New Australians

Australian Immigration — the Snowden link?

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The Australian Immigration Department is under plenty of pressure right now, so why has it quietly and without due process appointed controversial VFS Global to take over its visa application and biometric data functions, asks Murray Hunter.

Edward Snowden: whistleblower at large. (Image courtesy The News Tribe)

WITH THE Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship already under siege over the treatment of refugees in detention camps, deaths in custody, and the abandonment of the principals of the UN Convention on refugees in regards to boat people, another disturbing aspect of the department's handling of its portfolio is emerging with the recent appointment of VFS Global as the sole processing partner of visa applications for entry into Australia.

This appointment process of VFS appears to have been undertaken very quietly, without the usual press releases accompanying 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 taking 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 about the principal of competition, integrity of peoples' personal data, and links to the recent data collection allegations made by Edward Snowden, now restricted to the transit area at Moscow Airport.

The appointment of VFS Global as the sole service delivery partner to handle visa applications appears to break the doctrine of 'free competition' outlined in The Competition and Consumer Act 2010, which upholds anti-trust principals in the interests of fair and open competition. The agreement between Immigration and VFS Global squeezes out many visa agencies that have been working with Immigration for years, to some degree marginalising these businesses that have painstakingly been built up over the years.

However, the Act exempts the Australian Government and its agencies from scrutiny, where this immunity allows the Immigration Department to appoint agents who practice monopolistic competition in an unfair way.  Under the new arrangements, Australian Immigration applies discrimination against applications lodged directly to them, by a factor of 3. For example, a tourist visa through Australian Immigration in a consular office is advertised to take 30 working days to process, where VFS Global advertise that applications lodged through them will take only 10 working days. These advertised longer lead 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 out of this agreement. There seems 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 per cent.

The structure of the Australian visa industry after the VFS agreement has dramatically changed, giving one firm an unfair advantage and shut out the 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.

(Image: screenshot from vfsglobal.com)
(Image: screenshot from VFSGlobal.com)

So, who is VFS Global?

VFS is just a collecting agency. No consul interviews are undertaken whatsoever. VFS websites clearly state the company has no say in the granting of a visa. VFS Global provides services such as dedicated visa application centres and websites, joint visa application centres, 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 instance 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 applicants’ 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 or UKVisas. The VFS website was only shut down after the UK media became aware of this lapse of security.

VFS and UKVisas were found to be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, where the British Foreign Office was required to review its relationship with VFS Global.

Since the incident reported above, several governments have also been critical of VFS Global's work and raised concerns over security.

The executive director of the Chinese Canadian Council Victor Wong stated:
"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."

The VFS-Snowden Link?

Henning Boysen. (Image courtesy kuoni.com)

The London based VFS Global is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Kuoni Group, a public-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 Allen Hamilton in the area of predictive intelligence, the same company that Edward Snowden worked for. Like Booz Allen 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-pole 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.

An overzealous scrutiny by the Australian Immigration Department is delaying the decision making process and forcing applicants to take medical tests, for example, which appears to be unreasonable, in some cases, for the granting of straight forward tourist visas. This alone, in many legal jurisdictions, would be enough grounds to warrant corruption investigations due to potential over and unnecessary use of service providers.

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 bona 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 provided. VFS Global's track record and the connections of the parent company's directors with organizations like with Booz, Allan & Hamilton give great reason for concern.

Most importantly, Government data collection agencies are seen to have integrity issues in matters of data collection, particularly in the light of the Snowden allegations. The Australian Government needs to answer many questions on the appointment of VFS Global as its service provider partner in the interests of transparency.

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