Beating the queue blues

With the enlargement of the Schengen Area to include nine new countries in December, Embassy talks to the head of Consular Affairs at the Belgium Embassy Eric Jacquemin about a new approach to managing visa demand in the UK

It’s a familiar sight outside many of London’s consulates: a long queue of disconsolate visa applicants.

Not only does exposing hundreds of people to the elements for hours on end verge on the inhumane, but crowds outside a consulate also pose a security risk and it’s constant nuisance for their neighbours.

This is a common challenge for consuls all over the world, but Britain does pose a particular problem: it is not a member of the Schengen area and it is also home to many third country residents, mainly from the Commonwealth, many of whom require visas to enter the Schengen area.

Schengen enlargement
Visa queues could also become a headache for the nine countries joining the Schengen Area – Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

With swingeing budget cuts across most foreign ministries and space in large British cities at a premium, meeting this spiralling demand is only going to get more difficult.

So what can be done? Over the past few years, many European countries have resorted to an appointments system where applicants call the consulate (usually a premium rate number) to make an appointment to apply in person.

This strategy has solved the queue problem. With the increased concern about global terrorism, American consuls also talk of the benefits of ‘sizing up’ applicants in person.

The number of visas processed are up by 50%, from 8,000 last year to around 12,000 this year

Penalising applicants
But there is little doubt that the appointment system does unfairly penalise applicants. In peak season, the waiting lists for appointments can run into weeks – one mission had a waiting list of two months over the summer. Applicants endure a long, stressful wait and then have to travel considerable distances to the nearest consulate for their appointment, still unsure whether they will be granted a visa. This is not very good for the image of the mission and it discourages tourism to the country.

So one mission in London has come up with an alternative. The Belgian Consulate General is the first diplomatic mission in Britain to outsource their visa service operations to a private company.

Eric Jacquemin, who heads consular affairs at the Embassy, got the idea for outsourcing when he was posted to Beijing and saw firsthand how Britian’s visa service, UKvisas, managed their huge visa demand.

“But being the first to do this in the UK, we took a calculated risk,” smiles Jacquemin. “I can tell you I was sweating – we kept all our old visa booths just in case things went wrong!”

Outsourcing advantages
Visa outsourcing at the Belgian consulate started on 26 April this year and Jacquemin is delighted with the results. The number of visas processed are up by 50%, from 8,000 last year to around 12,000 this year; applicants can walk into the centre without prior appointment and 90% receive their visas within 48 hours, provided all requested documents are complete.

The outsourcing has been limited to file collection and data-input. Verification and decision-taking remains with the Embassy. As a consequence, the system has freed up the visa section from a huge administrative burden, allowing them to scrutinise those cases that do pose a potential risk to the country.

Work visas, student visas and other forms of national visas are subject to a more rigorous procedure and are processed entirely by the Embassy – and of course diplomats, NATO and EU personnel can have their visas processed at the Embassy as normal.

“We have improved both the quantity of applications and the quality of our services,” says Jacquemin. “And because demand has increased, we have seen none of the redundancies some people feared. Of course our tourist offices are very pleased too.”

Customer feedback suggests applicants are happy too. They do pay an additional fee of £22 – which goes to the private company, not the mission – but for most it is a price worth paying to get a visa quickly with the minimum fuss. Besides, many applicants already pay up to £20 giving their information on automated premium rate lines before obtaining an appointment.

Those who do not want to pay can still apply at the consulate, but must accept longer processing times, adds Jacquemin.

“I can tell you I was sweating – we kept all our old visa booths just in case things went wrong!”

Guarding against risks?
As with any system, there are risks, warns Jacquemin. To start with, word got around very quickly in Britain’s diaspora communities and the consulate was initially swamped with “visa shoppers” – applicants who pretend to be travelling to Belgium in order to get a visa quickly, but then use it to enter another Schengen country.

“So there was a steep learning curve, but we communicate constantly with our business partner and we put measures in place to diminish the shopping,” says Jacquemin.

Data protection is another serious concern, particularly after the recent scandal involving the loss of sensitive information at HMRC and the Department for Transport. Jacquemin says although one can never guarantee that there will be no leaks from the private company, or indeed from within the consulate, information is encrypted and secure firewalls are in place to guard against identity theft.

Another worry is disreputable companies issuing fraudulent visas, as happened in a recent visa scam, when thousands of British pilgrims wanting to attend the Hajj were issued fake Saudi visas.

Reputable business partners
The best defence against this is to employ a single, trusted partner, says Jacquemin. The Belgian consulate uses Visa Facilitation Services (VFS) which also works closely with the FCO and the Home Office and has global operations in more than 15 countries worldwide.

“For any business partner working with embassies, it is crucial to maintain trust,” insists Jacquemin. “If they let their standards slip, the diplomatic community around the world will find out and that will finish their business.”

For Jacquemin, outsourcing has proved a good solution for consulates where visa demand is high enough to make it attractive for private companies to invest in the staff and infrastructure needed at visa processing centres. Belgium now outsources its operations in India, Russia, Ukraine, China and is considering Turkey and Morocco.

So does outsourcing signal the end of endless queues or waiting lists? The jury is out, but all eyes will be on Eric Jacquemin and his operation.