For construction worker Mamadou Diallo, Portugal’s success in attracting investors to its real estate sector is full of bitter irony.
The 38-year-old Guinean said he has been living in Portugal for the last 7 years, working on different projects and paying his taxes. Apparently, this was not enough to acquire a residence permit in Portugal; while for people who buy a property worth more than €500,000 (the type of property that Diallo helps build) the visa may come with proof of purchase.
“If I had half a million euros to buy a house, all my problems would be over,” Diallo said in fluent Portuguese during an interview in central Lisbon. “It’s so unfair.”
Fair or not, this practice was instituted by southern European governments as a much-needed stimulus for economies that are trying to put their serious economic problems behind them. While Malta has caught the attention of the European Union this year, after introducing a program that effectively sells citizenship, it is Portugal that is attracting the largest number of new residents.
The country has issued 1,161 residence permits since the program began in 2012, representing 699 million euros of investment coming mainly from China, the Portuguese Foreign Minister said this week.
As reported by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, according to information from the Immigration Department in Spain, 72 residence permits had been issued to non-EU citizens, while Greece granted 100 permits, according to the Ministry of the Interior’s office. Both countries started their residency program last year.
There is no doubt about the fact that the “golden visa” program has been very successful in promoting luxury home sales in Portugal,” said José Brandão de Brito, chief economist at Banco Comercial Português SA in Lisbon. “The problem is that most of the properties that have to be sold are the cheapest apartments on the outskirts of cities, which are empty because of the high unemployment rate”
Opposition to the program can unite very unlikely political agents: anti-immigrant parties that emerged reinforced from the last European elections and organizations that defend the rights of immigrants.
Timóteo Macedo, president of the Solidariedade Imigrante association, runs an association with more than 25,000 members from 97 different nationalities. He estimates that acquiring a residence permit can take 7 years, as many immigrants have trouble finding steady employment. An investor acquiring a golden visa takes less than 6 months, he says.
The Modern Apartheid
Some members of the association survived voyages on boats packed with immigrants from North Africa to Southern Europe. The number of people crossing the border illegally has more than doubled, reaching 40,304 last year according to Frontex – the European Union’s Border Agency.
“Golden visas are the worst apartheid in modern history,” Macedo said this week. “These golden visas are granted to ‘first class’ immigrants, while poor immigrants who work hard and risk their lives to get to Europe are ignored.
The golden visa allows a person to live in Portugal and travel freely within the EU zone. After 6 years, you can apply for a Portuguese passport.
In Malta it’s more about the money than the sale of goods – the donation of 650,000 euros to the fund for development and social spending guarantees the passport.
push to market
Portuguese Economy Minister António Pires de Lima praised the program and its effect on the real estate market in a country that was forced to ask for a financial rescue plan in April 2011, ending it this year. House prices rose 4% compared to the same period last year. the biggest increase since 2010, the National Statistics Institute said on 1 July.
“The Portuguese Golden Visa program is a success and resulted in a substantial investment in the country’s real estate sector” said Pires da Lima at the event of the Chamber of Commerce Portugal-China on the 27th of May. “Foreign investors participated immensely”.
Mamadou Diallo says he builds all kinds of houses, including the “where rich people live” kind. He has two children, ages 7 and 11 in Conakry, the capital of the West African nation of Guinea Conakry, to whom he sends money when it is only possible.
“It’s very difficult to live here because I can barely make money for myself,” said Diallo, who lives in a small apartment in Lisbon that he shares with his girlfriend.
The EU’s Concern
The European Parliament passed a resolution in January, which says that European nationality should not have “a price tag”. The document expresses concern about programs in some member states that “directly or not directly” result in the sale of European nationality.
“The Portuguese system is very similar to the systems of almost every other EU country” Carlos Coelho, a member of the European Parliament for the Portuguese Social Democrat party, said in January. “There is no privilege clause for people who invest. Whether you are a foreign investor or an immigrant, the rules for acquiring Portuguese nationality are exactly the same.”
The reinforcement of anti-immigration parties like Marine Le Pen’s French National Front or Nigel Farage’s English independence party in the May elections could increase pressure on the EU to tighten immigration rules, says Jelena Dzankic, a researcher at the European University Institute.
“I suppose there will be tighter rules on immigration, or at least stronger pressure on member states,” says Dzankic. “It will be interesting to see if some of these European parties will make the difference between normal immigrants and those with money.”
Canada created its “Immigrant Investors” program this year, saying it would be of “economic benefit” to the country. This has helped bolster demand for the real estate sector in EU member countries that offer “golden visas,” said Alystair Kung, a manager at Chinese real estate consulting firm CBIEC in Lisbon.
Kung estimates that of the 20,000 Chinese investors who have applied for a visa to Canada are now turning to EU countries like Portugal, where advertisements for home sales have already been translated into Mandarin. About 80% of Portuguese golden visas issued so far have gone to Chinese citizens, according to the Foreign Minister’s office.
“Europe is the new destination where Chinese citizens want to move,” Kung said in an interview. “Most of them want a golden visa to be able to travel in the EU and end up renting their properties most of the year.
the sunken boat
Edmund Zhao, a Chinese citizen who last year bought an apartment for €700,000 near Lisbon, received his residence permit in Portugal after 9 months. This allows you to travel freely within the EU and does not require you to live in Portugal.
“It all happened so quickly,” Zhao said in a telephone interview with China. “I plan to move there with my wife soon.”
To avoid being deported, Diallo, the construction worker from Guinea Conakry, said he always carries in his almost empty wallet a little piece of paper that proves that he has been in the process of applying for a residence permit for more than 7 years.
Diallo considers himself lucky. In October, two boats carrying migrants sank near Lampedusa, Italy, killing more than 400 people. Last month, more than 5,000 migrants were rescued by the Italian Navy, the Navy said in a June 30 statement that 30 bodies were found on one of the boats.
“I had friends who died trying to cross the Mediterranean,” Diallo said. “This has to end.”
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