Embassy environment or Visa applicants
Nigerians applying for South African visa face untold hardship at VFS visa application centre in Abuja. Damilola Oyedele writes
Clutching office folder in one hand and a back pack housing her laptop computer and other documents needed for the day’s business, Clement Etuk, a young professional arrived at the gate of VFS global in Abuja brimming with hope. With a broad smile, he alighted from the car that brought him, but in a quick turn of events, he became unsettling at the ugly scene that greeted his arrival. He muttered few words. “Nigerians are back to the dark days of visa processing”, he said.
Etuk had arrived at the VFS global located on plot 1901, hillside plaza, Yakubu Gowon way, Asokoro to process a visa to South Africa, only to realise Nigerians are facing unkind treatment in the hands of Indians managing visa application on behalf of foreign Embassies in the country.
A fuming Etuk did the obvious: let out a rage, shouting to the high heavens, “When will this stop. We can’t be second citizens in our own country”.
Sure, for a long time, the process for visa application in the country has been one of the most harrowing experiences for many Nigerians. Indeed, to obtain a visa to any country was considered a personal achievement for many Nigerians; most of whom had to part with huge sums of money in a black market arrangement to secure the visas.
This, analyst blamed on the extent of stress that Nigerians were subjected to by many embassies operating in the country. For instance, applicants in the past usually had to travel from their locations to the major cities like Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt, and in some cases Kano or Kaduna, to be able to submit their applications and attend visa interviews. If the applicant does not have any relation or friend in the major city, he has to lodge in a hotel.
In the past, on the day of visa interview applicants were expected to show up at the embassy as early as 7am standing under the sun that scorched the mother earth or sometimes in the abundance of torrential rainfall. Without a seat or anything to provide rest for their weakened body, applicants were expected to be on this queue for hours. Perhaps some could have inner strength to withstand this; it was not always the same for everyone on a hunt for visa. Depending on whether or not he could afford to stay until his visa is ready, applicant may have to go back to his base, and then return to pick up the visa. In the end, in an irony of life that fate is never tired of, an applicant may be denied visa to compound his woes.
Overwhelmed with emotions of such experience, obtaining a visa was worthy of giving a testimony in church with attendant songs of praise and sometimes a dramatic dance to underscore the prestige that comes with obtaining visa to travel abroad.
But about four years ago, the Nigerian government decided to kick against the practice, where its citizens are treated without any dignity over visa applications in their own country. It read the riot act to all the embassies and high commissions “Treat our citizens with dignity when they apply for your visas and we would extend the same courtesy to your citizens when they want to come here”. It wasDr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who made the demand on foreign governments during her tenure as minister of foreign Affairs.
Many embassies quickly deciphered the underlying threat and made the visa applications process easier and more dignifying. They provided receptions or sitting areas for applicants. To reduce the time wasted waiting for interviews for instance, the US embassy would give different times to the applicants to show up for their interviews. While most of the foreign missions still insist that applicants must personally show up for their visa interviews, they provide the option of collection by proxy and documents return by mail to save the applicant the stress of travelling back to the city where he/she applied, once the biometric data has been captured during first visit. Some also introduced the process of booking online to secure interview dates.
The compliance with the Nigeria government directive has brought success and removed the pain of sleeping at the embassy for visa application. Hence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently listed this new development as one of its successes. And to keep tab on the compliance of the embassies, the current minister for foreign affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru had recently cautioned the foreign missions against refusing Nigerians visas without cogent reasons especially after all relevant requirements have been fulfilled. He had also added that when the visa applications are rejected, such should be done with respect to the dignity of the applicant.
Many of the embassies have now outsourced their visa application processes to VFS Global, to manage as a response to Nigeria government demand for fair treatment of its citizens.
These foreign missions include Canada, France, Belgium, Spain, Australia, Ireland, Italy, United Kingdom, United States, South Africa, Luxembourg, Estonia, Netherlands, and Italy.
But the management of VFS global in Nigeria may not be living up to expectation.
A recent visit by this correspondent to the office was very revealing. On August 22, Thisday investigation showed that ill treatment of Nigerians applying for visa through this agency have become a recurrent decimal. At the Hillside Plaza, where VFS has its office, applicants were seen standing in the rain with no place to hide. Many stayed under umbrellas which provided temporary shelter at first, while others made feeble attempts to shield themselves with newspapers, but as the rainfall of August 22 intensified, everyone took to his/her heels like Olympic sprinters on a hundred meter dash looking for the finish line.
Some took refuge under the outdoor staircase of the three-storey plaza whose first floor housed the office of VFS Global, while some ran inside some makeshift shelter for cover till the rain subsided.
Even at that, the staff of VFS did nothing to reduce the pain of the visa applicants. One of the security men shoved an applicant for attempting to enter into the reception which is actually under an indoor staircase. At this reception, an applicant is told that he/she cannot go into the office with any personal item such as backpack, but to drop such personal items in a cupboard facility for storage provided at the cost of N100 per bag.
THISDAY gathered that applicants for South African visas are metted out this measure of unkind treatment by VFS management in most cases as the applicants for other countries were observed moving into the premises of VFS global without hitches.
As the rains continued, a staff member with an umbrella over his head told the waiting applicants that only 100 applications are handled per day for South African visa, he issued numbers to the applicants and asked those with numbers above 100 to return the next day.
Meanwhile, those who were issued numbers formed a queue under the rain.
Two days later, which was also a rainy day, this correspondent visited the office again. Upon enquiries, a staff who was initially calling the names of those who were allotted numbers from Wednesday and Thursday said there is the option of ‘VIP’ at the cost of N10,000 to avoid having to queue.
THISDAY asked if the money is receipted and the answer was affirmative, although VFS clearly warned applicants with information displayed at strategic points against giving any money or gift to the staff even when it is requested. “Such would be considered a bribe”. VFS management warned.
It also displayed notices warning that VFS, its staff, or the use of the VIP section does not influence the outcome of an application or the turnaround processing time of an application.
Many of the applicants were expressive in their anger at the way they were being treated and subjected to the elements, especially after every applicant is asked to pay a service charge of N9000 (N8600 service charge and N400 SMS Charge) for the services of the company, this is in addition to visa application fee charged by each country.
One of the applicants who simply gave his name as Emmanuel queried why the VFS choose not to provide any waiting area for the applicants despite the amount being paid as service charge. He told THISDAY he wanted to attend a conference in South Africa but was having second thoughts due to the way the company was treating South African visa applicants.
“I have heard that there is usually a rowdy situation here, and I have been coming here for the past two days. Does it mean that because I decide not to pay for VIP, I should be treated like I am not human? What would happen if everyone decides to pay for VIP and what is VIP in visa application?”
Another applicant who declined to give her name said that has been the situation since the company moved to its new apartment at Hillside Plaza. She added that many times fracas have ensued among the applicants when they let out their frustration in anger on one another. Describing herself as a frequent traveller, she speculated that the VFS Global choose to treat applicants to other countries more decently because of the fear that such countries would terminate the contract if their applicants are subjected to inhuman treatment.
Another applicant queried why the plaza’s main car park which is not being used for security reasons cannot be converted into a temporary waiting area with shelter to protect applicants from sun and rainfall. She also suggested that since visa forms are being downloaded online, the company can also introduce making appointments for submission, so that it can limit itself to its 100 applicants a day through its portal scheduling. That way, applicants would not have to show up if they have no appointment
In the VIP section, Thisday check shows that the situation is just made a little better by the fact that an applicant does not need to queue up. There are no water dispensers to at least provide waiting applicants, who sometimes have to be there for hours with means to satiate their thirst. The staff handling the VIP section were however perceived to be much more courteous to the applicants.
THISDAY investigations revealed that the South Africa High Commission is not aware of the situation. A diplomat who asked not to be named said there is no way the commission would sanction such treatments of its visa applicants especially in the light of recent ‘disagreements’ between Nigeria and South Africa.
The source however disclosed that the High Commission does not influence the process of collection of application by the company, as its only role in the contract is the adjudication of visas. The source warned that it would however be good for the Commission to quickly call the firm to order or review its terms of contract if the company does not change the situation, else it risks tarnishing its image.
Another diplomatic source whose country also engaged the services of the outsourcing firm told THISDAY that it would seem VFS has taken on more than it can handle in Nigeria.
“I would not agree that it is just a case for processing South Africa visas. May be, if Belgium too had a lot of applicants, the same thing would happen. It just seemed more obvious as more people apply to go to South Africa and the company did not prepare for such occurrences,” the diplomat said.
“Even if it is a temporary location, their priority should have been a suitable waiting area for the clients, not just the money they would make. How can a person pay a service charge for no service?” he queried.
He added that it is necessary for Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the embassies concerned to quickly call the VFS to order to ensure the dignifying treatment of all applicants irrespective of their nationalities.
But Ashiru, Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs knows his onions. In an exclusive interview with THISDAY, he disclosed that he is already aware of the matter and his office is investigating the matter. Last week Thursday, he made real his threat. He summoned VFS management to his office.
Speaking in a telephone conversation, Ashiru described the activities of the company as ‘absolutely unacceptable’ and issued a warning to the company, “you either improve your services or you close shop” noting that Nigerians pay huge sums of money to the company.
“I will not compromise, even if they are a private company, I will call them and give them the warning myself and I will still report them to the Ministry of Trade and Investments, because at the end of the day it has to do with visa matters,” he said.
Ashiru lamented that the embassies involved seem to be abdicating their responsibilities to Nigerians adding that no Nigerian mission abroad outsources its visa procurement process. He added that the ministry would register a strong protest and its displeasure to all the embassies involved to get them to call the VFS to order and let them know that the current arrangement is not working.
“I hear they commit all sort of atrocities there, I am going to put pressure on them, If we do not see improvement within the next couple of weeks, the pressure would be heavy on them. They are not adding any value to our economy,” a furious Ashiru added.
Also speaking with THISDAY, Consular Officer of the US Embassy Officer in Abuja, Ms. Patty Neary said the matter is just being brought to the notice of the embassy and would be looked into. She disclosed that she is not privy to the terms of the contract which outsourced the processes of visa applications to the VFS as it was already in place before she commenced her tenure here.
Neary also spoke on other issues concerning visa applications and issuance especially the matter of touting. She urged Nigerians never to engage the services of those who promise to get them US visas, saying such would drive them out of business.
“You do not need to go through a tout or pay extra to get an appointment. The visa fee is $160 and there is no need to pay a penny more. Those who require American citizen services have no fee,” she said.
According to Neary, almost 40,000 Nigerians have already applied for US visas this year alone adding that most of the visas have already been issued. This signified an 11 percent increase in visa application from 2011 and the development has made Nigeria become a priority country alongside Brazil and China.
Approximately 75 percent of the visa applications are for tourist visas while the remaining 25 percent are a combination of student, business and official visas.
Recently, the Federal Government issued a warning to the Canadian High Commission in Nigeria over the unnecessary delay in visa issuance which stipulates a minimum 45 working days and results in an applicant’s passport being held that long.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru had summoned the Canadian High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr. Chris Cooter to his office to register the reservations of the Nigerian government and suggested that the mission should make do with photocopies of the data pages and passport sighting, rather than hold on to visa applicant’s passports for that long.
“Thereafter, the passports can be surrendered to the Mission only at the point of issuance of visas. This will allow passport holders the opportunity to use their passports for other travels, pending the approval of their visa applications by the Canadian Mission,” Ashiru said.
He also described the 45 days processing time as unnecessarily long considering the cordial relationship enjoyed by both countries.
When Thisday contacted the first political secretary of the South African Embassy in Abuja, Mrs. Kgaugelo Mogashoa hinted that the consular would respond to the enquiry.
She claimed the VFS is an outsourcing company engaged by the embassy with autonomous responsibility. “We don’t directly deal with VFS”. She said.
It would be recalled that in November 2010, South African High Commission in Nigeria formally announced agreement with a Lagos based firm, the VFS Global Services for outsourcing of its visa application processes.
At a press conference in Lagos, The South African Ambassador stated, :“The South African High Commission has viewed the concerns of the Nigerian public (prospective travelers to the Republic of South Africa) in a serious light; particularly the matters relating to access to the Missions, (Abuja and Lagos) to lodge applications for visas.
“It is in this context that today we are announcing the agreement that the Ministry/Department of Home Affairs, (RSA) has signed with VFS Global services. The agreement relates to the outsourcing of the visa application process, this means that applicants for visas will, with effect from a date to be announced later during this briefing, submit their applications at the Visa Application Centers, VAC, in Lagos as well as Abuja,” the High Commissioner said.
According to Mamabolo, the final decision to move application matters away from the consular offices in Lagos and Abuja, came in the mounting criticisms leveled at the High Commissions by Nigerians daily frustrated by the slow and ineffective pace of work at the consular offices as well as incessant cases of over-crowding, stampede and sharp practices by touts in collusion with consular staff. But, now it remains to be seeing whether VFS is any better.