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Who decides who comes to Australia?

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 2 August 2013


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.

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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 marginalizing these businesses that have painstakingly been built up over the years.

However the Act exempts the Australian Government and it's 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 the Australian Immigration office 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 grant 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 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 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.

So who is VFS Global?

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VFS is just a collecting agency. No consul interviews are undertaken whatsoever. VFS websites clearly state that 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 of UKVisas (http://sanjibmitra.blogspot.com.au/2007/05/identity-leakage.html). The VFS website was only shut down after the UK media became aware of this lapse of security (http://www.daniweb.com/hardware-and-software/networking/news/218517/exposed-indian-visa-application-data-accessible-to-anyone-with-a-web-browser).

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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