook 2018 (OECD 2018). Still, and, in general terms, the percentage of legal immigrant population in Portugal is less than 5% of its global population, a modest percentage in comparison with other European countries. As for the population of refugees, there has been a growth of requests for asylum status (from a total of 896 in 2015 to 1750 in 2017), and by December 2017, Portugal had resettled 4574 refugees. The figures are though quite modest in comparison with those found elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Germany with 198,000 requests accounted in 2017 for 31% of all first-time applicants in the EU-28, according to the Eurostat (Eurostat 2018)).

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    Names are fictitious but correspond to names that detainees could possibly have taking into account their national/ethnic/cultural origins.

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    This leads to at least three major extraordinary processes for the legalization of labor migrants. One such extraordinary legalization occurred back in 1992/1993, in 1996 and in 1998. According to Pedro (2010: 165), these regularisations marked the passage from what Pedro calls the “colonial lusophone” migration cycle to the “economic-European” cycle strongly associated to the massive arrival of thousands of East European migrants and non-European migrants.

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    CASP Centro de Apoio e Solidariedade da Pousa—Social Solidarity Private Institution of the county of Barcelos, North of Portugal.

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    Since at least 2009, unemployment rates began rising. The golden years of 2000 (3.9%) and 2002 (5.3%) had been left behind, and by 2008, the rate was already 7.6%. The escalating number though was still to happen, from 9.4% in 2009, it went up to 12.7% in 2011, reaching the highest in 2013 (16.2%) (PORDATA 2017a). Youth unemployment was even worse, reaching rates as high as 38.1% in 2013 (PORDATA 2017b).

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    In 2014, for instance, the unemployment rate among Portuguese citizens was 13.7% against 22.3% among immigrants. However, it is also important to mention that, according to a report of the OECD, Portugal was, in 2017, the only Southern European country where immigrants have recovered jobs ten years after the crisis, against the tendency in Spain and Greece. In 2017, the employment rate among immigrants in Portugal was 74.3%, while the unemployment rate among immigrants in the same period has dropped to 10%.


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The authors acknowledge the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT—Portugal) as the founding institution of the Centre of Research in Political Science (UID/CPO/00758/2013) of the University of Minho.

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Table 1 Socio-demographic characteristics of the interviewed migrants

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Sampaio, P.C., Carvalhais, I.E. The Meaning of Detention on Life Trajectories and Self-Identities: the Perspectives of Detained Migrants in a Removal Centre in Portugal. Int. Migration & Integration 20, 1137–1159 (2019).

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  • Migrants
  • Detention
  • Deviance
  • Trajectory
  • Identity
  • Irregular
  • Agent
  • Portugal