Special reception needs of vulnerable groups


Country Report: Special reception needs of vulnerable groups Last updated: 26/05/22


Portuguese Refugee Council Visit Website

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 his or her vulnerability. The Asylum Act provides for a non-exhaustive list of applicants with an increased vulnerability risk profile that could present a need for 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 consist of age assessment procedures to identify unaccompanied children and the identification and protection of potential unaccompanied children 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 during legal assistance, social interviews, or initial medical screenings conducted during the provision of material reception conditions.

According to SCML, asylum seekers referred 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. However, no further quantitative or qualitative information is available and to date no research has been conducted to assess the impact of the dispersal policy implemented during the regular procedure (see Conditions in Reception Facilities).

In November 2020,[10] a cabinet 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 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 2021, the Psychological Support Department provided 438 individual consultations, mediated multicultural meetings with applicants for international protection, provided training to CPR staff on mental health, and to interpreters on interpretation within the context of psychological support.

Throughout 2021, UNHCR, SEF, CPR and other relevant stakeholders such as the ISS and SCML held discussions regarding the identification of vulnerabilities within the asylum system.


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 of 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;

(ii) not be separated from siblings;

(iii) are offered stability, notably by keeping changes in place of residence to a minimum;

(iv) are ensured well-being and social development;

(v) have security and protection challenges addressed, notably where there is a risk of human trafficking; and

(vi) 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, and monitoring by staff.


Reception of survivors of torture and violence

While ISS is specifically responsible for ensuring access to rehabilitation services for survivors of torture and serious violence,[17] the provision of material reception conditions and health care adapted to the special needs of vulnerable persons seems to be submitted to the responsibility-sharing rules applicable to asylum seekers in general.

In the specific case of survivors of torture and/or serious violence on the territory, the information collected in 2017 by CPR,[18] in the framework of the project “Time for Needs: Listening, Healing, Protecting”,[19] showed that identification and follow-up of their special reception needs also initiates with an individual psychosocial interview at CPR’s reception centres conducted by a social worker upon arrival and at regular intervals during the admissibility stage of the asylum procedure. In the case of survivors of torture and/or serious violence, such assessment might result in referrals to the local health centre of the SNS for onward referral to differentiated care such as gynaecology and urology. According to DGS, local health centres are also the gateway to specialised mental health care and have multidisciplinary teams (Teams for the Prevention of Violence between Adults – Equipas para a Prevenção da Violência entre Adultos, EPVA) that are responsible for identifying and offering follow-up to vulnerable cases that are victims of violence. However, according to other stakeholders such as CPR and SCML, specialised out-patient mental health care is mainly available through voluntary organisations such as the Centre for the Support of Torture Victims in Portugal (Centro de Apoio às Vítimas de Tortura em Portugal, CAVITOP) / Psychiatric Hospital Centre of Lisbon (Centro Hospitalar Psiquiátrico de Lisboa – CHPL) whose multidisciplinary team offers free and specialised psychiatric and psychological care upon referral from frontline service providers such as the CPR, SCML and JRS.

According to CPR’s experience, despite some challenges, it has been possible for unaccompanied children to access mental health care support within the SNS[20] or other resources.

In 2018, CPR disseminated a tool and information materials pertaining to the identification and provision of special procedural needs and special reception needs of survivors of torture and/or serious violence developed in the framework of the project.[21]

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.

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.




[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] Form more information see: https://bit.ly/3EAQpJ1 and 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] Article 80 Asylum Act.

[18] The most recent specific research available at the time of writing.

[19] Italian Council for Refugees et al., Time for Needs: Listening, Healing, Protecting, October 2017, available at: https://bit.ly/3gEoe1T.

[20] Particularly through programme “Aparece” (information available at: https://bit.ly/3mzqad1.

[21] The Questionnaire for the Assessment of the Special Needs of Survivors of Torture and/or Serious Violence Among Asylum Seekers and Beneficiaries of International Protection (QASN) and other information materials are available at: https://bit.ly/3gEoe1T.

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