Hotels for Refugees: Colonialism, Migration, and Tourism in Lisbon

Christoph Kalter, University of California, Berkeley

Lisbon is a peculiar metropolis. The city is the capital of a nation that one of its leading intellectuals, the sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, has qualified as semi-peripheral. On the one hand, Lisbon represents a small country that has been economically weak, culturally marginal, and politically dependent on more powerful allies throughout much of its modern history. On the other hand, the city has experienced periods of flourishing commercial activity, impressive wealth, and far-reaching cultural radiance, and it has for centuries been closely connected to the rest of the European continent and the wider world through a continuous flow of people and goods. Three dimensions of this connectedness can be easily identified: first, Portugal’s maritime expansion and colonial empire that have shaped the cityscape, architecture, demography, and cultural life of Lisbon; second, movements of emigration, return migration, and immigration that have been a dominant feature of Portuguese history since the fifteenth century; and, finally, throughout the last five decades, the steadily growing influx of tourists who appreciate the painfully beautiful capital for its light, its history and architecture, its thriving cultural life, and, last but not least, for its price level, which is below the price level of many other European cities.

Lisbon 1975 2

Street scene, Lisbon 1975. Photo: Mieremet, Rob / Anefo, National Archives of the Netherlands / Anefo, licence CC-BY

During the summer of 1975, these three dimensions—colonialism, migration, and tourism—became entwined in peculiar and unforeseeable ways. In order to deal with the enormous immigration of settlers from the Portuguese colonies, the state had to provide the most needy among those immigrants with state-paid accommodation. The solution that the Portuguese government came up with was to use hotels for refugees – a solution that not only helped the migrants, but also the tourism industry that was in serious trouble at the time.

In 1975, after forty-eight years of dictatorship and thirteen years of colonial warfare, the settler colonies of Angola and Mozambique as well as the three smaller Portuguese territories in Africa—Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and São Tomé e Príncipe—were heading towards independence. Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution had tipped the political consensus in the metropole towards rapid decolonization. As a result of decolonization, between 500,000 and 800,000 settlers were leaving Africa. Through an airlift that involved not only Portuguese military and civil aviation, but was also carried out with American, Russian, British, Belgian, and German aid, 260,000 individuals were flown out of Angola between mid-July and November 1975. During the peak of the airlift, an average of 7,000 individuals arrived at the airport of Lisbon every day. Except for the suitcases they carried and the clothes they wore, most of these people arrived destitute. They had left behind their material possessions and could only transfer a very small amount of their savings to Portugal. The immigrants had escaped the breakdown of public order and the general violence of an incipient civil war in Angola. Officially as well as colloquially, these migrants—as well as those leaving Portuguese Mozambique before or after independence—soon came to be known as retornados, i.e. “returnees.” A third of them, however, were by no means returning to Portugal, since they had been born in the colonies. Most of them therefore claimed to be “refugees” instead. Depending on personal experience, political orientation, and historical awareness, they saw themselves either as the victims of a treacherous caste of politicians or as the last casualties of the “winds of change” that had blown across Africa since the 1950s, putting an end to European colonial rule throughout the continent.

Lisbon 1975_4

Retornados from Angola and Mozambique at the Lisbon airport during the summer of 1975. Photo: Abreu Morais,, source:, Feburary 16, 2016.

Roughly two thirds of these retornados had been born in the metropole and many had relatives or friends that could receive and house them, at least for a few days or weeks. Others, however, had no place to sleep and depended on the authorities to put a roof over their heads. Faced with this situation, the Portuguese state—just as the French state some fifteen years earlier when around a million settlers arrived from Algeria—created a bureaucracy that would spend a considerable amount of money and energy in order to offer emergency relief and further the integration of Portuguese citizens from the colonies in the years to come. This conscious integration policy included providing the migrants with a room in one of the numerous tourist accommodations in and around Lisbon. As a consequence, refugees soon stranded not only in modest pensions and guesthouses, but also in upscale and even luxury hotels stretching out from the capital to the nearby coastal town of Cascais.

From the perspective of many hotel owners, this was a timely measure: During the summer of 1975, the tourism industry, which had seen impressive growth rates from 1963 onwards, experienced a dramatic low. Back then just as today, tourism was one of the most important sectors of the Portuguese economy and usually accounted for eight to six percent of the GDP. In 1975, however, its share in the GDP went down to only two percent and the number of visitors dropped by half. What had happened?

The oil crisis had certainly played a role in reducing travel throughout Europe; it also affected Portugal. Yet the sharp decline in visitors was mostly due to the situation in the country itself. Shortly after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, Portugal found itself in the midst of an intense struggle for its political future: Radical leftist and communist forces pressed for a socialist transformation, remnants of the authoritarian regime fought a rearguard battle, and a camp of centrist forces championed a representative democracy and the entry into the European Economic Community. This political competition, supported and exacerbated by various popular movements, led to a highly polarized situation. Many feared that Portugal was sliding into civil war. As the British Times explained, the tense situation “frightened away tourists, in particular the more sensitive American visitors.” A Portuguese official summarized this situation later more bluntly: “The April Revolution eliminated tourism. The hotels were dead, completely empty.”

For some hotel owners the housing of retornados was therefore a bonanza or at least a sound business model. In the districts of Lisbon and Setúbal alone, which comprise the area around the capital, 10,701 retornados had been placed in hotels and pensions by the end of 1975. By mid 1976, their number had tripled: The state now paid for the accommodation of 37,358 individuals, the great majority of which stayed in one of the city’s 653 hotels, pensions, and guesthouses that were used for housing the retornados. A cruel historical irony seemed to be at play: Forced to give up a modest, but comfortable life in the tropics, many refugees began their precarious existence in Portugal in a four- or five-star hotel in the greater Lisbon area. Decolonization had produced a class of state-dependent national migrants and a “rescue boat for the national tourism industry”, as a Portuguese official put it.

Retornados 1975

Demonstration of retornados, undated. The banner reads “We don’t want hotels, we want houses and jobs.” Photo: Rui Ochôa, source:

To be sure, the hotels-for-refugees solution remained a brief episode in history. Soon, hotel managers started to complain about the low daily rates they received for their unusual guests—if they received them at all, because the state’s arrears were notorious. Moreover, tourists, who started returning to Portugal with the beginning “normalization” of political life in 1976, made clear that they were not keen on sharing their hotels with retornados. The state was also not prepared to keep subsidizing the tourism industry with the considerable sums of money spent on the retornados. Beginning in 1976, it forced migrants to leave the hotels and relocate to cheaper, often overcrowded and insalubrious, collective accommodations that were hardly conducive to their integration into Portuguese society. The most infamous of these collective accommodations was the so-called Vale do Jamor—a refugee camp located just outside the Portuguese capital, in the Oeiras municipality in the western part of the Lisbon agglomeration. During several years, it accommodated around 2,000 occupants in canvas tents and semi-permanent, prefabricated houses.

The brief episode of hotels for refugees is certainly more relevant to Portuguese history than it is to an emerging field of global urban history. However, it shows in a nutshell how urban and global history could gain from a closer conversation. Lisbon is the capital of Europe’s first and last European colonial power; Lisbon is also the site of a centuries-long history of emigration and immigration that, in the wake of decolonization, has brought thousands of whites and non-whites from Africa to the city; finally, Lisbon is a major destination of a cultural tourism whose promoters aggressively use the country’s colonial past for their city branding, a strategy that was maybe most noticeable in the Lisbon Expo ’98. It seems obvious that the at times parochial Portuguese historiography could gain immensely from addressing these entangled histories with the fresh perspectives provided by global history. Conversely, an urban history interested in cities as nodes of global processes could gain from turning its attention to a semi-peripheral, and therefore atypical global city, a city that was simultaneously at the core of a seaborne empire and at the periphery of Europe.

Christoph Kalter is Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on the afterlives of empire in Europe. In his current project, he studies postcolonial migrations to Portugal.


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1 Response to Hotels for Refugees: Colonialism, Migration, and Tourism in Lisbon

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History – Imperial & Global Forum

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