UK: Foreign people accused of illicit visa trade

An illegal activity that targets foreign workers and students is currently underway in which brokers are booking visa appointments in the UK and then selling them on for hundreds of pounds.

An investigation conducted by the Observer discovered that brokers in certain regions of south Asia charge up to 800 British pounds for biometric appointment bookings. These appointments are frequently advertised on Facebook and the Telegram messaging service.

“Are you getting enthusiastic about your trip to the United Kingdom? One of the advertisements for flexible slots in Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh included the following advice: “Don’t let the hassle of visa appointments hold you back.” Others claim to be able to assist customers in beating backlogs in the official system by offering appointments the next day at “reasonable prices” with no payment required up front.

As a result of agents taking advantage of the strain placed on certain consular services overseas, the underground market is booming. This strain is in part caused by an increase in the number of visa applications submitted by international students and healthcare workers.

Anyone who intends to remain in the United Kingdom for more than six months, as well as short-term tourists from specified countries, are required to attend an in-person appointment in their own country in order to produce their fingerprints and a photograph.

However, although direct booking of biometric appointments is normally free or between £30 and £85 for priority services, some people in south Asia are having difficulty acquiring slots via VFS Global, the outsourcing business contracted by the Home Office to handle UK visa applications in the region. VFS Global is responsible for processing visa applications in the region.

There is diversity in approach among the local agents. While some physically monitor VFS Global’s booking system, others make use of automated bots to search for freshly available slots before making reservations for their clients in those slots.

According to the Home Office, which has stated that it is attempting to combat “fraudulent behaviour,” agents are seeking appointments that they do not require, then cancelling them and rebooking the slots on behalf of paying customers. The Home Office has stated that it is working to stop this practice.

The misuse of the appointment system by agents is alleged to have greatly increased during the course of the previous year in Pakistan, which is believed to be the country where the problems are at their worst. People who were seeking for visas to enter the United Kingdom from within the nation reported that they were forced to pay the brokers because they were unable to arrange appointments through the official routes.

An individual who is a national of Afghanistan and who is applying for a student visa in Pakistan stated that he checked the booking portal for a slot in September on multiple occasions, but each time he looked, there were none that were available. In the meantime, brokers were offering slots ranging from one to three days for a price of 250,000 Pakistani rupees (PKR), which is equivalent to approximately £735.

“If you want to get into the VFS office, you have to pay someone,” he explained. “There is no other way.” It hasn’t been possible for any of my pals to schedule regular appointments. If they were capable of directly arranging routine appointments, nobody would be giving these guys such a large amount of money.

A broker gave one applicant, a student from Kamoke in the Gujranwala area of north-east Pakistan, an estimate of 190,000 Pakistani Rupees (about £560) for an urgent appointment in Islamabad. After traveling for six hours to reach the VFS Global center, she discovered that the appointment had been cancelled. She ultimately sent over 40,000 Pakistani Rupees, or approximately £120, to a different agent, and that agency got a spot for her eight days later. Due to the delays, she was unable to catch her trip to the UK, which forced her to postpone the beginning of her university studies.

She stated that nearly every education consultant in her home nation was a “middleman of appointment-selling,” and she continued by saying, “If you stand in front of any VFS centre [in Pakistan], so many people will come up to you asking: ‘You need appointment?'”

It was “shocking,” according to Inam Raziq, an immigration expert working for Fast Track Global Consultants in Birmingham. She said this about the fact that customers were forced to pay “dodgy agents” as a result of problems booking appointments online. According to him, students are frequently particularly “desperate” due to impending course enrolling deadlines. He claimed this. There are no openings for appointments on the website of the official organization. But they say, ‘If you give us the money I’ll give you one,'” he stated.

According to Rakesh Ranjan, the south Asia coordinator for the migrant workers’ programme at the UK-based Institute for Human Rights and Business, appointment brokering is a lucrative business across south Asia, with agents selling VFS Global appointments for people traveling to the United States of America, Canada, and the European Union countries, in addition to the United Kingdom.

Ranjan received a price estimate of the equivalent of £500 from an agency in New Delhi who promised to assist him in arranging his paperwork and scheduling an appointment when he recently applied for a visa from that location. This estimate did not include any costs levied by the government.

According to him, workers frequently were not aware that they were paying out excessively, and some of them relied on brokers because they did not have simple access to the internet. “It is a significant problem. “Everything just adds up to more debt that people have to pay in order to come to the UK,” he said.

VFS Global, which provides consular services for seventy governments, including the United Kingdom, announced that it was attempting to crack down on middlemen who were either charging applicants a premium price or defrauding them by selling slots that did not exist. The ability to cancel or reschedule appointments has been removed, and bookings made by bogus customers have had their reservations cancelled. Monitoring the use of bots is another measure.

It was stated that free appointments will be made available at random on a “first come, first served” basis, and that availability would not be an issue in the majority of south Asian regions. The one country where this was not the case was Pakistan, where it was stated that agents had “significantly ramped up their claims and activities this year” in order to meet the strong demand from people who wanted to study and live in the UK.

“We take extremely seriously any attempt to take advantage of the visa application appointment system in any way.” According to a spokeswoman for VFS Global, “We have not experienced abuse of this type or scale in any other UKVI [UK visas and immigration] locations and have been working closely with the UK Home Office to combat this abuse.” They went on to say that clients were “strongly encouraged” to stay away from unlicensed agents and to arrange appointments exclusively through the website of the company.

Some people have suggested that the Home Office and the corporation should make the appointment booking procedure less complicated. For instance, the applicants might be given their appointments immediately, or the appointments may be made available at specific times throughout the day rather than being distributed at random.

An agent who sells appointments for UK visas in India and Pakistan stated that some agents were “greedy” but that other brokers were delivering a real service that was only required because it was so difficult to obtain slots via the official website. The appointments pop up at random and are frequently “online for only one minute before they disappear,” according to what he stated.

An investigation on the provision of visa services in the United Kingdom conducted in 2021 by independent chief inspector of borders & immigration revealed availability problems in application centers located in other countries. One applicant likened the process of getting a free appointment on VFS Global’s system to that of a lottery and stated that they were required to check the website at several times throughout the night.

VFS Global stated that releasing slots at predetermined times would make it easier for fraudsters to take advantage of the system, and that the problems found in the inspection report were due to delays created by Covid-19.

The United Kingdom’s Home Office has stated that it is taking strong measures to combat “abuse of the visa appointment booking process” by “unauthorised agents” in south Asian countries. A spokeswoman for the company stated that they are continuing their collaboration with the service provider in order to “introduce measures to stop this fraudulent behaviour and ensure that appointments are made available to genuine individuals.”

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