With the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship already under siege over the treatment of refugees in detention camps, deaths in custody, and abandoning the principals of the UN Refugee Convention in regards to boat people, yet another disturbing indication of the department’s handling of its portfolio has emerged after the recent appointment of VFS Global as the sole processing partner of visa applications for entry into Australia.
In the case of VFS, the appointment process appears to have been undertaken very quietly without the press releases that generally accompany a major policy decision. The lack of transparency in this agreement is dubious at best, where the department selected a single company as a service delivery partner to handle visa applications and the collection of biometric data from applicants on its behalf, which has effectively created a monopoly for VFS Global.
On the surface, this appears to be an exercise in outsourcing with the objective of streamlining the visa application process. However on further examination, some concerns arise surrounding the principal of competition, integrity of peoples’ personal data, and links to recent data collection allegations made by Edward Snowden.
The appointment of VFS Global as the sole service delivery partner handling visa applications appears to break the doctrine of ‘free competition’ outlined in The Competition and Consumer Act of 2010, which upholds anti-trust principals in the interest of fair and open competition. The agreement between Immigration and VFS Global squeezes out many visa agencies that have been working with the immigration department for years, to some degree marginalizing these businesses that have been painstakingly built up over the years.
However, the same act exempts the Australian government and its agencies from scrutiny, and this immunity allows the Immigration Department to appoint agents who practice monopolistic competition in an unfair way. Under the new arrangements, Australian Immigration adopts a discriminatory attitude towards applications lodged directly to them by a factor of 3. For example, a tourist visa through the Australian Immigration bureaucracy in a consular office is advertised as taking 30 working days to process, whereas VFS Global advertises that applications lodged through them will take only 10 working days. These longer times by Australian consular offices effectively grants VFS Global a working monopoly on Australian visa applications.
If these practices were employed by a private corporation, the corporation could be prosecuted and face a fine up to AUD 10 million.
Very little, if any benefit to anybody appears to result from this agreement. There seem to be few labor savings for the Australian visa offices at diplomatic missions, and no benefits at all to clients. The agreement has effectively increased service charges to clients by up to 40%.
The structure of the Australian visa industry after the VFS agreement has dramatically changed, giving one firm an unfair advantage in shutting out all others. The lack of general transparency of this decision has privately angered many immigration advisors and agents, especially with the way the agreement with VFS Global was created.
Who is VFS Global?
VFS is just a collection agency. No consul interviews are undertaken, whatsoever. VFS websites clearly state that the company has no say in whether or not a visa is granted. VFS Global provides services such as dedicated visa application centers and websites, joint visa application centers, waiting lounges, online appointment scheduling facilities and courier pickup services. VFS Global is a rapidly growing company formed just after 9/11 in 2001, at the insistance of the US State Department. The company now handles visa applications for 44 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.
However, VFS has had issues with maintaining the integrity of client data in relation to visa applications in the past.
The company’s online UK visa application system was found to be flawed back in 2007 where more than 50,000 applicant identities and personal information from India, Nigeria, and Russia were compromised. Even though an Indian visa applicant reported this problem in 2005, no action by either VFS of UKVisas was taken. The VFS website was shut down only after the UK media became aware of the security lapse. VFS and UKVisas were also found to be in breach of the Data Protection Act of 1998, and the British Foreign Office was required to review its relationship with VFS Global.
Since the incident reported above, several governments have also criticized VFS Global’s work and raised concerns over security. The executive director of the Chinese Canadian Council Victor Wong stated that, “There’s the accountability issue, the privacy issue and why are we outsourcing to a for-profit entity something that belongs in the security mandate?” Further, Liam Clifford of Global Visas, a migration advice company, told The Sunday Telegraph: “Once you put this work in the hands of private companies overseas, you no longer have the same protection.”
A VFS-Snowden Link?
The London-based VFS Global is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Kuoni Group, a publically-listed company headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland. What makes VFS interesting is that the chairman of the parent company, Henning Boysen was closely involved with Booz, Allan & Hamilton in the area of predictive intelligence, the same company that Edward Snowden worked for. Like Booz, Allan & Hamilton, VFS Global almost solely acts as a contractor for government in data collection services. Two other directors were previously involved with the Boston Consulting Group which has long been suspected of having close links with the US intelligence community.
Taking a straw poll outside VFS offices and in airports over the last month, the new visa application process is causing great frustration among applicants, particularly at a time when Australian tourism is being promoted.
A disguised statistical discrimination system used by Australian Immigration justifies selective scrutiny of certain national, ethnic, and demographic groups on the basis of historical risk. This discrimination is irritating and even humiliating many potential bone-fide tourists in the department’s overzealous pursuit of screening applicants for a small percentage of potential over-stayers.
The biggest danger however is that information supplied for the sole purpose of requesting a visa, could be disseminated and used beyond the purpose it was originally provided for. VFS Global’s track record, along certain personnel connections to organizations like with Booz, Allan & Hamilton, give great reason for concern.
Most importantly, government data collection agencies seem to have integrity issues in matters of data collection, particularly in the light of the recent Snowden allegations. The Australian government needs to answer some of the many questions surrounding the appointment of VFS Global as its service provider partner in the interests of transparency.
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