VISA processing and issuance procedures have become a major source of capital flight as Nigeria loses N3.6 billion through a web of criminal conspiracy between officials of government, embassy staff and consular officers of some embassies on one hand; desperate intending travellers and agents, their agents and proxies, making the West African country the most lucrative consular operating centre in the world. Vanguard can reveal that despite outsourcing their visa issuance procedures in Nigeria, to VFS Global, major destination countries, namely the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, China, India are making fruitful business as they capitalize on the desperation of Nigerians wanting to emigrate and government officials who also collude with consular officials to profit from the racketeering. Response to media enquiries No fewer than 100,000 persons applied for the U.S Non Immigrant Visa for which sources said 50 per cent were successful. US Consular officers of these embassies would not respond to media enquiries on their visa operations in Nigeria especially on the stringent measures introduced after the Abdulmutallab episode. Most Nigerians are not aware of these measures and have not been properly educated. US consular officials do not even have the patience to go through the documents presented by the applicants before denying their request. The situation is not different from the British Visa operations where over 900,000 Nigerians applied for visiting visa to the UK. Investigations reveal that Nigeria loses over N1.2billion annually through the non refundable visa application fee paid by private individuals whose visa applications are rejected annually by officials of embassies and high commission, who do not look at the documents and information provided by the applicant. Another N2.4billion is lost through the endless travel programme of public officers in ministries, agencies and departments. Sources told Vanguard that over 3,500 Visa applications are rejected every day which translates to about 70,000 rejections every month. When you multiply the amount of money lost through the non refundable visa application fee, you will see that Nigeria is the biggest visa market in the world. Said a source: “In a year, we estimate that Nigeria loses about N1.2 billion from the non refundable visa fees paid by private individuals who are denied visas by embassy officials who reject applications on face value of their applications. The interview appointments are just mere justification of official requirements by these embassies especially the US and Britain.” On the other hand we have government officials who organise travel document for their principals who want to travel abroad to attend officials and private matters, apart from the fees that are paid for such official travels they also liaise with touts to smuggle in names of those who could pay between N550, 000 to N800, 000.00, depending on the country of destination, to obtain visas. Said a source: “I can tell you that no fewer than N2.6billion is lost in the process because they also arrange the travel documents of the family members of these public office holders and bureaucrats, but also for their cronies.” The figure is obviously higher because the high volume of traffic especially from government official and agencies that organise trade and investment delegations which includes other forms of glorified scams. The third category of people who are caught in this web are those who want to reunite with their spouses and those who present themselves as tourists, holiday makers, business travellers, who do not have sufficient evidence to support their application or could not satisfy the enquiries of consular officials. Our investigation reveals that while the major embassies may have outsourced their visa operations, “it is business as usual for embassy officials and touts who front for their contacts in the consular sections to recruit their would-be victims.” As you know most government visits are not planned ahead and the pressure to meet travelling dates, the planners of government official travels are compelled by consular officials to part with reasonable amounts of money to facilitate the travels of their principals. A source said: “Consular officials often insist on the applicants meeting legal and financial requirement. They often pretend to be playing strict and show no human compunction during visa interviews. They use agents and proxies to act as go between with visa applicants who desperately need visa are ready to pay higher prices.” Processing of visa applications The official fees charged by the US for single entry is $140 or about N22, 000, but there are fees paid amounting to about N12, 000. Most of the major embassies in Nigeria have outsourced the processing of visa applications from the point of obtaining the form to the point of submission to VFS. The source told Vanguard: “Would you believe that Nigerians are made to pay as much as N750, 000 to N850, 000 to get America and British Visas through non official channels?” Informed sources told Vanguard that apart from the exorbitant and outrageous amounts which the desperate travellers are made to pay, they are made to go through excruciating and traumatic procedures to apply for visa to these countries, assemble their travel documents and interview appointment only to be turned down in a well crafted syndicates that rip off Nigerians and cart away billions of Nigeria. Working with syndicates While embassy officials deny any link with the tout, sources told Vanguard that “touts are very handy in working with syndicates that engage in trafficking of persons as well as “working things out or sorting,” those who could afford to pay exorbitant fees for single entry visa” Efforts by Vanguard to get the embassies to respond to some of the issues met with brick walls as the embassies would not respond to media enquiries but Vanguard was able to reach top diplomatic sources in some of the embassies and High Commissions who gave valuable information on the visa operations of these countries. USA Application fees and Process A Senior US Consular officer in Abuja to Vanguard that we welcome visitors to the United States of America, said there is no magic formula in obtaining a visa to the United States. The US national immigration act regards every non immigrants applying for a visa to America as a potential migrant hence the Congress which made the law had give the consular officers the power to determine who is qualified for a visa based on the information presented. “Our consular officers have a difficult job. They must decide in a very short time if someone is qualified to receive a temporary visa. Most cases are decided after a brief interview and review of whatever evidence of ties an applicant presents”. According to the source: “Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, INA, states that every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for admission, that he is entitled to a non-immigrant status. To qualify for a visitor or student visa, an applicant must meet the requirements of sections 101(a)(15) (B) or (F) of the INA respectively. Failure to do so will result in a refusal of a visa under INA 214(b). “The most frequent basis for such a refusal concerns the requirement that the prospective visitor or student possess a residence abroad he/she has no intention of abandoning. Applicants prove the existence of such residence by demonstrating that they have ties abroad that would compel them to leave the U.S. at the end of the temporary stay. The law places this burden of proof on the applicant”. Visa applicants are required to pay $140 dollars or N22, 000, being the equivalent and upon that, for non-immigrant Visa while the E-class Visa costs about N350. The source said that thereafter visa interview appointments are made on line. She said: “There is no commission or extra fees required from visa applicants. We interview applicants individually, recognising their individual circumstances and the interview flows from what the applicant tells us”. She would not agree that the consular officers in the embassy misapply their enormous powers especially in the light of the January 2010 reforms of US visa application procedures and security cordon on US visa policy. She said “we do not misapply the law, the law is very grey and there is a presumption that every intending visitor is a migrant so the law is on the side of consular officers, while the onus off proof is the applicant who must convince the consular officers that he or she has job investment and family ties that would make him return at the end of his or her visit. There should be a proof of financial capabilities to finance his or her stay, a proof of special ties in the United States or proof of ability of his or her host in the United States, to accept responsibility for his or her stay. Our interview process is to ascertain the integrity of the information provided by the applicants. But this process has also being flawed by the use of public address system which exposes the confidentiality of the integrity of the interviewee’s information”. Canada: Canada was in the news in September as over 7,000 Nigerians fell prey to a well crafted Visa scam by a group that called itself Crystal Services with a make-believe office in Gbagada, a suburb of Lagos. The scammers had enticed their victims with prospects of sponsoring them to Manitoba in Canada where they were to be assisted to get jobs in non skilled sector of the economy. The desperate Nigerians were made to cough out N60, 000 for medical examination while a second generation bank was fronted as the institution that would fund the travel . The victims who were in a human trafficking situation were to work for two years to pay off the cost of flight, resettlement in Canada and securing of jobs, as far as the victims were concerned a near slave condition in Nigeria. Canadian visa was cloned, to convince them of the genuine nature of the transaction. The organisers of the scam made away with over N430 million. Some of the victims included security personnel from Police, Immigration, NAPTIP. Some of them had resigned from their jobs; others sold their property, while over ten people died in auto accident in the process of running around to put final touches to the doomed travel. But officials of the High Commission told Vanguard that the procedure for applying for visa to Canada is well documented and transparent. China: China is one country that has become a choice destination for Nigerians consequently obtaining travelling visa has become a problem. Overstayng entry permit China is a country that does not take kindly to visitors overstaying their entry permit in terms of visa. Consequently, those who attempt to manipulate the system end up in jail. Sources said so many Nigerians, especially business people, mainly from Anambra State are languishing in jail in Guandjou province. Those who overstay their visa are made to pay surcharge on each day of their extension of stay and some people who enter with transit or business visa often try to short change the system by contracting marriages with Chinese women, try to get short time jobs. Majority of them run into trouble in a country where the political leadership is still Communist controlled system. Some Nigerians are said to have died or been maimed in their attempt to jump from storey buildings while trying to escape arrest. India: India has a visa practice which many Nigerians who travel to that country for medical attention have to face the hassles of frequent renewals. A source said India has no multiple visa regime, and travellers are required to go to their High Commission depending on their medical dates. This could be every three months or every six months but you must go to the consular officials every time and this means endless Visa stamps on your passport. South Africa: South African High Commission which had a contentious Visa application procedure said its services have improved in the past one year since it outsourced the services to VFS Global. According to its Counsellor Immigration Services, Ms Tampane Molefe Safanyete, the High Commission has eliminated the presence of touts and agents by applicants and to that extent, alleged acts of corruption has no space to thrive. She said with the advent of VFS Global the High Commission is able to improve from attending to 50 to 60 applications per day to 250 and 350 applications during peak period and 200 to 250 during off peak. She said: “We have made a commitment that Visa application will not take up to six days to finalise,” adding that the High Commission is working towards reducing the time to a minimum of two days to a maximum of 10 days to process and finalise an application. THE PRINCIPLE OF RECIPROCITY On his assumption of office as Minister, Ambassador Ashiru, had told the heads of foreign missions in Nigeria that “the doctrine of reciprocity was going to be applied in handling issues between Nigeria and other countries but Vanguard learnt that the Minister lacks the political will to call these countries to order. Officials of the Ministry shied away from questions on some of the new measures being introduced by foreign countries to rip Nigerians off through non refundable visa fees Efforts to get the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to respond to the issue of visa racket and maltreatment of Nigerians by foreign missions in Nigeria, was thwarted by officials of the Ministry through the use of the use of red tape. Ministry sources said that “they are under strict instructions from the Minister, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, not to respond to media enquiries whether they are local or foreign media.” Biggest enemy Foreign Affairs Ministry officials told Vanguard, that in terms of reciprocity, “we make sure that those countries that make this difficult for Nigerians are equally give the same treatment, when they want to visit Nigeria although the interest of people from outside the country wanting to visit Nigeria is not as high as that of Nigerians who want to go out. But we are our own biggest enemy.” He added: “It might interest you to know that it is we Nigerians that collude with these foreigners, to maltreat Nigerians and make things difficult for all of us. For instance it was a Nigerian government official that wrote to the US government to revoke the Visa waiver status which Ambassador Junaid Jolasho got for Nigeria when he was Nigeria’s ambassador to the US in the 1970s”.