Eduardo Migliorelli decided to move his family to Portugal the evening he discovered he could walk the few hundred meters from a restaurant to his hotel without fear of being attacked. “I wouldn’t dream of doing it back home,” says the Brazilian businessman, who was robbed and assaulted several times while living in São Paulo. “In Lisbon, you don’t have to keep looking over your shoulder.”
Portugal’s crime rate, the lowest in the EU, has been an important factor in attracting tens of thousands of recent immigrants from Brazil, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world, observers say. They are joining a growing number of investors drawn to Portugal from across the world by what they see as an open attitude toward foreigners and a society viewed as largely free of divisions driven by populism, nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. In an era of increasingly discordant politics, the country’s perceived social peace is seen as a competitive advantage on a par with its business environment, skilled workforce and attractive quality of life, say analysts.
According to Florbela Lima, a partner at accountancy firm EY Portugal, “political stability and social peace” are among the most important criteria for investors at a time of uncertainty caused by U.S.-China trade tensions and Brexit. In the company’s recent attractiveness survey on Portugal, she says “the main decision-making factors for investment were quality of life and stability of the social climate.”
While Portugal fell one place to 34th position in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2018, it moved up two places in the Global Peace Index 2019 to rank as the third most peaceful country in the world, after Iceland and New Zealand.
With a low birth rate and declining population, Portugal needs immigrants if it is to sustain a growth rate above the eurozone average, as it has for the past two years. Prime Minister António Costa has said immigration is essential to combat the country’s demographic crisis, calling in a recent speech for Europe to “mobilize against populism and xenophobia.”
To attract potential foreign investors, Portugal runs a residence scheme that offers tax breaks to skilled professionals, while non-EU citizens who spend more than €500,000 ($560,000) on a property or create sufficient jobs can apply for a “golden visa” — a controversial system the EU has urged governments to tighten up.
Last year — the third straight year of strong growth — the number of foreign residents registered in Portugal increased by more than 93,000 to a record of almost half a million. Meanwhile, greenfield foreign direct investment projects were valued at close to $3.6 billion in 2018, the highest level in almost a decade. Between 2015 and 2018, the annual number of such projects rose 161 percent, by far the fastest growth rate in Western Europe.
“Portugal is the most open, tolerant and liberal society I have ever lived in,” says Chitra Stern, a Singaporean of Indian descent who moved to the Algarve in the south of the country in 2001 to look for business opportunities. Stern, a British citizen, and her Swiss husband have since built a chain of family hotels and resorts in Lisbon and the Algarve. “People need to feel welcome, especially in today’s world, and the Portuguese welcome people of different religions, beliefs and colors with open arms,” she says.
Itay Kastel, an Israeli, moved with his family to Portugal in 2016 to expand the property business he had been running for 10 years in Angola. “We’re really happy with our decision. The atmosphere here is embracing and helpful,” he says. He has applied for a Portuguese passport under a 2015 law that allows descendants of Sephardic Jews to become citizens, a scheme designed to atone for the persecution of Jews in the 15th and 16th centuries.