“In East Timor I was studying to be a civil engineer!”
“And I to be an electronic engineer!”
“Do you already have documents?”
“Yes, yes, NIF and NISS!”
“Then you have to send me your documents. I want you to send them to my cell phone.”
The eyes of Tomerlius, or Lius, as the 24-year-old young Timorese is known, light up at the prospect of a job in Lisbon. And so do those of Fabianus, his friend of 30. Both studied Engineering in college in Dili. Lius was in Civil Engineering, Fabianus in Electronic Engineering. Today they are in Lisbon, looking for a future that their country denies them. “We went to college together,” Fabianus explains.
João Bosco is 24 years old and has a degree in Public Health. He also left Timor-Leste for Lisbon: “There’s not enough work, you have to leave. And he left, leaving behind his father and mother, with whom he talks every day: “It’s so sad?
Night falls over Lisbon at the doors of a boarding house near Martim Moniz. With the night comes “father Tiago”, as Tiago Cardoso is known, a human resources consultant, also of Timorese origin, who comes here to help the Timorese who have arrived in Lisbon recently… and there have been many.
“Timor is a recent country, it is in the phase of making the sharks rich and forgets to create jobs,” Tiago accuses.
The average salary in Timor is around 160 euros. And so when young students like Fabianus and Lius heard speeches like that of Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa at the University of Dili, on a state visit in May 2022, Portugal became a land of opportunity.
“Make for having better contacts, and go to Portugal more. If a little help is needed, don’t go all at once, otherwise, the Finance Minister will protest immediately, but go in slices… go in slices,” said Marcelo.
Of course, the President of the Republic’s appeal – involuntary – does not completely explain the 6,735 Timorese who will have entered Portugal in 2022, according to data collected by Antena 1 (a Portuguese radio station) from the SEF (Foreigners and Borders Service), but it contributed to creating the illusion of this future that Lius, Fabianus, and João are looking for.
In Lisbon, the Timorese began to arrive in March and settle in three points: Martim Moniz, Santo António Church, and the Terreiro do Paço River Station.
But the dream, for many, would be even more distant: Northern Ireland is considered the “El Dorado”. “The Timorese community in England has been growing, with social networks propagating fictitious lives of luxury,” explains Tiago Cardoso.
The dream they were sold
All Timorese born before independence can apply for a Portuguese passport – a document that allows them to move and work in the European Union. The agencies took advantage and the Timorese got into debt to get here: they paid for the trip with 100% loans, and with very high-interest rates, they say.
The dream sold to them.
They landed in Portugal and some of them found agricultural jobs, especially in the areas of Beja and Serpa, heading for Lisbon when the work was finished. Others made it to England, as was the case of Argentina Manuela Pinto’s husband.
Argentina is only 24 years old, but her passport already has an “X” on it: she left Timor-Leste in search of her husband who emigrated to Bristol. She did not cross the border. She came to Lisbon, where she is now looking for a job.
The imbroglio to get the NIF
Timorese citizens may enter Portugal without a visa and stay for 90 days. To work in Portugal, these immigrants need the Fiscal Identification Number (NIF) and preferably the Social Security Number (NISS).
It will then be possible, with a contract or promise of a work contract, to apply for an expression of interest (application process for a residence permit).
James asks Lius and Fabianus: “How did you get the documents?”. The answer should not be the expected one, but it is: “We went to an office in Amadora, and we paid 123 euros”.
This is where the scams begin, they say.
To request the NISS, foreign citizens can go to a service counter, and it is even possible to do it online. The problem is the NIF.
Although a Circular has been published with the information that the presence of a fiscal representative (any person, natural or legal, with residence in the national territory) is not mandatory for the attribution of the NIF to foreign citizens, many tax offices still demand it, as Mensagem found out by calling the Tax Authority.
In addition, sometimes documents are required, such as residence certificates valid for six months, which not everyone has because many have already been on the street for months.
Mariana Carneiro, the human rights activist from SOS Racismo, has volunteered to be the fiscal representative for many of these immigrants. She, “a sis Mariana,” sums it up in a few words:
“You without NIF don’t exist.” The NIF is the first step for everything else: “It’s a small fish in the mouth, you don’t have NIF, you can’t work, you don’t have money, you can’t leave the street”.
And the Timorese assures that there are those who, at the expense of bureaucracy, take advantage of the situation to profit from the NIF and NISS attribution. “It’s hypocrisy to say that a tax representative is tax protection,” says Mariana. “People are thrown to mafias and greedy lawyers.”
“The allocation of the NIF and NISS has to be done by the people themselves and for free. People have to be empowered and have to have a translation in Tetum,” he adds.
The Portuguese Bar Association (OA) announced that it would provide legal assistance to the Timorese, but little seems to have been done in Lisbon. The City Hall explains that when the Timorese are identified, they are referred to the competent entities to regularize their situation, with translation available in conjunction with the Embassy.
However, Mariana denounces: “Until today there is no one to deal with the NIFs”.
Lius and Fabianus complain that they have been victims of these scams. And there are those who complain that they have been subjected to work contracts that were not fulfilled – often these contracts happen only to get the expression of interest that allows the regularization of the foreigner.
Januário comes down the stairs of the boarding house barefoot. He wears a red shirt and shorts: he doesn’t seem to be cold, not even in January. He tells his story: when he arrived in Portugal, in Pegões, an Indian citizen offered him and three friends a house and a job in a strawberry farm. It was the boss who took care of their documents, but he never kept up with the agreed payments.
“The Indian had a contract to work by the month and paid by the hour. When he felt like it, he let me go, but he didn’t pay anything. And he kicked me out of the house.
He and his friends ended up coming to Lisbon. Two of them recently flew to England. “And did they make it there?” Januário nods. “And what about you? Are you going to stay here?”. “Yes, I want to stay,” he says. “I’m looking for work, anything,” he says, battling with the Portuguese.
Looking for a bed to sleep in
Lius and Fabianus are part of a group of Timorese who still manage to pay the ten euros a night in a pension. But, of course, without work, the money runs out.
Not long ago, there was a group of Timorese who stayed overnight near the river station in Terreiro do Paço – next to the restaurant at Cais da Marinha that is about to open. They called it “the beach,” where they waited for the tents where they slept to become roof over their heads.
Last week, a week before the inauguration of the Restaurant at Doca da Marinha (a new investment in the city) between the River Station and the Cruise Terminal, CML asked the informal commission that has been helping the Timorese, and of which Mariana and Tiago are part, to direct 80 of the immigrants that were on the streets to the Accommodation Center in Sete Rios.
These days you have to search to find traces of those who have for months camped there: there is still a piece of metal that belonged to an old nail clipper, a SIM card, one of those blue pieces of paper where you can still read the acronym AT (Autoridade Tributária), worn toothbrushes…
Everything else is gone.
This caused a chain reaction: to accommodate this population, other migrants had to be relocated to Fátima and Alcoutim. There are now 101 people in Sete Rios. “It’s overcrowded. It was set up to be a 72-hour response, but there have been people there for two months,” says Mariana.
About 30 of these Timorese went to Fundão. Priority has been given to those who are either working or waiting for a return flight. Many Timorese have already moved around the country, always looking for a job to pay their debts.
No accommodation or place
When questioned about the possibility of opening more centers, the Lisbon Municipality answered that “the opening of new points will always need to be articulated with all the entities involved and will have to take into account the solutions made available by the competent bodies of the Central Administration, such as the ACM”.
When calling the National Center for Support for the Integration of Migrants (CNAIM), the answer is unequivocal: “There is no accommodation, you have to get a job”, they say, when Message calls, as if he were a refugee. At the end of the call, they advise trying the number 144, the National Social Emergency line.
The first three calls to the 144 line are not answered, probably because it is overloaded. On the fourth call, they reply that the Timorese who are homeless must be identified and that they will try to see if there is any accommodation available in a hostel.
These are always temporary solutions.
What has happened so far is that these immigrants end up “hanging around on the streets, in the boarding houses…”, explains Mariana Carneiro. Some Timorese complain of food shortages and lack of technical assistance.
Since they began arriving in Lisbon, Mariana says she has already had contact with 537 Timorese: “There are serious problems in the reception process. There is a lack of coordination between services, and all the institutions say so.
For Adriano, the chaos made him lose hope. Days before being taken from the Fluvial Pier to the Accommodation Center, this young man of 29 was contemplating the Tagus and confessed his desire: to return. “My father died, I want to go back to be with my mother.
That day, the Timorese had gathered all their money to buy lunch. In a frying pan, they boiled mussels soaked in sauce. They were surviving, waiting for a future. And Adriano told how his brother, who had come with him to Portugal, had made it to England.
Under the IOM (International Organization for Migration) ARVoRE program, Adriano has already requested a flight back to Timor: “It’s cold here, I want the warmth of Timor. Once he arrives in his country, he won’t be able to return to Portugal for the next three years.
A future in Lisbon?
Lius and Fabianus are more hopeful. They talk about their expectations and their future. Lius is the more enthusiastic of the two. He can already speak Portuguese without much trouble. This is one of the problems: although Portuguese is the official language of Timor-Leste, most do not master it. “We taught it in school, but we all spoke Tetum outside the classroom,” says Luis.
“We needed to come up with a plan for training and skill development,” explains Tiago. He did that: he drew up a plan and sent it to the East Timor Embassy, with no response. “Portugal has a shortage of electricians, of pavers, of labor…”.
Neither the ACM nor the Timor-Leste Embassy responded to Mensagem’s questions about integration plans. Despite this, this informal commission has achieved some success. “I have already managed to place about 20 Timorese between November and October in the labor market,” says Tiago.
Juvita Branco hides amid the Timorese who hang out at the door of the guesthouse. But her life, until now turbulent, is changing: the next day she will start working in a nursing home.
She, who at 37 has already crossed many frontiers: she was fired from a factory in England for being pregnant, she says, and had her son in East Timor, where she left him in safety. She came to Lisbon in search of support for her family.
It was thanks to Tiago that she found a job. The same can be said about João Bosco, the young man who carries a yellow pass around his neck. It is the magic card that Tiago and Mariana managed to pay for by asking their friends for help.
With the pass, João goes to the pastry shop where he works on a one-year contract and to the Social Emergency Housing Center where, for now, he is living. “That’s the hardest thing: getting a house in Lisbon,” he says.
One day, João wants to work in the field in which he studied, but until then, he is content to knead croissants. “I like the work, I like learning the Portuguese language,” he begins by saying.
“I am thankful for my father Tiago and for all the Portuguese people who helped me,” he says. With his eyes set on the sky, Lius notices the buildings, “I like the construction of Lisbon,” he says, smiling. When you have nothing, everything can be a sign of hope.
You can read this article in Portuguese here.
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