VFS scandal: Over 1 lakh visa seekers trapped, labour market strangled

DailySun || Shining BD

Published: 5/21/2024 5:18:05 AM

The European labour market has been held hostage by multinational visa processing company VFS Global as Bangladeshi nationals intending to go to different countries of Europe are struggling to get visas due to its cumbersome process, causing significant hardship for them.

VFS Global, which processes visas on behalf of embassies and destination countries, has withheld the applications and passports of over 1 lakh Bangladeshis, leading to widespread frustration among the hopefuls and causing substantial financial losses.

Reports suggest that the country has lost Tk41,220 crore in just one year due to withholding of passports.

Experts have described VFS Global's actions as a deliberate attempt to disrupt and potentially destroy Europe’s labour market for Bangladeshis.

On 18 November 2021, the Italian Embassy in Bangladesh went into an agreement with VFS Global Bangladesh, staffed by both local and foreign employees, to handle visa services for a certain fee.

After a long hiatus since 2001, Bangladeshis got the opportunity to receive Italian work permits in 2020, following direct intervention by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Consequently, the Bangladeshis in Italy proactively took the opportunity and as a result of their efforts, a significant number of Bangladeshis were granted work permits in Italy.

Italy has granted, for example, a total of 82,705 work permits to citizens of around 22 countries,

with over 30,000 going to Bangladeshis under the circular by the Italian government dated 27 March 2023.

However, VFS Global has created significant hurdles for the Bangladeshi applicants. Sources said applicants face extensive delays and bureaucratic obstacles, including difficulties in securing appointments, exploitation by middlemen and the withholding of passports for over a year. This has left many applicants in limbo, unable to proceed with their work permits.

“I’ve spent Tk13 lakh to get an Italian work permit and applied for a visa through VFS Global. Although nine months have elapsed, I'm still awaiting the visa. My original three-month deadline has passed, shattering my dreams," said Zakir Hossain, a migrant worker from Noakhali’s Begumganj.

Nahid Newaz, owner of VFS Global Bangladesh, declined to comment on the matter.

Applicants alleged that they cannot secure appointments without paying a hefty sum to brokers.

The Italian Embassy mandates that visa applications must be submitted within six months from the issuance of work permits. However, the embassy does not accept applications directly, forcing applicants to go through VFS Global. This bottleneck has caused many to lose their work permits due to missed deadlines.

One affected individual, Faisal Ahmed, who received a work permit in the farming sector of Italy, shared his frustration. "My work permit was issued on 7 January, but I haven't yet received an appointment," he said. "My two Indian colleagues have already left for Italy, but my permit expires in 11 days. I've spent Tk10 lakh on this process and now fear losing everything."

The inefficiency and corruption within VFS Global have had dire consequences for the Bangladeshi workforce.

Although Bangladeshis enjoy an excellent reputation in Italy, employers are becoming reluctant to hire them due to the visa processing issues, sources said.

This has severely impacted Bangladesh's prospects in the Italian labour market, an opportunity for unskilled and skilled workers alike to improve their livelihoods and contribute to their families and the national economy.

VFS Global charges between Tk19,720 and Tk22,000 per visa application.

While appointments were readily available until early 2022, a black market for appointments emerged in 2023, exacerbated by VFS Global's practices.

Applicants alleged that the online appointment slots are filled within minutes, suggesting manipulation.

VFS Global claims to release new slots monthly, but the slots vanish within a few minutes, raising serious concerns about their transparency and fairness.

Sources said some VFS agents and brokers have created an artificial crisis by halting passport deliveries to the VFS at the right time.

Consequently, visa applicants feel compelled to purchase appointments for as high as Tk2 lakh, which is said to be free of charge. Even if applicants do not receive appointments online, they can easily acquire them through VFS agents and brokers for a hefty sum.

Sources indicate that visa applicants are not provided with specific information.

After submitting applications, they do not receive any updates. Questions about when appointments will be available, why passports are being held for so long, or whether visas will be issued remain unanswered by the VFS or embassies. Even direct communication with VFS is impossible except for sending messages. As a result, months after months, applicants and their families are left frustrated and helpless.

Due to the complex nature of VFS appointments, numerous work permits have lapsed, leading to a financial loss of Tk18-Tk20 lakh for visa applicants each, with the funds being funnelled into the coffers of international mafias.

Investigations reveal that although entry into the VFS waiting room is prohibited except for visa applicants, the activities of several brokers are observed inside. Inquiries to the VFS often yield evasive answers to such behaviour.

Sources said though the authorities announced that it would issue appointments via the mailing system from March 31, there are no specific instructions regarding serial maintenance in the mailing system. Consequently, the same inconsistency remained there.

On 9 May, for example, 40 visa seekers submitted applications, though only 20 of them received appointments via the mailing system. Sources said the additional 20 received SMS by breaching rules.

Investigations reveal that visa slots were opened frequently at night, though there is no rule to open those beyond office hours.

VFS Global is also looting Tk7 crore per year in the name of premium service. It provides premium service to 70 applicants every day and charges Tk22,318 for this against Tk17,980 for regular service.

However, the charge for premium service in India is Tk18,419. Under the service, the passport of an applicant is delivered to his doorstep, which is not included in Bangladesh.

Until December 2023, nearly 111,000 visa applications were stuck by VFS Global. Of those, 35,000 were in 2022 and 76,000 in 2023 and 9,600 this year as of 30 April.

As a result, the country has lost Tk41,220 crore in visa fees, VFS and broker charges as well as huge remittance income.

Shining BD