When Neil Clarke of UNITED organised a conference in Sheffield, he stumbled across a new series of obstacles for those seeking visas for the UK.
Organising a conference bringing together delegates from the 560 or so anti-racist, anti-fascist, refugee and migrant support groups in seventy European countries which make up UNITED is no easy task at the best of times. But when Neil Clarke agreed to organise UNITED’s bi-annual conference, scheduled for June 2009, on the theme of ‘Minority Issues and the Far Right’, little did he realise what a bureaucratic nightmare he had taken on. As a member of Minority Rights Group and of UNITED, Clarke is used to organising events in various European countries, and particularly aware of the need to start applying for delegates’ visas in good time. He allowed two months for the process of applying, and planned for having to deal with British embassies and consulates all over Europe.
He told IRR News what he found, which was that the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has recently employed a private company, WorldBridge Service, to handle visa applications from all over Europe. In fact, when we checked on the WorldBridge website, it became clear that it handles applications from the Middle East, the Caribbean and the Americas too. Countries in Africa, Asia and parts of the Middle East are covered by another company, VFS Global. WorldBridge and VFS Global do not decide visa applications; they receive them and send them on to the relevant embassy or consulate. Visa applications must be made online, or on application forms downloaded from the internet (thus effectively barring those without access to the internet), but applicants must attend personally to hand in documents. Although the WorldBridge website gives information about the time UKBA is likely to take to process the visa application, it doesn’t mention the extra four to eleven weeks applicants will need to wait for an appointment at WorldBridge to hand in the documents. Since WorldBridge is run as a profit-making enterprise, it charges ‘customers’ up to €2 per minute, or $14 per call, for a call to its advice line. To make a call, you need a credit or debit card – another way of excluding poorer visa applicants.
Would-be conference delegates who arrived at WorldBridge for their documents appointment wishing to check that they were submitting the right documents were given no help at all, according to Clarke. A woman in Russia, who asked if her documents were correct, was told that she should have checked them before she came. Her requests to call the advice line or the embassy from the WorldBridge office were refused, and when she said she would make a call from outside the building, she was told that this would count as a cancellation of her documents appointment and she would have to wait several weeks for another one. Her application with its non-refundable fee went in as it was and was refused – she had not submitted all the necessary documents.
As a result of this privatisation by stealth, embassy and consulate staff can no longer deal with queries. Some staff complain that they no longer have external phone lines or email. It’s no longer possible to ring up to ask when a visa is likely to be issued, or whether any further documents are needed. If an application is refused, it’s no longer possible to ring, check what further information or documentation is required and fax it in – now, with private companies as gatekeepers, applicants must go back to the end of the queue.
Some embassy and consulate staff are unhappy about the barbed wire bureaucracy erected between themselves and visa applicants (while others are delighted not to be dealing with the public). Clarke pointed out, ‘Our conference was funded by the Council of Europe and the European Union, which normally guarantees co-operation in the resolution of visa issues by embassy staff. But we only managed to get delegates their visas by round-the-clock, constant pestering and generally pulling out all the stops to persuade embassy staff to provide assistance. Imagine the situation for a private individual with no strings to pull – an Algerian in Germany, say, trying to attend a business meeting here.’
As a result of problems with visas, two delegates had to make duplicate visa applications for the conference, a number of people were also unable to attend and others were delayed and arrived late. All of this resulted in UNITED losing money. Furthermore, some delegates found some of the questions in the visa application forms ‘humiliating’.
WorldBridge describes itself as ‘providing services to help people apply for United Kingdom (UK) visas’. The experience of Clarke and the delegates whose entry he was trying to secure in June suggested the opposite: the private companies employed to receive visa applications appeared to be providing services to help UKBA keep people, who don’t have credit cards or internet access, from getting anywhere near the UK.