For African building labourer Mamadou Diallo, Portugal’s success in attracting investors to its real estate market is laced with bitter irony. The 38-year-old Guinean said he had lived in the country for the past seven years, working in different construction projects and paying his taxes. That hasn’t been enough to gain residency in Portugal.

Yet for a buyer of a property worth more than e500 000 (R7 million), the kind Diallo helps build, a visa can come with the purchase deeds.

“If I had e500 000 to buy a house all my problems would be over,” Diallo said in fluent Portuguese during an interview in downtown Lisbon. “This is so unfair.”

Fair or not, the practice has been heralded by governments in southern Europe as a much-needed boost to economies trying to put the continent’s financial woes behind them. While Malta drew the attention of the EU this year after introducing a programme effectively selling citizenship, it’s Portugal that has been attracting the most new residents.

The country had issued 1 161 visas since its programme began in 2012, representing e699m of investment mainly from China, Portugal’s Foreign Ministry said this week.

In Spain, 72 visas were issued to non-EU property investors in the country, El Pais newspaper reported on May 17, citing data from the Department of Immigration. Greece granted 100 visas, according to Interior Ministry figures. Both countries started their visa programmes last year.

“There’s little doubt the golden visa programme has been successful in promoting the sale of luxury houses in Portugal,” Jose Brandao de Brito, the chief economist at Banco Comercial Portugues in Lisbon, said. “The problem is that most of the assets that need to be sold are cheaper apartments on the periphery of cities that are empty because of high unemployment.”

Opposition to the programmes may bring together unlikely political bedfellows: anti-immigration parties, which won unprecedented support in May’s European Parliamentary elections, and organisations championing the rights of immigrants.

Timoteo Macedo, the president of the Immigrant Solidarity Association in Lisbon, runs a group with 25 000 members spanning 97 different nationalities. He estimates it can take as long as seven years for an immigrant to be granted a resident permit to live in Portugal as many struggle to hold a steady job. That compared with less than six months for an investor who acquired a golden visa, he said.

Some of the association’s members have survived journeys on overcrowded boats to travel from northern Africa to southern Europe. The number of illegal border crossings into Europe on the central Mediterranean route more than doubled to 40 304 last year, according to Frontex, the EU’s border agency.

“The golden visas are the worst apartheid in modern history,” Macedo said last week. “These golden visas are granted to first-grade immigrants, while the poor, hard-working immigrants who risk their lives to come to Europe are ignored.”

The visa enables someone to live in Portugal and travel freely within the EU. After six years, they can apply to get a maroon EU passport from Portugal.

In Malta, it’s more about the money than any sale of assets, with a contribution of e650 000 to a fund for development and social spending leading to a passport.

Portuguese Economy Minister António Pires de Lima has lauded the programme for its effect on the property market in a country that was forced to seek an international bailout in April 2011, exiting it this year. Portuguese home prices rose 4 percent in the first quarter from the same period a year ago, the biggest increase since at least 2010, the National Statistics Institute said on July 1.

“Portugal’s golden visa programme is a success and has resulted in a substantial investment to the real estate sector,” Pires de Lima said at a Portugal-China Chamber of Commerce event on May 27. “Foreign investors have participated enormously.”

Mamadou Diallo says he builds all kinds of houses including the type “that rich people live in”. He has two sons, age 7 and 11, back in Conakry, the capital of the west African nation of Guinea, to whom he sends money whenever it’s possible.

“It’s very hard to live here because I hardly make enough for myself,” said Diallo, who lives in a small apartment in Lisbon that he shares with his girlfriend.

The European Parliament in January approved a non-binding resolution that said EU citizenship should not have a “price tag” attached to it. The document expresses concerns about programmes adopted by some member states that ”directly or indirectly” result in the sale of EU citizenship.

“The system in Portugal is very similar to that in virtually all other EU countries,” Carlos Coelho, a EU parliament member from Portugal’s ruling Social Democrats, said in January. “There is no privilege clause for those carrying out investments. If you are a foreign investor or a foreign migrant the rules are exactly the same when it comes to acquiring Portuguese nationality.”

The progress of anti-immigration parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party in elections in May was likely to increase pressure on the EU to tighten immigration rules, Jelena Dzankic, a research fellow at the European University Institute, said.

“I assume there will be tighter rules on immigration or at least pressure on member states,” Dzankic said. “It’s going to be interesting to see whether some of these EU parties will make a difference between ordinary immigrants and those with money.”

Canada scrapped its Immigrant Investor Program this year, citing “limited economic benefit” to the country. That helped bolster demand for real estate in EU members offering the so-called golden visas, according to Alystair Kung, an associate general manager of Chinese real estate consulting firm CBIEC in Lisbon.

Kung estimates that about 20 000 Chinese investors who were applying for a visa to Canada will now turn to EU countries such as Portugal, where adverts for homes on billboards have been translated to Chinese. About 80 percent of Portuguese visas so far went to Chinese nationals, according to the Foreign Ministry figures.

“Europe is a new popular destination for Chinese citizens to move to,” Kung said. “Most of these Chinese want a golden visa so they can travel in the EU and end up renting their properties for most of the year.”

Edmund Zhao, a Chinese national who bought a e700 000 apartment near Lisbon last year, got a Portuguese residency permit in nine months. It enables him to travel freely within the EU and doesn’t require him to live in Portugal.

“It all happened so fast,” Zhao said from China. “I plan to move there with my wife soon.” To avoid getting deported, Diallo, the construction worker from Guinea, said he carried a paper slip in his almost empty wallet to prove he was still applying for a resident permit to live in Portugal after more than seven years.

He considers himself lucky. In October, two boats carrying migrants sank a week apart off Lampedusa, Italy, killing more than 400 people. Last month, more than 5 000 migrants on boats were rescued by the Italian Navy, the Navy said in a statement on June 30. About 30 bodies were found in one of the boats.

“I have friends that have died trying to cross the Mediterranean,” Diallo said. “This has to end.” – Bloomberg