Priti Patel dodges questions over visa firm profiting from refugees
Home secretary had ignored warnings that TLSContact was pressuring visa applicants to pay extra
Pressure is mounting on Priti Patel after it emerged she had ignored warnings last year about the privatised visa firm whose treatment of Ukrainian refugees has come under fire.
openDemocracy yesterday revealed that TLSContact had been accused of having the “sole focus” of making a profit, and a history of squeezing cash out of applicants.
Now the home secretary has faced questions from the Home Affairs Committee over openDemocracy’s revelations.
TLSContact, which has a contract worth more than £100m to run visa centres across Europe, has been accused of turning Ukrainian refugees away and trying to sell them costly unnecessary extras.
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“Can the secretary of state tell me why this company is allowed to profit from the suffering and misery of Ukrainians by offering them [the option that] if they make additional payments, their cases will be expedited, they'll be given quicker appointments?” asked Labour MP Diana Johnson, who is the chair of the committee.
Patel denied that Ukrainians had been asked to pay, responding: “With regards to Ukrainian individuals, family nationals, Ukrainian nationals coming to the United Kingdom to be reunited with their families, this is a free service. There are no charges in place whatsoever.”
But openDemocracy has seen evidence that two people who applied for visa appointments on behalf of Ukrainian family or friends through TLSContact in the past week were offered paid services by the company.
“It’s absolutely bollocks what Priti Patel is saying,” said Helen Howard-Betts, who has been trying to secure an appointment at a visa centre in Bucharest for her Ukrainian friend, who is currently near Lviv.
She shared screenshots with openDemocracy appearing to show TLSContact selling a range of services to visa applicants including €80 to secure an appointment outside of business hours and €38 to help scan and upload documents.
In addition, the Home Office appeared to be offering its own paid services, which include €712.80 to expedite an application.
Another screenshot states that families will have to pay an “appointment fee” if all members would like to be seen at the same time.
Howard-Betts said she was unable to book any appointments through the website at all, and that when she tried to contact the Home Office for help was told she would be charged £2.74 to send the support team an email.
A British man who fled Kyiv with his family told openDemocracy that the experience of applying for a visa through TLSContact’s website for his Ukrainian wife and sister-in-law was like “trying to book a flight with a low-budget airline”.
“They're like: ‘Do you want to spend another 200 quid?’” Wes Gleeson, 43, told openDemocracy.
“I heard that a friend’s dad’s apartment building in Mariupol has been destroyed. Nobody has heard from him in several days. Why can’t they just make this process streamlined right away for people going through such terrifying heartbreak?” he added.
After days of mounting criticism over the government’s visa policy for Ukrainians, including from its own MPs, the home secretary finally announced some requirements would be relaxed in a statement in the House of Commons today.
From Tuesday, anyone with a Ukrainian passport and family in the UK will be able to apply for a visa online without having to seek an appointment at a visa centre.
However, those who do not have passports or are unable to apply online will still have to reach a visa centre outside of the country to apply.
Another promised route for Ukrainians who do not have family in the UK has not yet been established. Some Ukrainians who have fled the country and have no family in the UK have been forced to pay almost €400 to apply for a fast-track visitor visa to be able to join friends already in the UK.
Labour MP Johnson welcomed the changes, but told openDemocracy: “I remain very concerned that the Home Office’s private sub-contractor TLSC[ontact] will carry on promoting opportunistically the offer to those fleeing from Ukraine, and wishing to progress their case quickly, of enhanced services in return for the payment of a fee – apparently some £200.
“This practice is questionable at any time, but given the plight of Ukrainians fleeing for their lives from Putin’s murderous invasion, and already caught up in the complicated bureaucracy of a visa application scheme that is free, it is simply wrong that this company is seeking to profit from their vulnerability.”
The SNP’s home affairs chief Stuart McDonald said: “That these contractors are seeking to profit out of this crisis is reprehensible. The home secretary cannot ignore this dreadful behaviour and she must act to ensure refugees are not being charged by Home Office contractors to reach safety in the UK.”
Zoe Gardner, policy and advocacy manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: "Like all of us, people fleeing conflict deserve to be treated with respect and common decency. Instead we're seeing the government's cruel and confusing visa rules lead to limbo and high costs for people fleeing – and full pockets for mismanaged multinationals.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “There is a robust procurement process for appointing suppliers and we continually monitor their performance. Insight gained from a range of stakeholders, including the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, is being used to develop and improve future services.”
TLSContact’s parent firm Teleperformance did not respond to requests for comment.
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