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Reporter. Writer. Radio and multimedia producer  | Currently in Lisbon, Portugal  | Updating...

Juan Ignacio Llana Ugalde

As jobs, workers return to Spain and Portugal, so does a sense of self-worth

Sara Miller Llana and Catarina Fernandes Martins

At the peak of the economic crisis in Spain, Raul Gil readily found a job at an association in Berlin that helped bewildered young Spaniards newly arrived in Germany navigate a new language, cultural mores, and workplace etiquette.

By the time he decided to return home in 2016, ultimately to this seaside town in Cantabria where he was born and raised, he realized he could put his skills to use in reverse: for other Spaniards also now wishing to come back.

He and two friends created “Volvemos” – literally “We Return” – a nonprofit organization dedicated to the return migration of Spaniards who sought economic refuge in Britain, Germany, and beyond.

“For many years we’ve talked about those who have left, but we are now focusing on those who want to return,” says Mr. Gil in Santoña, a fishing port famous for its anchovy production.

His organization – and its aims – are but one sign of a country in the middle of an economic recovery. And in neighboring Portugal, the shift in fortunes feels even more dramatic.

The country needed a bailout in 2011 amid the European Union’s sovereign debt crisis, and Portugal’s then-prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, publicly told young citizens their best hope was to go elsewhere. Not only are officials now seeking to lure emigrants back home, but Lisbon, the country’s capital, has become one of the hottest destinations in Europe, helping to change the narrative of the crisis-racked Iberian Peninsula.

The economic boost in both Spain and Portugal is just part of the greater rebound they are experiencing, however. As important, perhaps more so, is the accompanying boost in morale for each after years of job contraction and population loss. Instead of being forced to go far from home to find a tenable life, Iberians are finding their homeland is becoming an attractive place to be – not just for them, but for Europeans more broadly.

“International newspapers only talked about Portugal because of its poor economic performance. Now the narrative around Portugal is really positive,” says Marina Costa Lobo of the University of Lisbon’s Institute of Social Sciences. “This positive image is unprecedented in the 21th century, and the country is taking advantage of it.”

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