Illustration by Noa M

The intimate relationship between bureaucratic violence and social inequality with irregular immigrants in Portugal: Brazilian women, labor precarity, and xenophobia

Ana Luiza Silva Miranda


This article aims to address the intimate relationship between bureaucratic violence in Portugal against irregular Brazilian immigrants and social inequality. The situation of irregularity limits immigrants’ access to the spheres that make up public life in society and simultaneously restricts their opportunities and working conditions in the host country. To carry out a solid ethnographic article, the life stories method was used in conjunction with formal and informal interviews. Thus, through interviews focused on the migrant experience of these women and theoretical analysis, it was possible to understand how the precarity of the irregular period constitutes a catalyst for social exclusion and segregation of this specific migrant group, Brazilians in Portugal.

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Ana Luiza Miranda


My name is Ana Luiza Miranda, I’m 22 years old, and I’m a final semester student in the Anthropology bachelor’s degree program at the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences of NOVA Lisbon. I did during my curricular internship, my most recent work was a micro ethnography as part of the Ethnographic Method course, titled Memory and Nostalgia as Catalysts for a Retrotopic Vision of the Home Country: A Case Study of Brazilian Immigrant
Women in Portugal. I’m primarily interested in migration studies, precarity, and gender, all viewed through a Marxist-feminist critical lens. Therefore, social, and cultural anthropology are the subfields of anthropology that interest me the most. However, I also enjoy delving deeper into the studies of indigenous peoples. I believe that anthropology is a mutual learning relationship rather than a one-sided endeavor, which is why I greatly appreciate ethnography and the possibility of mutuality.

Noa M


Noa M. is a self-taught multidisciplinary artist with a primary focus on writing and abstract drawing. Her work focuses on free and exploratory creation as a mode of catharsis in the face of intermittent states of existentialism.

I begin this article with a reflection: Until when will irregular immigrants need to persist and resist in the host country? Until when will the host country exist as a place of helplessness? Until when will irregular immigrants have to be segregated and socially excluded for their dignity to be recognized? Until when will social inequality be part of their daily lives?

Knowing that borders constitute a delimitation of a territorial space, it is important to note that they are never purely local institutions; they are always global institutions that divide the world into regions and construct imaginary maps. There is an intrinsic ambivalence to them that stems from the fact that borders are simultaneously internal and external, or subjective and objective, imposed by state police forces that juridically control human mobility, as Balibar states in “At the Borders of Citizenship: A Democracy in Translation?” — “deeply rooted in collective identifications and the assumption of a common sense of belonging” (Balibar 2010: 316).

Border control services restrict the mobilization of immigrants and employ “tactics of bordering” (De Genova 2017) to maintain and police migrations through strategies by state power to control individuals’ freedom of movement on a global scale. From this perspective, it is possible to reflect on how these border tactics do not signify real control over migrations, as illegal immigration exists and persists independently of such control. A deeper analysis of the subjectivity of illegal migration is systematically absent in coercion and border control policies, as the human aspect is subordinated, and migration control is carried out through technical and state lenses of power dynamics, where border inspectors find themselves in a position of dominion and control over migrant bodies.

In the case of Portugal, there are constant complaints and protests against cases of violence and disrespect by the SEF (Foreigners and Borders Service) towards immigrants. This violence occurs not only at the borders when interrogating and physically harming immigrants caught in attempted illegal migration but also through bureaucratic violence and the inability to assist immigrants in renewing their residence permits and integrating into society. This lack of assistance puts immigrants in precarious and vulnerable situations, pushing them back into irregularity, as well as segregation and a sense of not belonging. The most recent protest, held in December 2022, with the slogan “Enough of SEF violence, regularization now!” is perhaps one of the best cases to address this multimodal violence of the institution. In the manifesto created by the organizations of the protest, they point out that “The lack of access to documents, with people kept in this neither irregular nor regular state, forces them to accept more precarious jobs,” and reinforces the fact that the SEF is downsizing, referring to employees working at the posts, while the number of people depending on it to access rights is growing. What is perceived is how the State creates bureaucratic mazes that it is then unable to fulfill, besides serving as obstacles to the regularization and integration of immigrants into the host society.

It is important to reverse the logic. There are basic rights of all individuals that must transcend the constructed notion of their legality and illegality because they exist, with or without a visa. What is truly illegal is the State contributing to and fueling the precariousness of immigrant groups, annihilating any sense of dignity from them.

If, as stated by Vasco Malta, Director-general of the International Organization for Migration, at least 10% of the 233.1 thousand Brazilians officially registered in Portugal face difficulties, and data from January 30, 2023, show that over 100 thousand Brazilians are in an irregular situation in Portugal waiting for the SEF, it leads one to think: If those who have formal registration and can legally work in Portugal present such precarious conditions, what about the irregular immigrants?

To understand why, in the context of Brazil to Portugal, Brazilians immigrate to Portugal and what limits the possibility of regular immigration, I present the life story and migratory process of the interviewees who compose the case study of this article. All interviewees responded that the decision to emigrate was driven by the search for better living conditions. Moreover, two of them state that the quest for better conditions was thought of in conjunction with the search for a greater sense of security for their children: “It was never for luxury, it was always to have a good public school, eat well, not lack anything at home, and be able to live more peacefully, for my son to go to the beach with friends, and me being able to let him go and feel at ease.”

All interviewees arrived in Portugal as irregular immigrants, but it was not a voluntary choice; it was a consequence of living conditions and the bureaucracy that a regular migration process required. This process is not accessible to those who migrate for reasons like these because “It is a huge bureaucracy, and if you don’t have a bond of friendship or kinship to get it, it is impossible.”

Thus, it is important to understand the regular and irregular migratory process intimately related to the immigrants’ social class and the context of the country of origin and how it failed to assist with basic things such as fair wages in relation to inflation, affordable prices for food and housing, and security and control of violence. The immigrants who arrive in Portugal irregularly are mostly in a situation where they see the host country as their only hope of achieving a peaceful and secure life.

Bureaucratic violence and legal helplessness by the SEF and the portuguese state occur at different levels of manifestation, from the delay in receiving assistance to initiate the regularization process to the lack of clarification on the laws and bureaucracies required for the process. According to a report by Correio Braziliense on December 16, 2022, immigrants are protesting in Lisbon against the SEF due to the delay in the process, with people waiting for assistance for three years, with no prospect of regularization. Data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs indicates that over 200,000 individuals are awaiting a response from the Immigration and Borders Service (SEF), with the majority being Brazilians. The immigrants participating in this protest claim that “SEF’s neglect continues to push thousands of people into vulnerability, as they are unable to secure formal employment or decent housing,” while they march through the streets of Lisbon shouting, “I exist, with or without a visa. Immigrants are not illegal. We demand respect.”

The delay in SEF assistance and the regularization process can be analyzed on different scales because this slowness translates into a longer period of irregularity and, consequently, precariousness and vulnerability in various spheres of social life. They find themselves not only trapped in the host country but also alienated from the integration process, unable to truly integrate into Portuguese society during this period. This applies to both bureaucratic issues and the Portuguese imaginary, given that their residency in the country is still not guaranteed. Thus, the social exclusion and segregation of this group are accentuated due to this regularization difficulty.

Labor precarity is not a new phenomenon; it is a historical-ontological condition of living labor under the conditions of capital. However, it manifests in different forms depending on the specific context. In recent decades, it has been growing due to a structural crisis of capital, combined with the “era of globalization” and neoliberal policies. This has led to what David Harvey refers to as the regime of flexible accumulation (Harvey 2016: 119), where “capital, on a global scale, has been reshaping new and old forms of work—precarious work—with the aim of recovering economic, political, and ideological forms” (Antunes 2009: 233).

This exposes the working class to a multitude of flexible relationships in the labor market, enabling unstable and undignified conditions, including informal economies. Although labor precarity is not exclusive to immigrants, its relationship with this group has been studied particularly since the intensification of industrial capitalism in the 19th century in Europe, when a migratory movement related to the sale of labor power became noticeable. One of the interviewees states, “Sometimes when we arrive here with a family and bills to pay, we have to accept any type of job. I arrived here (in 2007) with my 4-year-old son, and I didn’t have time to waste. I had to do whatever was available.”

What can be observed from the life experiences of the interviewees is a failure of the state in fulfilling its responsibility to inform, ensure, and enforce labor rights. Additionally, the state shows itself unprepared to deal with the productive forces of irregular immigrants, who are exploited for the development of the national economy. This period of irregularity lacks legal protection and is only seen as a bureaucratic issue. There is a lack of attention to the experiences of these groups, and their situations as individuals and migrant bodies are marginalized. Consequently, the segregation of these groups becomes even more vulnerable and precarious, leaving them feeling abandoned by the host country.

Labor precarity serves as one of the catalysts for the social exclusion of irregular Brazilian immigrants in Portugal. However, there are other factors that contribute to the manifestations of exclusion, such as xenophobia. The processes of exoticization of Brazilians in Portugal contribute to the dual production of stereotypes that “become reality” in the experience of Brazilian immigrants. The Brazilian state itself, concerned with promoting the image of exotic tropicality for tourism purposes, and portuguese society, which has reworked images of Brazil since the colonial period, converge in this issue. As emphasized by Igor Machado in “Public Incarceration: Processes of Exoticization among Brazilian Immigrants in Portugal are the source of this dual production of stereotypes that “become reality” in the experience of Brazilian immigrants. The Brazilian state itself, concerned with selling the image of exotic tropicality for tourism purposes, and portuguese society, which has reworked images of Brazil since the colonial period, converge on this issue. What Igor Machado emphasizes in “Public Incarceration: Processes of Exoticization among Brazilian Immigrants in Porto” is that his research does not take an aesthetic starting point in the analysis of differences, but an ethical perspective that “compels us to understand exoticism not as a project of apprehending alterity, but as a hegemonic project of cultural domination of the Other (and the same) that fixes and essentializes differences that are not fixable—since we share a dynamic view of the concept of culture—and produces exotic representations of colonized or dominated peoples” (Machado 2003: 21).

The latest survey from the Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination, which operates under the High Commission for Migration, for the year 2021, reveals that Brazilians are the ones who file the most complaints of xenophobia. When the data is broken down by gender, 45.9% of the complaints are from women and 33% are from men. According to Correio Braziliense in an article dated August 15, 2022, Brazilian women are the biggest victims of hate crimes in Portugal, accounting for 58.2% of the victims. Xenophobia against Brazilian women is closely associated with the stereotypes created about them. In addition to facing xenophobia for being Brazilian, they suffer particularly because they are Brazilian women.

In addition to this, there is xenophobia in the construction of a national identity, within an excluding portuguese language. The idea that correct portuguese is the one spoken in Portugal is recurrent, as if they were not variants of the same language. In the portuguese imaginary, there is a hierarchical and evolutionary idea that serves as a marker of segregation. According to one of the interviewees, when asked if they like living in Portugal, “I really like it, but I can’t say that I feel at home because I’m constantly reminded that I don’t belong. I’m ashamed to speak, and my accent prevents me from being treated with respect.”

Through xenophobia and hate crimes, an attempt is made to impose the domestication of the bodies and minds of Brazilians into a supposed correct way of being, existing, and speaking that is only found among portuguese people. Thus, xenophobia against the Brazilian accent is present in the daily lives of these immigrants, fueling fear and caution in socialization and communication in the public sphere. This is particularly evident during the irregular period in the host country, but it persists beyond that period. It is a constant experience of migration.

During the irregular migration period, the violence of portuguese entities and the state becomes even more apparent in the face of legal helplessness and excessive, slow bureaucracy for the regularization of immigrants. This bureaucratic violence manifests itself in various spheres that compose life in society, conditioning and exacerbating the labor precariousness resulting from the lack of formal employment that ensures their rights. This leads to opportunism among employers who benefit from and encourage state negligence, the segregation of these immigrants, and their inability to access public goods and live with dignity.

I propose a reflection: regularity does not exist as the end of the migration process and the efforts made by these migrant bodies. It is necessary to analyze legality, what it brings with it, and what it fails to achieve. Despite having a residence permit, there is a constant need to renew documents, as well as the requirement for different documents for basic issues such as education, healthcare, and work for immigrants. This serves as a recurring reminder of non-belonging, as if, regardless of constitutional legality, they do not belong to the imagined community shared by the portuguese. In addition to not belonging to this community, there are also limited spaces where the “brasilidade” (Brazilian identity) of these immigrants can be expressed, where they could feel a sense of belonging among themselves. This makes legality a constant struggle, as Nicholas De Genova states in The Borders of Europe: “An exile understands deeply that a home is always provisional, and that its borders and boundaries, which may provide familiarity and security, can also become prisons” (De Genova 2012).

Therefore, facilitating the regularization process for these immigrants, providing state assistance that prevents precarious conditions while they wait for SEF (Foreigners and Borders Service) assistance, and creating public spaces where their “brasilidade” can be expressed would make the process of integration and inclusion less difficult and fragile. For example, the Casa do Brasil de Lisboa, which serves as a space for sharing the Brazilian migrant experience. Considering that social inclusion is a response to a pre-existing problem, the existence of excluded and segregated groups in society, it is necessary to implement public policies that assist the migrant reality, regardless of their state of regularity or irregularity.


Nunes, Vicente. Mulheres brasileiras são as maiores vítimas de crimes de ódio em Portugal. Correio Brasiliense, Brasília, 15 de agosto de 2022. Disponível em: 

Nunes, Vicente. Brasileiros protestam em Lisboa por concessão de vistos de trabalho. Correio Brasiliense, Brasília, 16 de dezembro de 2022. Disponível em:

Machado, I. (2009). Cárcere Público Processos de exotização entre brasileiros no Porto. Imprensa de Ciências Sociais.

Harvey, David. 17 contradições e o fim do capitalismo. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2016.

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