The new migratory flux from East Timor to Portugal: a police news?

People in East Timor celebrating Portugal's victory in the European soccer champion, in 2016.

Last September, I started to notice the first news about the rapid increase in the number of arrivals from East Timor, followed by the identification of some immigrants living and working in poor conditions in agricultural zones of Alentejo (south of Portugal)[1]. I’m not sure if the arrival of three thousand East Timorese people between June and September represents a new migratory wave, although the TSF radio station has promptly classified it as a “mass” in a headline[2]. Considering the novelty of the movement – in the whole last year, it was only 350 arrivals – the institutions responsible for managing immigration in Portugal are careful in classifying and disclosing information about the emergent and still nebulous phenomenon.

In the face of uncertain circumstances, journalists are also cautious in crafting causal explanations. So, the framing of a new occurrence surrounding by a crisis climate will usually be unstable[3]. Odds are that audiences will also feel difficulties to understand and interpret the new phenomenon. I personally struggle to comprehend the current situation that got worse – or, I could say, attracted more media attention – when East Timorese immigrants were identified sleeping at Martim Moniz square, in the centre of the capital Lisbon. Notwithstanding the inconsistences verified in the causal explanations and possible solutions for the problem presented, the news pieces have not shown hesitance to define the new flux and the issues associated with it. As I observed in a headline from Diário de Notícias newspaper, the situation at Martim Moniz was characterized as nothing less than a “slave market”[4].

Relying on the classical definition of Entman[5], to frame “(…) is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (p. 52). Although it can, and usually is used to transmit and establish a hegemonic interpretation of any phenomenon/issue/occurrence, the act of framing is not only inherent to news media production, but it is also an individual psychological process. It is through framing that we make sense of the vast world and the nonstop flux of perceptions. If news media products can’t assure that the audiences will follow the interpretations suggested by them, they still possess a great influence. Because many of the issues covered are not directly related to our lives, we so frequently have only the media to make sense of  the issues of the world.

Even though I have noticed the increase of people sleeping at Martim Moniz and streets nearby in recent months, I was completely unaware of the fate of East Timorese immigrants that have arrived in Portugal with fake promises of employment and heavy debts charged by unscrupulous travel agencies. Hence, it seems accurate that the situation has been framed as a police issue related to the crimes of aid for illegal immigration and human trafficking.

Nevertheless, I would be very careful in framing it as a police topic since it involves a sensitive theme such as migration. In the news is clear that the perpetrators of the two crimes are recruiters in East Timor and Portugal (it’s not clear though, which nationalities are involved), but I think it is not to disregard a possible contamination effect in which the immigrants themselves could be connotated with illegal activities. This relates to the inconsistences verified in the causal explanations/ or reasons presented for the increase of East Timorese migration.

Most of the news that I have read/watched present two interrelated causal explanations: the deep unemployment in East Timor and the existence of criminals profiting from immigrants who pay or have debts of thousands of euros related to travel costs and fake promises of job. But another causal explanation has started to emerge: the speech given by the Portuguese president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, during an official visit to East Timor last May, in which he stimulated the East Timorese youngsters to come to Portugal. A piece from the TV channel SIC highlights this very well, with immigrants interviewed making the reference to the president’s words[6].

The fact is that it has been recurrent in political and media discourses references to populational deficit and the necessity to attract labour force[7]. So, without some contextual information in the news pieces, it seems odd that these immigrants face not only swindles but also immense difficulties to regularize their status and find regular jobs in Portugal.

I acknowledge the difficulties to report on an emergent crisis still little known even by the authorities of both countries. But, as Wtazman defends[8], one of the paths to restore the truth of audiences in journalism is to cover, especially breaking news, with some contextual information. If the news about the East Timorese immigrants have been successful in encouraging empathy towards them, to strengthen deliberation it is fundamental to do more. Positioning this ‘new’ phenomenon in the context of migrations in Portugal and in reference to the (colonial) common past of both countries could be a good start. 


[1] Moleiro, R. (2022, September 2). SEF investiga vaga de imigrantes timorenses. Expresso. https://leitor.expresso.pt/semanario/semanario2601/html/primeiro-caderno/sociedade/sef-investiga-vaga-de-imigrantes-timorenses

[2] Casaca, M. A. (2022, October 10). Um fenómeno novo: imigrantes timorenses chegam a Portugal “em massa”. TSF. https://www.tsf.pt/portugal/sociedade/um-fenomeno-novo-imigrantes-timorenses-chegam-a-portugal-em-massa-15239285.html

[3] Moore, K., Berry, M. & Garcia-Blanco, I. (2018). Saving Refugees or Policing the Seas? How the national press of five EU member states framed news coverage of the migration crisis. Justice, Power and Resistance,2 (1), 66-95.

[4] Câncio, F. & Marcelino, V. (2022, October 15). De Timor para o “mercado de escravos” do Martim Moniz. Diário de Notícias. https://www.dn.pt/sociedade/de-timor-para-o-mercado-de-escravos-do-martim-moniz-15256196.html

[5] Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm.Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51-58.

[6] SIC Notícias (2022, October 23). Reportagem Especial: “Jovens timorenses em Portugal”. https://sicnoticias.pt/programas/reportagemespecial/2022-10-23-Reportagem-Especial-Jovens-timorenses-em-Portugal-1ec8e7d4

[7] Costa, M. C. & Sousa, L. (2017). “You are welcome in Portugal”: conviction and convenience in framing today’s Portuguese politics on European burden sharing of refugees.Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, 6 (2), 49-53.

[8] Watzman, N. (2018, June 8). How can we restore trust in news? Here are 9 takeaways from Knight-supported research. NiemanLab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2018/06/how-can-we-restore-trust-in-news-here-are-9-takeaways-from-knight-supported-research/

*Please find the Portuguese version of the article on the next page

*Para a versão em português da publicação, por favor aceda à próxima página


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