New UK Visa Procedures Humiliate Belarusians
On 13 June the Visa Section of the British Embassy in Belarus stopped accepting visa applications.
A private company Teleperformance Ltd has now assumed responsibility for processing them.
This move follows last year's decision by the UK government to close its visa section in Minsk and transfer its functions to Moscow.
So far this decision has turned the visa application procedure into chaos and humiliation for visa applicants from Belarus.
In practise, the privatisation and outsourcing to Russia means that Belarusians will wait to receive a British visa for around as much as 26 days and (if they are fortunate) receive it only a couple of hours before their planned flight. Indeed, this is precisely what happened to the author of this article.
If the British authorities want to uphold the good image of its diplomacy in Belarus and compare favourably to other nations in the eyes of common Belarusians, they need to stop their current appalling visa processing practises.
Closure of the Visa Section in Minsk
For many years, the Visa Section of the British Embassy in Minsk enjoyed a very good reputation. It did not take long to apply for a visa and typically several days later an applicant could expect to receive his or her passport back.
However, in December 2013, the UK government’s official web-portal GOV.UK announced several changes in the visa application and decision-making process in Minsk. It said that the Visa Section at the Embassy in Minsk would close and a commercial Visa Application Centre (VAC) would operate beginning in March/April 2014.
The announcement justified its closure with the following explanation: we are closing small visa sections and creating larger decision-making hubs across the world.
Thus, at the beginning of 2014, the British government transferred the decision-making functions from the Visa Section in Minsk to one such visa “hub” in Moscow, transferring many of its functions to a private provider.
Chaos in the “Hub” in Moscow
The Visa Application Centre in Minsk failed to open as promised – in March/April 2014. Until 13 June, the Visa Section of the British Embassy continued to accept visa applications which it would later forward on to the Russian capital. What happens from that point on can only be characterised as pure chaos.
Some visa applicants from Belarus now have to wait for a decision for up to two months (compared to 2-10 days in the past). The more fortunate among them get their passports back after 25-30 days.
Both the Visa Section in Minsk, and their contractor Teleperformance Ltd. state that they aim to return passports in 15 working days at the latest, and applicants plan their travels accordingly. The enormous delays result in personal and business plans breaking down and lost flight reservations for large numbers of applicants.
Ironically, even those with invitations to events organised or sponsored by the UK government face the same situation.
The author received an invitation to participate in Chatham House's London Conference on Globalisation and World Order under the patronage of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Having submitted the application package 26 days in advance of the planned journey, he got his passport back only 2 hours (!) before the flight.
No one can even say when exactly a Belarusian applicant can collect their passport even after the decision on whether or not to grant a visa has been made. Email notifications from the Moscow “hub” read as follows: "Your application has been completed. We aim to return passports to Moscow VAC in 2 working days. For regional VACs or Minsk allow additional time."
How long this “additional time” will be is anyone's guess. Some applicants have to visit the Visa Section in Minsk every day, over the course of an entire week, only to hear that their passports may, possibly, arrive tomorrow.
When a delay affects the working schedule of an applicant he or she naturally wants to find out the status of the application. With the new rules, it has simply become impossible.
Calling the Visa Section in Minsk does not work: the auto response system informs callers that the visa team cannot provide any consultations over the phone and recommends writing an email to ask visa-related questions.
The author wrote two e-mails before applying and one more to clarify the status of the application after three weeks of waiting. And all three were simply ignored.
Attempts to identify the whereabouts of the passport by e-mailing the “hub” in Moscow had the same result: no response at all. And calling the Visa Section in Moscow by phone is prime material for future jokes. The auto response system states official numbers which simply do not exist.
However, after a long and determined effort, the author managed to reach a living person via telephone, only to learn that she could not help.
The emotional state of a visa applicant who has gone through such a humiliating experience is not difficult to imagine. After this, he or she will hardly appreciate the truly great work that the British Embassy in Minsk has been undertaking to promote the UK's good image in Belarus.
And all of this looks strikingly bad if one considers the vastly improved services of consulates from the Schengen states operating in Minsk. All Schengen countries with consulates in Belarus consider and issue visa applications in Minsk and it usually takes about a week. After submitting their documents, applicants know exactly when they can collect them so as to not have their business and leisure plans dashed by humiliating procedures.
Visa Section in Minsk and Small Signs of Respect Would Work Magic
All this adds to another chronic problem: the high costs of a British visa for Belarusians. A short-term general visitor visa costs $141 (about £85), almost two times as high as the Schengen visa for Belarusian citizens. Moreover, many Schengen countries issue visas for free to certain categories of Belarusian nationals.
The average monthly salary in Belarus amounts to $540 (nearly £320) which makes a British visa an unaffordable luxury for many people. The substitution of the Visa Section in Minsk with a commercial provider will only further aggravate the problem.
However, visa costs seem quite a complicated issue to solve. Therefore, the UK government could do two simple things. First, return the fully-fledged Visa Section to Minsk, which would bring a halt to the current chaos and return its previous level of efficiency.
Second, simply answering visa applicants' emails would make a tremendous difference. Answering phone calls would be even better. Notifying applicants of the completion of their applications not only in English but also in Belarusian would demonstrate basic respect towards the applicants and is especially important for non-English speakers.
If the UK wants to sustain its good image and promote European values in Belarus it needs to change its current humiliating treatment of visa applicants.
Soft power cannot rely only on declarations and conferences and public events that British diplomats do their best to organise or support in Belarus. It needs to rest on real tangible pillars, such as a humane visa policy.
Otherwise, Britain will soon find itself lagging far behind Russia and the EU's Schengen states in advancing its friendly image among Belarusians.