Portugal’s image tarnished due to SEF crisis, say professionals representing thousands of Golden Visa clients
Hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘golden visa customers’ – wealthy individuals intent on investing in this country – may now be ruing the day they chose Portugal.
Since in the beginning of the year, SEF borders agency has effectively decided unilaterally to freeze the Residence Permit for Investment, also known by its acronym in Portuguese ARI, bringing down the drawbridge on new investments and making it impossible even for existing visa holders to remain ‘legal’.
Golden visas have to be renewed, but with SEF refusing to issue any renewal appointments, every day sees more and more foreign investors finding themselves ‘high and dry’.
Yes, they are basically ‘all right’ if they remain in this country. But if they leave, travel becomes a nightmare as their papers show their residency permits (giving them free entry within Schengen space) have expired.
We are not talking here of simply Chinese investors (the nationality most attracted to the Golden Visa programme when it began 10 years ago). The scheme has gone on to attract investors from all over the world – including the US, South America, South Africa, Russia, India and, more recently, the UK.
As one lawyer whose office has dozens of golden visa clients in frustrating limbo explained: “A note on SEF’s portal saying all expired visas can be considered valid until June 30 means nothing in a foreign airport.”
She tells us how one client was arrested when he flew into Germany “because his papers showed his visa was out of date”.
“These are serious people,” she stressed. “They are not criminals; some are former members of governments. They chose Portugal’s golden visa scheme, taking it on face value, but they have discovered the reality is that once they have parted with their money, Portugal is not interested in what happens to them!
“This is an absolute scandal,” the lawyer insisted. “It is not just a question of ‘oh well, this is how things go in Portugal’. It is far, far worse. What is happening gives a terrible image of this country. People are already getting wind of this and taking their money elsewhere. We are losing our credibility as a country in which to invest”.
The Resident has spoken with one such visa holder who, like everyone in this story, has asked to remain anonymous for fear that exposing the situation could lead to even further bureaucratic hold-ups in future.
As both he and the lawyers we spoke with emphasised, this is a problem created by SEF – the immigration and borders agency fighting tooth and nail for a reprieve from ‘extinction’ – a fate which those caught up in this golden visa misery think cannot come too soon.
“SEF’s refusal to speak to, provide appointments to, or interact in any form with a large class of legal residents is a significant lapse of basic norms of rule of law, and a sign of institutional dysfunction and rot that I would guess is singular within the EU,” he told us.
“I invested in a Portuguese business, bought and fixed a rundown house, hired local professionals and tradespeople. I spend my euros here daily and take Portuguese classes. It’s beyond insane to invite and then criminalise immigrants like me who want to honour Portuguese culture and society but also help build a strong future.
“The crisis at SEF threatens to destroy decades of careful work to build up Portugal’s reputation with foreign tourists, businesspeople and investors in order to internationalise and diversify the economy.”
In the Algarve, we spoke to a ‘global family office provider’ which focuses on helping English speakers through various forms of citizenship/visa requests via investment. It too has a long list of clients hamstrung by SEF’s stranglehold on the sector, but it was careful in its choice of words, saying it “wouldn’t agree with antagonising government bodies” (which SEF essentially is, albeit the government is seeking to dismantle it).
“The system is just not working,” the consultancy conceded. “People are being impacted on every level – not just golden visas. They cannot get any kind of appointment – and none of us have any idea when this will change.
“Our advice to clients right now is that it is important that their investment matches up with the time their application is processed.”
In other words, while SEF is not processing applications, investors/would-be golden visa applicants are ill-advised to part with cash.
And those who have been issued with visas which are close to expiry dates are being told “it is inadvisable to leave the country”.
All of which boils down to an investment programme, designed to dynamise the country, running into an absolute bog of problems.
“I want SEF to be dismantled! You cannot imagine how much I want it,” another lawyer told us. “There truly is no excuse for their behaviour. This is political game-playing of the worst possible kind. People who were in the middle of applications, with all kinds of documentation requested, have found now that their documents have expired and, when SEF unfreezes its platform (and who knows when that will happen), the process of bringing documents back up to date will have to begin all over again. This puts our professional dignity at stake! Our clients think we have advised them badly – yet it is all down to the way SEF has decided to behave. There was no reason for any of this.”
Our long-suffering golden visa holder, who has lived all over the world, admitted “this may seem like a minor inconvenience compared to other things in the world, but think about the big picture: Portugal invited affluent, law-abiding immigrants — entrepreneurs, executives, retirees, businesspeople, investors — to immigrate.
“More than 14,000 permits were issued. We are productive, ambitious people who travel frequently, often for business. We are in a position to be amazing ambassadors for Portugal — to tell the world that it’s open for business, that it’s the perfect place to open a new branch office or factory.
“Instead, we are having to walk around with expired papers and to avoid certain airports lest we be arrested. We are delaying important life decisions because we have lost all confidence in our situation (I myself am already exploring selling my house and moving to Spain, where my friends have had zero problems with the residence-by-investment programme).
“And we are telling our business networks: this is not a country where you would ever want to invest. It may be part of the European Union, but there is a total breakdown of rule of law and, even worse, no one seems to care.”
By NATASHA DONN