LISBON, Portugal — Maria Mendes is returning to the land of her birth four decades after she fled war and revolution.
Hers is no sentimental homecoming, however. Cold economic reality is forcing her and tens of thousands of other Portuguese to seek a new life in Angola.
“You can’t get by on a pension here,” says the 60-year-old retired teacher as she stands in a line for visas that stretches outside the Angolan consulate in Lisbon.
“Salaries there are at least three times higher,” she adds. “That makes it worth all the difficulties.”
Mendes, whose husband is already in Angola, has accepted a university teaching job there.
She was among more than 500,000 Portuguese who joined an exodus from Portugal’s African colonies when they gained independence in 1975 after 14 years of anti-colonial war.
But with their economy in the grip of the euro zone’s debt-driven recession, many are now flocking to seek new opportunities in a Portuguese-speaking country whose economy is enjoying a spectacular oil-fueled recovery after a 30-year civil war.
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Thirty-three-year-old architect Sara Carvalho says construction has dried up. “It’s very difficult for people in my line,” she says. “They are either changing professions or going to try their luck in a new country.”
More than 120,000 Portuguese already live in Angola, six times the number in 2003. Some 30,000 are estimated to have emigrated last year alone. Many are qualified professionals who are filling large gaps in the Angolan labor force.
The job-search website www.net-empregos.com has 36 pages packed with Angola-based vacancies for skilled professionals from IT specialists to accountants and restaurant chefs.
Faced with a record 15 percent unemployment rate — 36 percent for people under 25 — Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho has controversially encouraged people to look for jobs abroad.
His comments drew criticism from those concerned about a brain drain.
“Europe’s emigrants used to contribute to the glory of their homelands,” researcher Edoardo Campanella wrote in the daily Publico. “Now this exodus is contributing to the decline of Europe.”
Young professionals are also leaving Greece, Ireland and Spain, which became a net exporter of people last year for the first time since 1990. Almost a third of Spanish emigrants have headed for South America.
An estimated 150,000 Portuguese left their homeland last year. That level, combined with Portugal’s falling birthrate, would empty the country of 10 million by 2204, the weekly newspaper Expresso calculated.
Emigration last reached such levels in 1960s and early 1970s, when more than a million escaped poverty and oppression under one of Europe’s last Fascist-style dictatorships. They founded Portuguese outposts around the world from Rhode Island to Johannesburg. Paris has more Portuguese than Portugal’s second city Porto, according to some estimates.
Angola isn’t the only destination this time. New economic migrants are adding to the ranks of the 25,000 Portuguese already living in Mozambique and the half-million in Brazil.
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Others are heading to northern Europe. Germany, France and Switzerland are among the popular destinations. Language schools report enrollment in French, German and English courses is up by 20 to 40 percent this summer.
But many find Angola attractive for its lack of a language barrier.
Mendes is planning to move to the Atlantic seaport of Benguela, where her husband is already an administrator at the university she’ll join. Some of her family members stayed in the country during the long years of civil war.
Although it’s been touted as a land of easy opportunities for struggling Portuguese, however, Mendes has few illusions about Angola.
“It’s no El Dorado,” she says. “Anyone who thinks they can go down there, shake a banana tree and have everything fall into their laps will be sorely disappointed.”
“The quality of life isn’t like here,” she elaborated. “There are power cuts, water cuts, lots of things are lacking.”
Despite its average GDP growth rate of 11.2 percent over the past decade, Angola remains poor. The average income is barely a fifth of Portugal’s. Wealth disparity has fueled high crime rates in the capital Luanda.
There are other challenges: Transparency International’s corruption perception index ranks Angola 168th out of 183 countries, while the Economist Intelligence Unit places the country 133rd of 167 on its democracy index. Luanda is also rated as the world’s most expensive city for expats.
Nevertheless, the flight of Portuguese appears set to continue as long as Europe’s debt crisis stretches on.
“I don’t know Africa at all,” says Carvalho, the architect. “Friends tell me life there isn’t anything like it is here, but we have to do something for a better future.”