Volcano visas fallout

Consuls have demanded an urgent review of Schengen visa procedures following the chaos caused by the volcanic ash cloud.

Embassy received complaints from missions whose nationals were stranded in Britain, unable to transit through Europe because they were refused Schengen visas

Rude officials
One head of mission told Embassy: “Our nationals had never intended to travel through Europe and one would have hoped the consulate in question would have been sympathetic. Instead our nationals were treated quite rudely by officials.”

Other Schengen consulates showed greater flexibility, opting to re-issue visas free of charge to travellers unable to travel due to flight bans. They also issued visas to people wanting to transit through their countries even though they did not have a UK residence permit and were not entitled to get a Schengen Visa.

“These measures were greatly appreciated,” said the consul.

Overload of applications
However, those consulates taking a more flexible approach found themselves overloaded with applications, leading to consuls calling for a common approach.

“All SchengenCountries should apply the rules in the same way. We should all share the burden,” said the consul.

The European Commission has ubsequently recommended that in similar circumstances, a derogation of the normal rules should be applied.

A common approach would also be helpful to visa-processing agencies, who were on the frontline during the crisis.

According to Christabel Silva of VFS, no blanket guidance was given. “As you can well appreciate a situation like this can easily be misused and hence each case needed to be handled in a bespoke manner.”

VFS responded to the surge in visa applications by assigning more agents at their call centre. Staff at the Visa Application Centres were instructed to handle queries with “patience and empathy” and enquiries were followed up with the respective missions.

Looking to the future, Silva said their centres and websites could be used more effectively to disseminate messages to stranded travellers. “We are discussing these ideas with our clients should we be faced with a similar situation,” she said.