The Portuguese denied citizenship in their own country

Members of Afro-descendant communities, rendered 'foreigners' due to a discriminatory nationality law, are speaking up.

Lisbon, Portugal - "Our nationality law is one of the best in the world," says Portugal's deputy minister, Eduardo Cabrita, whose office overlooks the 25th April Bridge - named after the 1974 revolution which spelled the end for the fascist dictatorship and, eventually, for Portugal's long-running colonial projects.

"I worked on it myself," he adds.

Cabrita is referring to the recent amendments that make Portugal one of the more generous countries in Europe for resident, tax-paying migrants and for descendants of Portuguese nationals anywhere in the world, seeking to naturalise.

Not everyone, however, is reaping the benefits. An unknown number of young men and women, born in Portugal since 1981, have found themselves excluded from Portuguese citizenship because of a change in the nationality law that year. Despite having been born and spending all their lives in Portugal, this misplaced generation are legally considered "foreigners" because their parents' immigration status was not regularised at the time of their births. It is an issue that, for reasons that are at the same time historical, socioeconomic and political, predominantly affects Portugal's black, Afro-descendent communities, who originate mostly in the African former colonies of Cape Verde, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, and Mozambique.

Illegal migrants in a country they've never left

"I didn't really notice it until I started school, and then I realised that my ID card was blue," says Nuno Dias, who was born in Lisbon in 1983, "whilst the other kids had a yellow one. Even my teachers at school didn't understand why, if I was born in Portugal, I couldn't get Portuguese nationality."

Both of Dias' parents are Cape Verdean and had not yet applied for Portuguese nationality when he was born - so, from birth, Dias had the ID card of a "foreigner".

"My older brother was born in 1981, just before the law changed, so he was already considered Portuguese; my sister was born in 1992, and by then my parents had naturalised, so she was considered Portuguese. But I, the middle child, was the only foreigner - I got stuck in the middle," Dias says.

Like many of his generation, Dias' parents did not at the time understand the impact of the law change, nor could they easily access information on how to navigate Portugal's notoriously complex bureaucracy.

"You're talking to one case," says Dias, "but our entire generation was marred by this issue."

At his practice in Amadora, on the outskirts of Lisbon, lawyer Jose Semedo Fernandes has seen many cases like Dias'.

"With nationality laws, at different points in history, one criteria becomes dominant over another," he says.

"From 1959, the dominant criteria in Portugal was 'Jus Soli' [right of land], meaning that anybody born in Portugal, wherever their parents were from, was considered Portuguese," he says.

"But from 1981, the predominant criteria became 'Jus Sanguis' [right of blood]. So, from then, lots of people born in Portugal were actually considered 'foreigners" or even illegal immigrants - illegal immigrants who have never left Portugal."

The 1981 law was introduced just six years after the former colonies gained their independence. Its critics, like Semedo Fernandes, believe that the new law unfairly targeted the first and second generation who began to move to Portugal in significant numbers during that period.

A matrix of problems

The case files testing the shelves of Semedo Fernandes' office serve as a catalogue of the challenges facing Portugal's black, Afro-descendent communities: summary house demolitions, police harassment, deportations, and discrimination. To these could be added poverty, marginalisation, low literacy levels and unemployment - issues that they have faced ever since arriving here.

For Afro-Portuguese activist and social worker Ana Tica Fernandes, the situation has changed since her parents first arrived in the 1970s from Cape Verde - but not enough.

"Our problem is with institutional racism - it's not so much day-to-day manifestations of prejudice, unpleasant as those are, but it has to do with the policies and institutions that we need ... addressing the nationality law is one aspect of this."

Despite the nationality law having been debated and amended several times since 1981, notably in 2006 when it was made easier for those born since then to nationalise, sufficient provisions have not been made for those previously affected.

Those born in the 1981 to 2006 window - to parents whose immigration status had not been regularised - face a particular matrix of problems: they are prevented from joining official sports teams, cannot access national or local funding to study and, as foreign citizens, do not have the same employment rights as Portuguese nationals.

Once they turn 18, they can supposedly apply for nationality through one of several loopholes, but the process is often prohibitively complicated - and costly.

"In order to obtain nationality, an adult born in Portugal has to prove that they have been living uninterrupted in the country for the last 10 years," Semedo Fernandes says. He points out that many in this situation are forced to go abroad to study or work because they don't, in the first place, have the authorisation to do so in Portugal.

"Many people just don't have this proof that they demand. So, I think it's hard to say that the Portuguese nationality law is good, despite what they claim. For those of us who were born here, for the Afro-descendants here, it's not good - it's quite unjust," he says. "Not only have they not resolved the situation of those already affected, but now what they're doing is the opposite: they've actually been taking nationality away from people who already had it."

A campaign, "For a New Nationality Law", launched last month by grassroots organisations and activists including Ana Fernandes, has already gained national mediaattention. One of its most important demands of the state is the collection of specific data.