Special reception needs of vulnerable groups


Country Report: Special reception needs of vulnerable groups Last updated: 12/05/23


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An ‘applicant in need of special reception needs’ is defined in terms of reduced ability to benefit from the rights and comply with the obligations stemming from the Asylum Act due to their vulnerability. The Asylum Act provides for a non-exhaustive list of applicants with an increased vulnerability risk profile that could need special reception conditions: minors, unaccompanied minors, disabled people, elderly people, pregnant women, single parents with minor children, victims of human trafficking, persons with serious illnesses, persons with mental disorders and persons who have been subjected to torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence, such as victims of domestic violence and female genital mutilation.[1]

While the Asylum Act also refers to guarantees available to particularly vulnerable persons,[2] the two concepts seem to be used interchangeably, meaning that any person with special reception needs is a priori a vulnerable person for the purposes of the Asylum Act.[3]

The identification of persons with special needs and the nature of such needs must take place upon registration of the asylum application or at any stage of the asylum procedure,[4] but within reasonable time following registration.[5]

The provision of special reception conditions should take into consideration: (i) the material reception needs of particularly vulnerable persons;[6] (ii) their special health needs, including those particular to survivors of torture and serious violence.[7]

The law further details the modalities of some of these categories of special reception conditions particularly regarding the special needs of children[8] (including unaccompanied children)[9] and housing conditions.

There are no specific mechanisms, standard operating procedures, or units in place to systematically identify asylum seekers in need of special reception conditions. The only exceptions are age assessment procedures and procedures for the identification and protection of potential victims of trafficking that present practical and technical implementation challenges (see Identification).

In the framework of admissibility (including Dublin) and accelerated procedures on the territory, asylum seekers who present apparent vulnerabilities entailing special reception needs such as children, disabled people, elderly people, pregnant women, single parents with minor children, persons with serious illnesses or mental disorders would generally be identified by CPR within a reasonable period of time after registration. This is done based on information received from SEF prior to their referral to CPR’s reception centres or collected directly during legal assistance, social interviews or initial medical screenings.

In 2021, CPR created a Psychological Support Department. The department, which has one psychologist, provides psychological assistance to applicants for international protection supported by CPR, and also facilitates referrals to relevant services provided by partners such as psychiatric follow-up. In the course of 2022, the Psychological Support Department provided 525 individual consultations, mediated multicultural meetings with applicants for international protection and organised other group activities, and made referrals to external services.

According to SCML, asylum seekers referred to the organisation by the SOG benefit from specific social counselling at the appeal stage and may be referred to homeless shelters managed by the organisation on a temporary basis to address specific vulnerabilities. Rooms with individual bathrooms can also be used to respond to certain special needs. Similarly, according to ISS special needs are assessed and vulnerable asylum seekers are provided differentiated support during the regular procedure, notably in the case of children, disabled and the elderly.

According to the information provided by SCML, the team ensuring support to asylum seekers includes a psychologist. Applicants can also be referred to psychiatric care within the health care units managed by the organisation. SCML also confirms that access to mental healthcare within the SNS is often challenging, particularly due to delays, suitability of available solutions and language barriers.

JRS also reported having a Mental Health Office, specialising in the field of migration.

In November 2020,[10] a specific service to support victims of domestic violence and/or traditional harmful practices was inaugurated in CNAIM Lisbon. Another one was inaugurated in February 2021 in CNAIM Norte.[11]

In 2022, a new SOG sub-group was created in order to address the area of vulnerabilities within the asylum system. The group is composed by ACM, CPR, ISS, SCML, SEF, and UNHCR. According to the information available at the time of writing, during the first semester of 2023, the sub-group will be led by UNHCR, and will identify services and mechanisms to address specific vulnerabilities.

In September 2022, UNHCR and EUAA organised two training sessions on the Agency’s Tool for Identification of Persons With Special Needs in Lisbon.


Reception of families and children

The accommodation of unaccompanied children who are 16 and over in adult reception centres and the initiation of family tracing are dependent on a best interests assessment.[12] Under the Asylum Act, the best interest of the child also requires that children:

  • Be placed with parents or, in their absence, with adult relatives, foster families, specialised reception centres or tailored accommodation;
  • Not be separated from siblings;
  • Are offered stability, notably by keeping changes in place of residence to a minimum;
  • Are ensured well-being and social development;
  • Have security and protection challenges addressed, notably where there is a risk of human trafficking; and
  • Express their opinion, taking into consideration their age and maturity.[13]

The provision of special reception conditions during the asylum procedure includes a specialised reception centre for unaccompanied children, CACR, and the accommodation of unaccompanied children who are 16 or older in CAR and CAR 2 as a measure of last resort, in the absence of appropriate alternatives or in pre-autonomy stages (see Types of Accommodation). CPR promotes family tracing, in partnership with the Portuguese Red Cross (CVP), if considered to be in the best interest of the child and taking into consideration the child’s opinion.

CPR’s reception centres offer facilities to accommodate disabled people and playgrounds for children who are systematically enrolled in public education. Despite practical challenges, families are generally given separate accommodation either at CAR or in external accommodation. Asylum seekers are generally referred to the SNS for health assessments and care, including differentiated care, even though referral constraints particularly for mental health care and certain categories of specialised medical care have been traditionally experienced.

To the extent that it is possible, and with consent of the applicants, family unity should be preserved in the provision of housing,[14] while adult asylum seekers with special reception needs should be accommodated with adult relatives who are legally responsible for them and already present on the territory.[15]

According to the Asylum Act, adequate measures must be adopted to avoid sexual and gender-based violence and harassment in reception centres and other housing provided to asylum seekers.[16] Among the measures adopted by CPR in this regard are the definition of separate room areas, the development awareness raising activities, the possibility to adopt accommodation arrangements adequate to specific needs, and monitoring by staff.

In May 2022, ACM signed a cooperation agreement with the organisation Adolescer, to implement a specific reception programme for single parent families and young people.[17]

While commending the efforts of the Portuguese authorities within the implementation of the bilateral relocation of unaccompanied children from Greece, UNICEF also pointed out that there is no structured reception strategy for this group, leading to discrepancies in the treatment granted to unaccompanied children depending on the particularities of their case (relocated/spontaneous applicant, for instance). The organisation also reported being aware of situations where unaccompanied children are housed in non-specialised residential care facilities without clear criteria thereto.


Reception of survivors of torture and violence

While ISS is responsible for ensuring access to rehabilitation services for survivors of torture and serious violence,[18] the provision of material reception conditions and health care adapted to the special needs of vulnerable persons seems to be dependent on the responsibility-sharing rules applicable to asylum seekers in general.

The provision of reception conditions by ISS in the regular procedure following a dispersal decision by the SOG is done in accordance to agreed standards. In each district there is a responsible officer for reception conditions who reports directly to central services, but there is no specialised team dedicated to survivors of torture and/or serious violence. According to ISS, caseworkers can make referrals to specialised services at local level, for instance, for asylum seekers placed in the area of Coimbra, ISS has the possibility to make referrals to the Centre for the Prevention and Treatment of Psychogenic Trauma that provides differentiated mental health care adapted to the needs of survivors of torture and/or serious violence.




[1] Article 2(1)(ag) Asylum Act.

[2] Article 2(1)(y) Asylum Act.

[3] Article 77(1) and (3) Asylum Act.

[4] Article 77(2) Asylum Act.

[5] Article 77(3) Asylum Act.

[6] Articles 56(2) and 77(1) of Asylum Act.

[7] Articles 35-B(8), 52(5), 56(2), 78(3)-(4) and 80 Asylum Act.

[8] Article 78 Asylum Act.

[9] Article 79 Asylum Act.

[10] EASO, EASO Asylum Report 2021, 2021, pp. 269-270, available at: https://bit.ly/3MlIDFs.

[11] For more information see: ACM, Abertura do 1.º espaço atendimento às vítimas de violência doméstica migrantes e a vítimas de práticas tradicionais nefastas no CNAIM de Lisboa, available at: https://bit.ly/3EAQpJ1 and Comissão para a Cidadania e a Igualdade de Género (CIG), Novo Gabinete de Apoio às Vìtimas de Violência Doméstica e/ou de práticas tradicionais nefastas no CNAIM Norte, 17 February 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3OsUBil.

[12] Article 79(10) and (14) Asylum Act.

[13] Article 78(2)(a)-(h) Asylum Act.

[14] Articles 51(2) and 59(1)(a) and (b) Asylum Act.

[15] Article 59(1)(c) Asylum Act.

[16] Article 59(1)(e) Asylum Act.

[17] For more, see: ACM, ACM e Adolescere assinam protocolo de cooperação, available at: https://bit.ly/3m9FFfT and Adolescere, Programa ACOLHER – Famílias Monoparentais Refugiadas, available at: https://bit.ly/3Mnm2vA.

[18] Article 80 Asylum Act.

Table of contents

  • Statistics
  • Overview of the legal framework
  • Overview of the main changes since the previous report update
  • Asylum Procedure
  • Reception Conditions
  • Detention of Asylum Seekers
  • Content of International Protection
  • ANNEX I – Transposition of the CEAS in national legislation