How a single company ‘silently’ took over the world of visa processing in an age of record migration

Never before have more people been on the move. Globalization, war and climate catastrophes have pushed workers, refugees and migrants to leave their homes at record pace.

And yet budget-conscious governments around the world have increasingly turned to private, for-profit companies to handle visa processing.

Enter VFS Global.

Headquartered in Zurich and Dubai, VFS Global dominates the international visa outsourcing market.

The company, whose acronym stands for Visa Facilitation Services, has grown from being the first of its kind with a single visa office in Mumbai, India two decades ago to a global juggernaut with more than 3,500 visa application centres in 141 countries representing the interests of 65 “client governments.”

To put this into perspective, that’s the equivalent of a new visa centre opening every other day for 20 years.

Read more: Canada to create new program to welcome Ukrainians fleeing Russian invasion

VFS Global’s website says it has processed more than 240 million visa applications since 2001 and collected close to 110 million sets of biometric data (fingerprints and photos) since 2007.

The industry and VFS Global have turned the once costly endeavour of operating consulates and embassies into a money-making opportunity for cash-strapped immigration departments.

“When it comes to outsourcing of visa processing, this is a global phenomenon,” said Federica Infantino, a researcher at the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. “VFS Global is the most important actor in this business. It’s the largest company providing services to governments.”

Administrative tasks, such as filling out paperwork and making sure applicants submit necessary documents, once handled by high-salary bureaucrats are now handled by VFS Global visa centre employees.

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These for-profit businesses have become an indispensable part of Canada’s mission to attract visitors and new immigrants, too, performing mandatory security screening, gathering applicants’ health and financial records, and offering services in local languages in formerly underserved areas of the world.

One hundred and sixty-two Canadian visa centres in 109 countries run by VFS Global handle millions of visa applications each year. A 2018 press release from the company said Canada had the “most extensive” network of visa centres in the world.

But recent crises, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have caused people to question the effectiveness of this system.

Read more: Ukrainians with Canadian connection can’t get visa despite fast-track promise from Ottawa

Complaints about inadequate resources, long delays, ill-informed staff and dysfunctional online booking portals at Canadian visa centres in Europe have emerged as defining characteristics of the struggle to bring Ukrainians to Canada.

VFS Global has also faced criticism about a past privacy breach and its business operations in China.

For Oleksandr Baranov and his wife Inna, who spent a month getting a visa for Inna’s 84-year-old mother to come to Canada after she fled the war in Ukraine, being forced to deal with a private company at a time of crisis was a source of anger and frustration.

“(They) don’t care about people,” Oleksandr said, describing his experience at Canada’s visa centre in Warsaw, Poland. “(We) are just units.”

Complaints about the system

The Baranovs have lived in Canada for two decades. In the hopes of getting a visa for Inna’s mother, they took turns flying to Poland in April to stand in line at the Canadian visa centre run by VFS Global in Warsaw.

During this time, they said they received contradictory and inaccurate information from the company’s staff. For example, they said they were told Inna’s mother needed an appointment to get her visa, but they later found out they could send her passport by mail.

The couple also tried to contact VFS Global customer support by email to get help, but said they didn’t receive a response for 18 days.

Eventually, the Baranovs received a tracking number that allowed them to monitor the application, but it wasn’t until a lawyer in Canada contacted the Canadian embassy in Warsaw on their behalf that a visa was issued.

“Honestly, I thought she would die here,” Oleksandr said.

Oleksandr’s mother-in-law Lidiia Kuryliak, 84, on her way from the Polish border city of Przemysl to Warsaw, April 12, 2022. Oleksandr Baranov

Complaints made by the Baranovs are not unique.

Alex Pawlowsky, a Canadian who lives in Berlin, was on a train in March when he met a Ukrainian woman who fled the Russian invasion and wanted to come to Canada.

Because the woman didn’t speak German or English – Pawlowsky speaks Ukrainian – he offered to help her.

When they arrived at VFS Global’s office in downtown Berlin, there were 20 or 30 people standing outside, Pawlowsky said. Some of them told him they’d been sleeping in their cars for three days. Each morning they’d wake up and stand in line with the hope of getting an appointment for a visa.

Read more: Ukrainian woman fears visa catch-22 could derail coming to B.C.

Pawlowsky said the only instructions at the visa centre were in English, on a sign posted on the front door. It said that “due to high demand,” biometric data (fingerprints and photos) needed to get a visa couldn’t be collected without first booking an appointment online.

But when the woman Pawlowsky was with tried to book an appointment, there were none available, he said. She ended up leaving the visa centre in Berlin empty-handed and made an appointment in Paris scheduled for three weeks later.

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“What I saw there was really shocking and embarrassing,” Pawlowsky said. “I felt somewhere between nausea and like I wanted to cry.”

People waiting outside Canada’s visa application centre in Berlin, Germany during the week of March 21, 2022. Alexander Pawlowsky

The government insists it’s doing everything it can to speed up the visa application process for people fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has waived biometric requirements for Ukrainian children, elderly people and anyone who received a Canadian visa in the past decade. It also shifted employees and equipment to Warsaw and Berlin to help take fingerprints and photos.

Isabelle Dubois, a spokesperson for Immigration Canada, said capacity at visa centres in Europe has doubled since the Russian invasion, to more than 18,000 appointments a week.

The government also said it has met its goal of processing Ukrainian visa applications within two weeks or less in 93 per cent of cases.

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VFS Global declined to participate in an interview for this story.

In a written statement, the company said that it plays no role in deciding who gets a visa and that it has no control over how long it takes for a visa to be issued once a passport is sent to the government for processing.

“The outflow of Ukrainian refugees seeking safe haven is without precedent,” the company said. “We have proactively taken a series of actions in impacted countries. We quickly mobilized resources from around the globe to provide extra support to client governments amid a surge of applications.”

According to the company, this includes opening four “pop-up” Canadian visa centres in Europe between April 14 and April 27: two in Poland, one in Slovakia and another in Hungary.

Read more: Family stuck in Poland finally gets approved for visa, plans to come to Saskatoon

The company also said it has hired as many Ukrainian-speaking staff as possible to work at visa and customer support centres and that it added a page to its website with information for Ukrainians trying to come to Canada.

“When we become aware of any situation where applicants feel underserved, we do our best to resolve the problems as soon as possible,” the company said.

Outsourcing was a ‘godsend’

Traditionally, every part of the process to get a visa was handled by consulate and embassy officials. The same people who decided if someone got a visa also handled administrative tasks, such as tracking down incomplete files, filling out basic forms and meeting with applicants to collect required documents.

That all changed in 2001 when Indian entrepreneur Zubin Karkaria persuaded the U.S. government to let him run a pilot project handling the administrative side of visa processing at its Mumbai consulate.

According to various Indian newspaper articles, Karkaria is a Zoroastrian priest who worked at a friend’s travel agency while in university. He received a knighthood from French president François Hollande in 2016 for his work promoting France as a travel destination. VFS Global’s website describes him as a “pioneer of the global visa services industry.”

“Embassies were dealing with growing piles of administrative work,” Karkaria told Forbes magazine in 2018. “We conceptualized a simple but absolutely unique solution of managing the visa process for governments.”

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Read more: Alberta man helping relatives from Ukraine frustrated with Canadian program red tape

The company quickly grew when governments realized private-sector employees could handle much of the work done by consulates and embassies, often at a discount.

In general, this is because visa outsourcers work on a user-pay model, where operating costs are passed onto visa applicants in the form of service fees.

Zubin Karkaria, CEO and founder of VFS Global. YouTube/Kouni Group

And while Canada’s arrangement with VFS Global is somewhat different – Canada pays VFS Global to operate its network of visa centres – experts say it would be “extraordinarily expensive” to offer the same level of service using bureaucrats.

“My impression was that this was a cost-cutting exercise,” said Victor Satzewich, an expert in Canadian visa policy and a sociology professor at McMaster University.

Satzewich was conducting research in Southeast Asia at the time Canada began working with VFS Global on a large scale.

He said his conversations with immigration officials – his research was conducted in Manila in the early 2010s – left him with the sense that consulate staff welcomed the privatization of certain tasks because it freed up time and meant they no longer needed to chase after applicants.

“VFS Global and outsourcing was a real godsend for them because it took away a lot of the back and forth that exists,” Satzewich said.

By 2018, Canada had signed contracts worth $185 million with VFS Global and TT Services, a subsidiary of VFS Global, to run all of its visa centres around the world for the next five years.

Government procurement records show VFS Global and TT Services received an additional $100 million through amendments to these contracts between 2021 and 2022.

Read more: Canada paid nearly $200M to visa company previously based in a tax haven and linked to China

But advocates and researchers have raised concerns about visa outsourcing, including worries migrants are being “commodified.”

Maria Luisa Sánchez-Barrueco, a senior lecturer of European law at the University of Deusto in Bilbao, Spain, said companies like VFS Global aren’t really interested in whether visa applicants get approved, so long as they’re paying for services, especially more expensive “premium” services.

This includes things such as text-message updates and access to one of VFS Global’s “premium lounges.” The company describes its lounges as “modern-day, smooth and seamless,” and as a place where would-be travellers receive personalized care, dedicated customer support and faster submission of their visa applications.

The cost of lounge access varies by country. In India, it costs $56 to access the premium lounge at a Canadian visa centre. In Thailand, it’s $98 and in the United Arab Emirates, it’s $143. Anyone in the UAE who wants a United Kingdom visa can pay $184 to get into the premium lounge or $420 for “platinum lounge” access.

VFS Global also offers “visa at your door” service, which is when visa centre staff show up at a home or business and complete the application process there. The company’s website says this service is popular with “large groups of travellers, especially those from smaller cities, corporates (sic), film crews, celebrities, travel agencies and high net worth individuals.”

“The companies don’t want more migrants. They want more and better visa applicants because that is where they earn money,” Sánchez-Barrueco said.

Maria Luisa Sánchez-Barrueco at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium on April 20, 2022. Maria Luisa Sánchez-Barrueco

Sánchez-Barrueco spent five years studying visa outsourcing and the relationship between VFS Global and the Spanish government. Her research was primarily completed in Ecuador and included conversations with people who wanted a visa to travel to Spain.

Among her key findings was the idea that “commodification of short-term migration” led to an exponential increase in the privatization of visa processing.

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“This phenomenon spread in a very silent way,” she said.

Sánchez-Barrueco also found visa applicants were willing to provide sensitive health and financial records if it meant getting a visa faster.

For example, a young woman told Sánchez-Barrueco that if VFS Global asked for her father’s financial records as part of her application to study in Spain, she would hand them over because she needed to get her visa “as soon as possible.”

“Something we shouldn’t disregard is the wealth of information visa applicants are sharing with this company,” she said.

Read more: Chinese police-owned company given visa centre lead under Conservatives: Blair

Sánchez-Barrueco said her work also revealed that the person running Spain’s visa centre for VFS Global in Ecuador was a former Spanish consulate official.

While she has no evidence that suggests this is a common phenomenon, or that this person’s appointment resulted in any inappropriate actions, she was nevertheless concerned about the potential conflict of interest and the possibility that this person could use his past position to influence decisions about who gets a visa.

“This is very shady in my view,” Sánchez-Barrueco said.

VFS Global, meanwhile, said it adheres to all privacy laws of the countries it works for and that its employees ask for necessary documents only, which are then purged from its computer system once an application is complete.

The company also said it handles “non-judgmental and administrative” tasks,  meaning it’s not involved in deciding who gets a visa, and that its employees aren’t aware of the outcome of the cases they work on.

Alleged exploitation of migrants

Concerns have also emerged about visa outsourcing and the possible exploitation of vulnerable migrants.

A 2019 investigation carried out by British newspapers The Independent and Finance Uncovered found the U.K. Home Office, which is responsible for immigration, made £1.6 billion (about C$2.5 billion) in profits from visa applicants during the five-year period after it signed a deal with VFS Global. This was a nine-time increase over what it made during the five-year period before working with VFS Global.

The report found the average amount of money the government made from each visa applicant increased from £29 ($47) in 2014 to £123 ($197) in 2019.

Most of this increase, the report said, was because the government took a cut of the profits VFS Global made selling applicants premium services, such as lounge access, text message updates and express visa processing. Lawyers told the newspapers migrants may feel pressured to purchase these services in order to secure a visa.

“Profiteering by private companies has no place in public services,” British Labour MP Dianne Abbott said at the time.

The U.K. denied it made any profits from selling premium or value-added services. The Home Office told The Independent any revenue it earned because of its relationship with VFS Global was used to pay for other immigration-related costs.

VFS Global said its premium services were “developed in response to specific demands from applicants for greater accessibility, personalization and convenience.” The company also said these services are clearly labelled as optional.

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Immigration Canada said it makes no money when applicants buy premium services from VFS Global under the terms of its current contract with the company.

Applicants can also submit their visa applications to the government directly through an online portal, although biometric data must still be collected from a visa centre.

When asked if the government has ruled out any future profit-sharing arrangements with the company, Immigration Canada didn’t say.

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“Value-added services offered at VACs are optional services designed for the benefit of the applicant who chooses to use them and to improve client service,” Dubois said.

Read more: Pandemic gives Canada backlog of immigration applications

But a recent “Letter of Interest” published by the government as part of its plan to renew its visa outsourcing contracts shows Immigration Canada is looking to expand the types of services visa centres offer, including more premium and value-added services for applicants who are “willing to pay additional fees.”

Meanwhile, a review of past financial statements released by Immigration Canada shows the department collected twice as much revenue from “immigration service fees” in 2020 ($766 million) than it did in 2013 ($305 million).

The statement for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2020, showed the department earned $177 million more than it spent processing visa applications for visitors, students and workers that year.

The most recent financial statement, released in August 2021, shows the department expected to earn $1 billion in revenue from immigration service fees last year, but fell short because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The period covered by these financial statements lines up with the time Immigration Canada has worked with VFS Global to expand its network of visa centres on a worldwide scale. It also coincides with a jump in visitor visa applications, from 1.2 million applications in 2012 to 2.2 million applications in 2019. During this time, the acceptance rate for visitor visa applications fell from 82 per cent to 64 per cent.

No way back

Another concern about visa outsourcing is that once governments decide to hand over control to a private company, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to go back.

Sánchez-Barrueco, the Spanish researcher, said it’s “unthinkable” that governments could take back the administrative work now handled by private visa centres.

The cost of redeploying immigration staff to consulates and embassies would be prohibitive, she said. It would also likely be difficult to get the technology needed to perform large-scale biometric security screening.

“The company knows it. It knows that it has governments wrapped around its fingers,” she said.

Read more: Travellers with visas entering Canada to undergo biometric screening

Infantino, the researcher from Italy, said another reason why governments might not want to go back to the way things used to be is that visa outsourcing shields immigration officials from accountability.

If, for example, visa applicants are given misleading or erroneous information, it’s the company that bears the brunt of any complaints, not the government, she said.

She also questions the claim that VFS Global and visa outsourcers, in general, perform only administrative work. She said the mere presence of private, for-profit companies in the visa application process changes the relationship between governments and anyone trying to get a visa because it creates “distance” between them.

Visa centre staff can influence decisions about who gets a visa by correctly or incorrectly deciding if an application is complete and if required supporting documents meet specifications, Infantino said.

She also said dealing with an intermediary deprives applicants of the opportunity to appeal directly to someone with decision-making authority.

“It’s very hard to locate responsibility in outsourcing processes, always, in whatever sector we are talking about,” Infantino said.

“Outsourcing of visa processing has been very successful because state actors basically get rid of many responsibilities.”

Federica Infantino, a researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, June 2021. European University Institute

This apparent absence of accountability was on full display for Anastasia Aslanova and Mykhaylo Byelostotskiy when they tried to get Aslanova’s sister and her two daughters to Canada after they fled the war in Ukraine.

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Aslanova’s sister was staying in Germany, trying to get visas for herself and her seven- and nine-year-old daughters. but her daughters’ visa applications took several weeks longer than hers to process.

The family said they tried contacting the Canadian government and VFS Global for help but were unable to get any answers.

Read more: Manitoba-bound Ukrainian families disappointed as children’s visas delayed

“There is no way, like there’s zero option, to contact somebody,” Byelostotskiy said. “You’re talking to just the wall.”

Byelostotskiy also said the instructions provided by VFS Global and the government for how to submit passports to the embassy for final approval were “terribly cruel” because of how confusing they were.

“You have to deal with some website run by a company, which is not even part of the government,” he said. “It’s this VFS Global, which is absolutely unfriendly.”

Oleksandra awaits visas for her two daughters,. Anastasia Aslanova / Supplied

VFS Global said its staff receive “high-quality training” to ensure they have the skills needed to perform required tasks. The company also said its employees are “thoroughly trained on (Immigration Canada’s) processes and procedures and customer service.”

Oleksander, who flew to Poland to help his mother-in-law get a visa, said his experience at the Canadian visa centre in Warsaw made him feel like no one cared about his mother-in-law and the trauma she experienced fleeing the Russian invasion. He also said it felt like no one was accountable and like the government abandoned its authority.

“It’s sort of like a pillow,” he said. “Customers are fighting with the visa centre and no one is going to the Canadian embassy.”

Oleksandr said his mother-in-law worried that the amount of time it took to process her visa was because Canada wasn’t going to accept her. He said this created “psychological pressure” and stress for her. He said he hopes no one else has to experience this.

“It’s torture,” Oleksandr said.

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