British nationals living in Portugal are unable to access healthcare, change jobs, or travel in and out of the country as its ministers have not issued them with post-Brexit residency cards, it has emerged.
The UK government has raised the issue at ministerial level and urged Portugal to implement fully the withdrawal agreement and protect the rights of the 34,500 Britons who made the country their home before Brexit.
People have been left detained at airports, paying to have broken bones treated or risked losing their jobs due to the delays in getting a biometric card that is vital to everyday life and proves their legal status.
Under the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, British citizens in Portugal were guaranteed their social and employment rights would be protected. However, the Portuguese government has yet to provide the biometric residency cards.Instead, a temporary document and QR code has been issued, which Britons say is not recognised locally or at international borders.
James Campbell, a computer programmer, said: “I am feeling more like an illegal immigrant at the moment.” He listed 25 things that had happened to him because of the lack of documentation, including a £4,000 private hospital bill for a broken limb because he could not access state healthcare.
A British-South-African couple living just outside Lisbon told how they were detained in Frankfurt airport without correct EU residency documentation, and are now being accused of criminal breach of immigration laws as well as a near €4,000 (£3,375) bill for new flights to get back to Portugal.
The husband, who did not wish to be named due to ongoing legal action, said: “We were in transit and when we were going to the gate for the Seychelles we were taken aside and asked for our residency documents. We were told what we had was not sufficient. We offered to show them utility bills, tax bills, to prove we were resident in Portugal, but he would not listen. His only concern was that ‘you are illegally in Germany’. He kept on saying it doesn’t matter what the Portuguese government tell you.”
He said it was “almost criminal” what had happened to him and his wife, adding that individuals should not have to resort to the media to fix a government-created problem. He was told he risked being arrested if they returned via Germany so they had to forgo their original tickets and buy new flights to Lisbon via London.
Tig James, who runs the British in Portugal campaign group, said an estimated 41,000 British nationals were affected and she has spent the past three years “screaming from the rooftops” about the problem – but nobody has heeded her. She blames the Portuguese immigration and borders service, SEF.
“SEF is wilfully, deliberately and systemically not adhering to the withdrawal agreement, resulting in the physical, emotional and financial suffering of thousands of UK nationals living in Portugal,” she said.
James has compiled a six-page report chronicling the impact of the situation facing British nationals in Portugal and had been planning to present it in person to the European Commission in September, but says she will not go because of fears she will be detained at the border.
The UK government said it had raised the matter at ministerial level and through its embassy in Portugal on a number of occasions. It also raised it formally in June at the UK-EU specialised committee on citizens’ rights, the body tasked with ensuring implementation of the agreement.
“We continue to urge the Portuguese government to complete the process of issuing biometric residency cards to UK nationals living legally in Portugal without further delay,” a UK government spokesperson said in a statement. “Portugal must immediately and fully implement the withdrawal agreement commitments it signed up to in 2018 so UK nationals have the security they need.”
Alex Braithwaite, an easyJet pilot based in Portugal, said he risked losing his job due to not having documentation and had to get help from the British embassy to prove he had the right to work locally for the airline. He has also been unable to register at his local GP or change his German driving licence for a local one.
SEF said in a statement: “The current residence documents of British nationals living in Portugal continue to be accepted, even after the end of the transition period (31 December 2020), and until the new residence card is issued.
“The exchange of the current residence document (either an EU registration certificate issued by the town hall, or an EU permanent residence certificate issued by SEF) was carried out through the Brexit portal (brexit.sef.pt), which allowed British nationals to apply online to exchange the document.
“Until then, the certificate with the QR code, that can be downloaded from the portal, continues to be an official residency document for those under the withdrawal agreement. It is valid until the new card is issued. Furthermore, valid EU residency documents continue to be accepted for travel purposes, until the new card is issued.”
A European Commission official said it had been assured by Portugal that the delay in issuing physical residency cards does not have any “structural implications” for British nationals or their right to access social and health services.
The official said it continued to monitor the situation. It had also been informed that new laws had been to expand the number of state bodies allowed to issue those cards.