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.
Tax Freedom Day, Monitoring of Belarusian Students’ Rights – Belarus Civil Society Digest
How much Belarusians work for the state and for themselves? – Liberal Club presents its findings in a special report. Student Council wants to monitor violations of the rights of students at the Belarusian universities.
Belarusian House (Poland) offers Belarusian unregistered or deprived of registration NGOs to register in Poland. Local festivals boom in Belarus.
Tax Freedom Day in Belarus. On 6 June for the first time in Belarus Liberal Club presentes a research Belarus Tax Freedom Day 2014 Report. The study shows how many days a year the Belarusian society and every individual citizen work for the state, and when they begin to work for themselves. The study is performed according to the internationally recognised methodology that in an easy and clear way answer the most important questions about taxes and the tax system.
Citizens to organise local fests in Minsk. After the local festival At Grusheuka held on 1 May the activity of citizens hasn't been over: now Grusheuka every Sunday held a meeting of local residents. Moreover, the idea to hold such festivals are picked up by residents of the other three Minsk districts – Uruchcha, Malinouka and Slepianka. Now organisers of the Grusheuka fest are developing the web site grad.by, which is to collect contact data of active people – those who are willing to change Minsk for the better.
Online monitoring of violations of the rights of students in universities. Youth human rights group Student Council launches online monitoring, where each student who confronted the violation of students' rights can post information about it and mark the violation on the map. Monitoring results with the analysis of violations will be periodically posted on the organisation's website. To assist in gathering information, students need to fill an online application-form in the Internet.
Time to clean up! action. A large multimedia actions is to be held in Gomel dedicated to World Environment Day. The organisers are Gomel Democratic Forum and community sdelaem2012gomel. Anyone is invited to join the action on 7 June and removes garbage in any territory where it is needed. Also a participant is suggested to text sms with data about his/her location and the code word #chisto. A clear place is to appear on the map chisto.gdf.su – this should provide a picture how many people are involved in the action.
Monologue of Master Project is producing and posting at its website a collection of short documentaries that aspire to sketch out artistic and psychological portraits of some of the unique figures in traditional crafts, who live and work in Belarus today. Thus, the project aims to contribute to development of tourist trade in the country. The project is promoted and implemented as part of Budzma culture campaign.
Gender Component in a Project Proposal workshop. On 26 June a program Belarus-EU by the Office for a Democratic Belarus invites to take part in the workshop titled as Gender Component in a Project Proposal with a leading specialist, chairwoman of the Gender Perspectives NGO, Irina Alkhovka. During the event the representatives of NGOs and government agencies implementing or planning to implement international projects, will be able to verify whether a gender component is considered in their project applications.
Accessibility Week Goes On. Initiated by the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities, the Accessibility Week 2014 provides a space for a bunch of thematic events like a public discussion on universal design or a presentation of the city accessibility map in Zhytkavichy, Gomel oblast. Music Festival The Beatles invited all guests to try physical barriers faced by every person with a disability – everyone could use a wheelchair or wear masks and headphones to feel the related problems.
From the Life of Belarusian Civil Society
Registration of Belarusian NGOs in Poland. Belarusian House (Poland) offers Belarusian unregistered or deprived of registration NGOs to register in Poland. Belarusian House staff assists with registration documents and provides individual consultations on the activities of public associations and taxation in Poland. Organisers also compensate the costs of registration and both-way travel from Belarus to Poland. According to the belngo.info newsletter
Statement on signing of Belarus the treaty establishing the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC). The Belarusian National Platform of the EaP Civil Society Forum issued a statement where expressed a disagreement with signing by Alexander Lukashenka the EAEC Treaty – "The signing of the treaty causes significant harm to the national interests of the Republic of Belarus, as well as deprives our country some opportunities of geopolitical and civilisational choice, including more intensive and long-term oriented cooperation with the EU and using the potential of the Eastern Partnership".
Regular conference of the Belarusian National Platform (BNP) will take place on 21 June in Minsk. The conference is called "Belarus in conditions of regional crisis and stagnation of the Eastern Partnership" and aims to report of the Coordinating Committee for 2013-2014, discuss goals and future steps for the development of the BNP in today's difficult situation, etc. The conference can be attended by the BNP members, as well as other organisations (without the right for participation).
Week of educational events "Justice and People" to be held in Minsk. On 2-6 June the public campaign Non Mortal Penalty. Because We are People invited to the summer days of old movies in Belarusian, public lectures and round tables with experts. The Week aims to provide tools and neutral space where people can get complete information on the death penalty and non mortal, crime, justice, and decide what his/her true position on this issue.
IV Summer School of Flying University. In July, the Flying University holds summer school titled Shifts and Transformation of our Time: Challenges and Circumstances for the University and Society. This year Summer School is dedicated to understanding the social, cultural and humanitarian changes that occur in the world today. Deadline for applications is 10 June.
Academy of the First kicks off. In late May, the first session of the long term educational program Academy of the First gathered about 15 representatives of different CSOs – animal protection, cultural platforms, human rights defenders. The agenda includes educational sessions and implementation mini-projects to benefit a particular community or group. Youth Council RADA implements the course for the 14th time already.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.