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Pascoal: Born In Portugal, Citizen Of Nowhere

Born 32 years ago in Portugal to Angolan refugee parents, Pascoal has never been granted Portuguese nationality. Too many people like him live under the threat of being deported to a faraway country they’ve never known.

a man standing in front of a building

After 32 years, Pascoal still didn't manage to become a Portuguese citizen.

Inês Leote for Mensagem
Catarina Reis and Inês Leote

LISBON – When a team from the European Commission visited Cova da Moura, a suburb of Lisbon, in September, they challenged young musicians in the area to rap about what Europe meant to them. As a reward for their work, the Commission offered a trip to Brussels. But three of the musicians, Pascoal, Hélio, and Heidir, couldn’t even think about it: they didn’t have passports or any form of national ID.

Adriano Malalane, an attorney, says that in the case of Pascoal, “a residence permit is the most he can aim for.”

Pascoal’s birth certificate – the only ID document he has – proves that he was born in the heart of Lisbon. And yet, Portugal does not recognize him as a citizen, and so he lacks any form of national identification

The lack of sufficient ID documents has blocked him from everything from school trips, to sports, to work — or at least, made it very, very difficult.

Being enrolled in school was difficult, but with the assistance of a local NGO, the Associação Moinho da Juventude, Pascoal’s school finally relented. He studied until 6th grade, dropped out, and attempted to enroll in a hotel management program at a vocational high school, but then lost his mother to tuberculosis at just 15 years old.

Childhood instability

Pascoal’s parents met during the Angolan Civil War and arrived in Portugal as refugees in the 1980s with a six-month-old daughter, the first of five. His father, who Pascoal refers to as “the general,” often dressed in military garb during his everyday life, even in his job as a street paver. Lacking both education and cultural capital, Pascoal’s parents never requested Portuguese nationality for their son, even though he was born in Lisbon.

Bouncing in and out of school resulted in a general instability that led Pascoal to petty theft. “A hat, a cellphone — small things here and there,” he says. At 19, he was arrested.

“I can’t blame lack of nationality for everything, but it matters,” he explains. “When I was younger, I always felt bad in front of others. I was good with the ball, but I couldn't play. My friends were getting access to things, and I wasn't. Then, I grew up, did theatre, dance…but I could only half-do all of those things because I had no documentation. I could have been a footballer, an actor, a dancer — but I didn’t have an ID card.”

He served his sentence for five years, first in Caxias, then in Sintra. Years that forever compromised access to Portuguese nationality.

a man looking at a picture of his child

Pascoal has two children, but still cannot access work because of his ID issues.

Inês Leote for Mensagem

Prison is a dead end

Until 2020, Portuguese law disqualified from acquiring citizenship anyone who had been convicted of a crime and sentenced to more than three years in prison. It doesn’t matter if the sentence is suspended or commuted; the mere conviction and abstract sentence alone is enough.

“There are many young people from this second generation of immigrants who indulged in petty theft when they became teenagers, due to the context of poverty in which they were inserted,” says Malalane, the attorney.

Recently, the law was amended to create an exception for convictions with a suspended sentence. But for Pascoal, nothing has changed. He may only ask for a residency permit at the most, but due to a case overload at the Portuguese immigration authority, even getting an appointment to submit the required paperwork is daunting.

And there’s a vicious cycle at play: to qualify for a residency permit, you have to show six months of stable employment, but getting a job requires legal documentation and the right to work.

Citizen of nowhere

Without documentation, Pascoal has had to take precarious and irregular jobs. For several years, he helped his father to complete the design of the Lisbon pavement. More recently, he worked six months as a kitchen butler. The money “was in cash, because, without documents, I can't even have an ATM card,” Pascoal says.

Being in an irregular situation deprives undocumented workers of benefits to which they are otherwise entitled. Undocumented workers often pay into the social security system, “but these people are not entitled to any allowance—even if they have worked for three, four, five years,” Malalane says. “If you are going to claim unemployment benefit, it is not paid to you. If you have children who are of school age, you are not paid a family allowance.”

And so Pascoal finds himself with no regular job, two children to support, and an ex-girlfriend who has become estranged as a result of the stress of his situation.

"32 years old… and still under [my] father's wing”, he says almost in a whisper and with bitterness in his voice.

He feels, he says, like a citizen of nowhere.

“I have dreams: I want to get my license, I want to travel, I want to support my children,” he says. “What will I do if I can't? [Citizenship is] something that should be rightfully mine. All I did was to have been born in Portugal.”

On several occasions, immigration authorities have threatened Pascoal with deportation to Angola. “But I don't know that country,” he says. “I've never left Portugal.” The authorities gave him 20 days to prove that he was Portuguese. Months went by and nothing changed.

Though he is being assisted by a Portuguese NGO, every day brings another struggle, and Pascoal has to pay out money he doesn't have in order for the process to move forward.

However, going forward far fewer should find themselves in a similar situation. Changes to Portugal’s nationality law have plugged some of these holes, and changed the perspective for a younger generation. According to the Cape Verdean Embassy in Lisbon, today there are far fewer requests for assistance compared with a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Pascoal found in rap music an outlet for a situation that remains to be resolved.

Who are they, anyway?

♪ Who are we?

We are sons without inheritance

Sons without documents

Children without hope ♪

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