By: Murray Hunter

Concerns expressed in 2013 over a no-bid award of an A$50 million annual contract to handle Australia’s tourism process appear to have been justified, with complaints that the visa process is now secretive, unfair, deceitful, unaccountable and dishonest.

The questions over the contract are part of bigger concerns over the integrity of the Department of Home Affairs itself and its secretary, Mike Pelluzzo. Those questions include a secretive deal between the department and Crown Casino, a unit of Crown Resorts Ltd, one of Australia’s largest gaming and entertainment groups. Recent revelations have involved allegations of illegal practices including fast-tracking short-term visitor visas for high-rolling Chinese gamblers. Reportedly the package included access to sex workers, who may have been trafficked into the country and are working against their will. 

VFS Global

As Asia Sentinel reported on August 1, 2013, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship appointed the London-based VFS Global, a wholly-owned unit of the Kuoni Group, a publicly-listed company headquartered in ZurichSwitzerland, a contract as the sole processing partner of visa applications for entry into Australia without a public announcement normally accompanying a major policy decision.

Today, according to reports in Australia, even with relatively new partly-privatized procedures in visitor visa applications, a massive backlog is being dealt with by simply refusing to grant visas, causing massive morale problems in processing staff.  The problems threaten Australia’s burgeoning A$50 billion annual tourism industry, with almost 10 million international visitors last year and growing around 9 percent per annum.  The industry supports 100,000 Australian jobs.

Visitor (Tourist) Visas

The system is said to be rejecting many bona fide tourists and visitors on statutory grounds that the travellers are suspected of not complying with the terms of the visa or intending to remain in Australia illegally. The practice of seeking additional information from applicants appears to have ceased, leaving no right of appeal or even a right to query any decision. Correspondence just remains unanswered.  The due diligence process on processing applicants has been substantially lowered even though applicants are paying for the service.

The complexity of the application process encourages applicants to use agents, some of whom guarantee 100 percent success. A few such agents claim they have connections, but this is hearsay.

This isn’t the first time that corruption has been associated with visa processing. There have been numerous cases of visas sold by Home Affairs officials for both money and sexual favors. Home Affairs are planning to solve these alleged corrupt practices by moving all visa decisions to India, out of reach of the agents.

A former staff processing officer in an Asian capital told Asia Sentinel the agency works on a quota system, rejecting a certain percentage of applications. A current officer in another Asian capital said that after a certain number of applications are processed each day, the remainder are rejected as a method of reducing the backlog.

The VFS Monopoly

The lack of transparency in the contract process, selecting a single company to handle applications,  is dubious at best. While on the surface the contract award appears to be an exercise in outsourcing with the objective of streamlining the process, 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 principles in the interests of fair and open competition.

The agreement between Home Affairs 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 government and its agencies from scrutiny, allowing Home Affairs to appoint agents a monopoly.  Under the VFS arrangements, Australian Immigration applies discrimination against applications lodged directly to them, by a factor of three.

For example, a tourist visa through the Australian Immigration office in a consular office is advertised to take 30 working days to process, while VFS Global advertises 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.

Very little, if any benefit appears out of this agreement. There seem to be few labor savings for the 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 percent.

The structure of the visa industry has dramatically changed, giving one firm an unfair advantage and shut out the others. The lack of general transparency has privately angered many immigration advisors and agents, especially with the way the agreement was created.

Who is VFS?

Visitors believe that the “Australian Visa Application Center” is, as its name suggests Australian. It is not. VFS is supposedly just a collecting agency and applicants are told to trust that they will not copy or forward on collected data including biometrics. In the light of past security scandals involving VFS this trust is misplaced given issues including cases of confidential client data negligence, security compromises and data leakage associated with this contractor.

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 the problem in 2005, no action by either VFS of UK Visas. The VFS website was only shut down after the UK media became aware of the lapse of security. VFS and UK Visas were found to be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, where the British Foreign Office was required to review its relationship with VFS Global.

VFS was recently exposed for fraudulently selling tickets that entitle passengers to use premium immigration lanes at Bangkok’s two international airports earlier this year.

The biggest danger however is that information supplied for the sole purpose of requesting a visa could be disseminated and used beyond the purpose it was provided. VFS Global’s track record, and the connections of the parent company’s directors with organizations like with Booz, Allan & Hamilton, give great reason for concern.

Crown Casino and Corruption in Home Affairs

Other recent revelations have highlighted a special deal between Home Affairs and Crown Casino, in which numerous allegations of illegal practices have been made against the organization to facilitate fast track short-term visitor visas for the Chinese gamblers. Questions are now being asked as to whether the deal has compromised border security, allowing money launderers, drug and people traffickers, Chinese triad bosses, Chinese intelligence agents, and other criminals into the country.

Home Affairs and Crown Casino are under investigation by the little known independent agency Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity.

Towards Big Brother or Big Corruption?

Home Affairs is tainted with a potential compromise in integrity. A brother of Secretary Mike Pezzullo was a former Customers officer convicted for perjury and being a member of a corrupt ring of officers at Sydney Airport. Some are arguing that this is a conflict of interest. In addition, critics say Pezzullo has been a hawk for the surveillance state and would cover up anything embarrassing for the state, including the intimidation of a senator.

It’s not just the integrity of Mike Pezzullo that is at stake but the whole government.  The Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton is alleged to have compromised the integrity of the government by helping friends of his powerful friends get visas, while ignoring pleas by an Australian veteran for help in a visa for a refugee who was an interpreter for Australian forces in Afghanistan.

The experiment to make Home Affairs a super-department and the vanguard of the national security community thus has to be put in question.  The Australian Federal Police Union is fearful that integration of the AFP into Home affairs will compromise the force’s independence and integrity.  Former Attorney-General George Brandis before departing to a diplomatic posting in London warned that Mike Pezzullo’s push to the Department of Home Affairs into every aspect of Australian life is a great cause for concern.