Brits in Portugal terrified to leave in case they can’t get back

Brits in Portugal terrified to leave in case they can’t get back

Hundreds of UK nationals who moved to Portugal before the end of the Brexit deadline are being caught out by delays in the processing of their residency applications.

SEF – the soon-to-be ‘expired’ foreigners and frontiers agency – is so far behind in issuing paperwork that it is no longer answering phone lines, or even responding to emails.

Reports in the Portuguese press have described the situation as foreigners “having difficulties”. But it is so much more serious than this: people are actually being reduced to the status of ‘illegal immigrants’ through lack of official follow through. They have nothing to show that they are trying to become legal residents.

Ricardo Biss of Algarve bureaucratic assistance company GB In Port says he has at least 15, “possibly 20”, British clients in this position. “We have done everything stipulated by law to register these people as having lived here since 2020, so that they can be issued with the requisite QR codes that will mean they qualify for the Withdrawal Agreement biometric residency cards – but nothing comes through. I must have applied for at least 15 people in February, and so far only two have been issued with QR codes.”

One couple who recently contacted the Resident explain they “have to go back to the UK in January” with or without their QR codes, because their daughter is having a baby. They know that when they are ready to drive back home to Portugal through France after the visit, they are likely to be stopped at the border because they have already been in the Schengen Area for more than the permitted 90 out of 180 days.

The pair have been living in Portugal since 2020. They have been trying to get an appointment with SEF “for months”: the combination of low staffing levels and constraints brought in due to the pandemic have essentially crippled SEF – as any long-term resident waiting for the long-promised Withdrawal Agreement biometric residence cards will be aware.

The Resident has been made aware of ‘horror stories’ involving people who have not registered as residents in Portugal being held up at borders when they try and travel, fined, even banned from the Schengen Area for up to nine months – with no certainty that they will be able to return afterwards.

If one considers some of these people may have their homes and families in Portugal, it is nothing short of a disaster.

“This is what becoming a third country national means… this is what voting for Brexit meant,” said a source.

The issues go much deeper than “a few hundred Britons who may have decided to move to Portugal to live in 2020/2021”. They involve many more who, for whatever reasons, have not heeded warnings to get their living status in order by the Brexit deadline of December 31, 2020.

All told, estimates point to around 2,000 Britons living in Portugal ‘illegally’ – with 46,000 registered with SEF as living here by the end of 2020.

Various social media pages carry “important information for UK nationals”. There have been repeated warnings to people to get their residency in order.

“The figures speak for themselves. There are an estimated 60,000 UK nationals in Portugal,” says one advice page (its numbers not tallying with those of the British embassy) and only approximately half of those have registered on the SEF portal to come under and be protected under the Withdrawal Agreement with the additional rights that affords you. If you don’t register for residency or on the portal whilst holding Portuguese residency, you will not be given the rights under the Withdrawal Agreement or have the residency documentation required to stay permanently in Portugal…”

It is not even that simple. The British couple going to the UK have heard all the warnings and tried to act on them. They tell us: “We simply haven’t been able to get any response from SEF at all.”

Round and round it goes, with the British Embassy ‘caught in the middle’, trying to advise nationals with questions and/or problems, but bereft of any magic wand.

The Embassy told us: “We are aware British nationals in Portugal are concerned about delays on the issuance of new documents and how that impacts their daily lives. We regularly raise these issues with the relevant Portuguese authorities and will continue to do so. In the meantime, it is important to highlight that British nationals resident in Portugal before January 1, 2021, and those that can prove they were living in the country prior to that date, have their rights protected by the Withdrawal Agreement. We encourage all British nationals to follow our social media channels for the latest updates and advice.”

Earlier this year, Wendy Morton, the UK Minister for Europe and the Americas at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, visited Portugal to discuss various points of the UK-Portuguese bilateral relationship. One of these were the delays in processing of residency applications, driving licences and receiving authorisation for healthcare.

The issues were explained to Portuguese ministers Ana Zacarias and Patrícia Gaspar, but “basically we are going nowhere”, say representatives of the expatriate community.

Michael Reeve of AFPOP, the Association of Foreign Residents in Portugal, said the issues and delays have been a constant source of concern for his organisation, but that, “in the end”, he is confident that issues for residents who are already in the system will be sorted out.

“We have lots of members who have seen their residency cards expire and have been unable to get them renewed. Every day that passes will see more situations like these. But the cards’ expiry in itself should not be a problem. Portugal is aware this is a problem of their own making, so, notwithstanding the anxiety it may give people, it will eventually be sorted out.”

This doesn’t instantly apply to those ‘new residents’ however, who have not been able to get into the system.

As one source offering advice to Brits explained, even people who have managed to get a QR code from the SEF site – to at least show they are trying to get residency – will find this inadequate in order to access State healthcare, or for the purposes of exchanging a British driving licence for a Portuguese one.

There was even a moment in the summer when some Britons living here found themselves unable to receive vaccinations against Covid-19. That aspect has been sorted with the introduction of temporary health numbers. But the wider issues surrounding residency haven’t – and this leaves many Brits living here frighteningly vulnerable.

SIC television news has explained that SEF has not really answered queries as to why delays have become so critical; nor how much longer the situation is likely to persist.

SEF was meant to be disbanded by the end of the year – but has had its stay of execution extended by a further six-months to help authorities cope with added requirements for border controls due to the worsening situation of the pandemic.

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