Algarve ‘Brexit balls-up’
Photo: studio f22 ricardo rocha/SHUTTERSTOCK

Algarve ‘Brexit balls-up’

Brits in several municipalities discover biometric data for new residency cards ‘can only be processed in Lisbon’

British residents living in Albufeira, Aljezur, Tavira, Silves, Lagos and Portimão got a new shock this week as they opened emails from SEF (foreigners and borders agency) telling them their moment had finally come to book an appointment for ‘collection of biometric data’ with a view to receiving updated (legal) residency cards. The only place available to them is Lisbon … roughly 250km away.

Friends living in the other municipalities, like Loulé and São Brás de Alportel, have been fortunate enough to receive the choice of three venues for appointments – all of them in the Algarve.

So, why is it that these residents are being treated so differently?

This is where the situation becomes even more bizarre: with calls to SEF offices permanently ringing without answer (a source for this story told us he put his phone on repeat speed dial to find no less than 3,600 calls were left unanswered), a number of expats in Albufeira (who received the first batch of emails) have travelled to SEF’s office in the town for an explanation.

“We were basically told by a woman there, ‘if the site says Lisbon, Lisbon it is’. She clearly didn’t want to take any questions on the subject,” said one, who told us that his email had given him and his wife a nine-day window in which to book their appointments.

“We’ve decided ‘if the site says Lisbon, Lisbon it is’… We’ll just make a day of it, or however long it takes. We’ll take every bit of paperwork we can find and hope for the best…” he said.

Remember this is the ‘next step’ that tens of thousands of Brits have been waiting for as a way of maintaining post-Brexit legality in Portugal.

Hundreds have seen their paperwork lapse since the signing of the Withdrawal Agreement as SEF – itself in a state of flux and apparent ‘extinction’ – has been unable to cope with the process.

Even national media has highlighted the problems assailing British expats, particularly now that so many of them are living here on technically illegal paperwork.

Inside the country, this is often ‘not a problem’, but try flying anywhere and then coming back, and it can be.

Thus, the desperation of Brits in receiving their post-Brexit biometric cards, which are now slowly being issued, borough by borough.

When we began writing this story, it was only Albufeira that appeared to have drawn the short-straw for making appointments. Then reports came through of Britons receiving emails in Portimão, Aljezur, Silves, Lagos and Tavira – all of them giving the only option to book an appointment in the SEF Direção Regional de Lisboa, Vale do Tejo e Alentejo, based in central Lisbon in Av. António Augusto de Aguiar 20.

The way the process works is that residents receive their emails, which tell them, in English: “you may choose any Date/Hour online at Portal Brexit”. The mails then give the link to Portal Brexit, which eventually leads them to clicking on a box that gives locations available for booking their appointment.

And this is where the ‘if the site says Lisbon, Lisbon it is’ comes in. The portal only gives people the choice of booking an appointment in Lisbon. There is literally no other way of booking an appointment than ‘clicking’ on acceptance of Lisbon.

The emails do end with “For further information, the SEF Contact Centre is available every working day from 08:00 to 20:00, by 217 115 045 or through Brexit@sef.pt. Please do not reply to this message”. But all those who have tried phoning say they get nowhere, and emails too appear not to be being followed up.

The Resident has contacted the British Consulate and Albufeira municipality for comments on this latest shambles. Our calls to various SEF offices have predictably rung unanswered. We have, meantime, emailed SEF Albufeira and the Brexit/SEF department, and hope eventually to receive an explanation.

Glitches in the process of issuing British ‘expats’ with post-Brexit residency cards are not new. Quite apart from the massive delay in issuing these new cards, when Loulé was initially chosen as the borough to start the ball rolling, Britons called to their appointments were greeted with the news that “the system has failed”. They had to rebook for another day.

Since then, however, the Loulé side of things does appear to have worked fairly efficiently – until this latest shock.

Understandably, Brits are taking to social media in droves to register their frustrations.

“I feel that I am a hamster in a wheel going around and around and getting nowhere,” said one.

People are torn between the hope that this is just an IT glitch, and will be sorted out eventually, and the concern that if they don’t take up the chance of an appointment, they could end up waiting months or even years for another one.

At AFPOP, the Association for Foreign Residents and Visitors to Portugal – which has also been receiving its share of complaints and questions from confused Britons – CEO Michael Reeve thinks there could be another problem.

“I completely understand people who go ahead and book appointments in Lisbon, but with the way this whole process has been managed from the start – with glitch following glitch – my fear is that when they get there, the people might say ‘why are you here? You should be doing this in the Algarve’…

“I am not convinced booking an appointment in Lisbon would bring an end to the issue,” he muses.

Michael Reeve is himself affected by the confusion. “I am four days into my window” (the time given in the SEF email for booking an appointment). “I am still convinced this is a glitch, and that it will be sorted. That’s why I am waiting. Just hoping really that the next time I click on the site, I will see another location for making an appointment.”

LAGOS RESIDENT GIVES POSSIBLE EXPLANATION

Following the publication of this story – and as residents in more and more boroughs open SEF’s emails, all directing them to Lisbon – one of our reader’s has given the benefit of his family’s experience to suggest what might be behind this utter confusion:

“A similar situation has happened in Lagos as well and could explain the situation in this story.

“My wife got her request three days ago and there was plenty of slots in Lagos and she made a booking, then my daughter got her request yesterday morning and by this time there was only 2 days left at the end of December.

“What was different though is that Lisbon also became an option at this time but it was not an option for my wife when Lagos had plenty of spots.

“I got my Sef email personally last night and by this time all slots in Lagos were fully blocked and Lisbon which earlier in the day had availability from November 10th was now only showing from 2nd of Dec.

“So I feel that once the local slots are used up the system defaults to Lisbon and personally I expect all slots in Lisbon to also be full by the end of today.

“What’s not fair is it’s being done in a random order set by SEF. If all 4 of my family got the email on the same date as my wife did we would have been able to book into Lagos but now we have 1 booking in Lagos and 3 in Lisbon a month later.

“I hope this helps you with your story”.

Irreverent Youtube video describes difficulties of dealing with SEF 

… Rounding off this complicated saga, a reader has emailed to remind fellow Brits of an irreverent, but nonetheless apt, tongue-in-cheek Youtube video on the trials and tribulations of dealing with SEF.

 

By NATASHA DONN

natasha.donn@portugalresident.com