The UK Home Office has been profiting to the tune of £438 million (€432 million) by outsourcing visa operations that allegedly resulted in poorer service and exploitation in the hands of the same firm named in a Maltese National Audit Office (NAO) report investigating bribery and corruption in Algeria, a joint investigation has revealed.
VFS Global, a company headquartered in Dubai and owned by holding companies in the Cayman Islands, Jersey and Luxembourg, is contracted to process visas from a number of countries in Africa as well as Malta and the UK.
Since winning the Home Office contract in 2014, the British government’s profit on visas has increased nine-fold to £122.56 (€135) per visa, according to an investigation by The Independent and Finance Uncovered.
While prices have increased for those wanting to obtain a visa, the service has not improved as the article in The Independent (UK) refers to a “deluge of complaints” since VFS took over.
Earlier this year, VFS was named in a Maltese NAO report that looked into allegations of bribery and corruption relating to the issuance of 3,696 Algerian visas.
The Home Office told The Independent (UK) that they do not profit from visa applications but rather the money was used to “fund the wider immigration system”. This system includes a highly controversial immigration detention estate which cost £523.5 million (€576 million) between 2013 and 2017.
Chief Executive of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, Nicole Francis, told The Independent (UK) that they were concerned over VFS’s “poor level of service” and that their system is designed to “exploit vulnerable and less informed migrants” into buying a service that doesn’t provide any benefit.
In Malta, the scandal involving VFS revolved around a discrepancy of 47.6% between arrivals and departures of those obtaining a visa, as well as many of the reasons for travel to Malta being found to be false. In 2015, Daphne Caruana Galizia reported that many of the bookings made for “holiday” accommodation for visa holders were never fulfilled as those supposedly staying there, never turned up.
In 2013, the newly elected Labour Party got a request to open a consulate in Algiers approved in just 27 days. A relative of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, Robert Falzon, was made the consul-general despite having no diplomatic experience.
The consulate was located in a property belonging to VFS and a few months later, the company was engaged to provide visa processing services.
The NAO report found numerous failings on the part of VFS including breaches of the Visa Code and data processing and protection laws, lost meeting minutes, purged records and data. They also refused to provide the NAO with a number of documents requested.
Evidence was also found of many allegations of consulate staff and VFS staff being involved in bribes ranging between €3,000 and €8,000 for the issuance of visas.
In Nigeria, VFS have been accused of “extorting” and “mistreating” Nigerian visa applicants. Theophilus Abbah, investigative journalist and Managing Editor of the Daily Trust newspaper said he felt “cheated” after applying for a three-month visa to Johannesburg. He said, “the cost of the product is so low while the service charge is very high.”
In India, VFS has been accused of using its influence with senior officials in the Ministry of External Affairs to control and amend the outsourcing policy that granted them the right to handle passport and visa operations in a number of Indian missions.
A former employee claims that the Indian High Commission in London awarded a contract to VFS and then allowed them to increase the costs of their services, directly benefiting the company.
In South Africa, the contract between the government and VFS was called for review due to concerns over the legitimacy of the contract, the lack of VFS’s capabilities, as well as high fees.
VFS still processes Algerian visas via the Maltese consulate in Algiers as well as in countries including China, India, the Philippines and Turkey.