Comments by Sanwar Ali:
There are numerous complaints about a bad service and excessive fees. It has been suggested that the situation has become even worse after Sopra Steria was appointed to provide visa services on behalf of UK Visas and Immigration. In the past biometrics could be submitted for a minimal fee at the Post Office. The UK visa fee system is already amongst the most expensive in the World. Charging high fees for biometric appointments, due to a shortage of appointments, makes it even more expensive and more unaffordable for migrants. There should be significant cuts in excessive fees that migrants currently have to pay.
The UK Government enquiry service to provide details on how to access online UK visa services can be really bad as well. You can end up paying £1.37 a minute if you are outside the UK to end up speaking to an operator for UK Visas and Immigration who is unable to help you. You could also end up paying £5.48 to make an email enquiry, perhaps to be given a standard answer and told that they cannot help you. For example, how do you apply for a Van der Elst visa for the UK?
UK visa centres, operated by private French firm Sopra Steria, are charging for biometric appointments due to the lack of availability of free appointments. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic there was a much greater availability of free appointments. A report published by The Independent, highlighted the story of a Japanese family who had to pay £440 as the only available biometric appointments were priced at £110 each.
Foreign nationals living in Britain legally are being left without proof of their UK immigration status because of the charges.
Following the reopening of UK visa centres in June, hundreds of refugees and legal migrants have been unable to access public services because they cannot afford the high fees charged for appointments needed to obtain legal documentation that proves their right to remain in Britain.
Meanwhile, others have been forced to pay thousands of pounds to secure an appointment because they fear that delaying the submission of their biometric data will put their application at risk of refusal.
Free of charge service for biometrics enrolment
In the past foreign nationals could submit their biometric information, such as fingerprints, at their local post office for a minimal fee. Currently, migrants can attend an appointment at one of six ‘core centres’ located across the UK to access free of charge services. However, travel costs in many cases mean that in practice there may be a significant cost in applying.
Alternatively, they can attend one of 51 other centres that charge fees, which typically start at £69.99.
UK visa application centre closures due to coronavirus COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of all UK visa application centres in March. In late May, Sopra Steria announced a phased reopening of visa centres, which would start on 1 June. However, the private firm said that centres would be operating fewer services.
With the centres closed, many immigrants and refugees have been left in limbo, unable to proceed with their applications – including refugees that must apply for UK indefinite leave to remain having been in the country for five years.
Since the reopening of UK visa centres, free appointments at the six core centres have been scarce, while paid for services are charging much higher fees. According to The Independent report, a Japanese family had to pay high fees for an appointment at the Croydon Centre.
The family had already paid several thousands of pounds in immigration fees and didn’t want to delay submitting their biometric data as their deadline was fast approaching because of the pandemic.
UK visa centres profiteering
UK visa centres have been accused of profiteering from people’s desperation to secure their UK immigration status.
In another case, a family of seven, who arrived in Britain in February 2020, were forced to travel from Liverpool to Birmingham in early July to attend a free appointment as it was the only one available. The family could not afford to pay the £770 fee for an appointment at a centre that was more local to them.
In this case, a charity paid for the family to travel by train and provided them with face masks for the journey.
Lecturer and in-house solicitor at the University of Liverpool Law Clinic, Judith Carter, who is representing the seven-strong family, claimed that it took her 10 days to secure a free appointment and she was on Sopra Steria’s online booking system until 1am to do so.
Carter said: “This family has had to wait an additional four months to submit their biometrics because of lockdown, and then they had the cost of travel to Birmingham, plus the cost to the local council supporting them and the charity supporting them.
It’s not just the cost, it’s also forcing a large family to wander about on public transport during a pandemic. It’s needless. Sopra Steria is prioritising the paid appointments over the free appointments. Profit is prioritised over people who the UK has an international obligation to support and welcome.”
Legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA), Sonia Lenegan, says that the ILPA had been alerting the Home Office to a lack of free appointments for weeks, but they did nothing about it.
She said: “It was entirely foreseeable that once the centres opened up again that there would be a backlog of people who needed these appointments, and availability was a problem even before the pandemic.”
Sopra Steria UK visa contractor acknowledges appointment shortages
Operator of UK visa centres, Sopra Steria, acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic has made access to appointments challenging. A spokesperson for the private firm said: “We recognise it has been a difficult time for people unable to access appointments because of the global pandemic.”
The spokesperson claimed that the private firm has made ‘significant progress’ in lowering the number of customers waiting for an appointment and, under instruction from the Home Office, is working to make new appointments available as quickly as possible while adhering to health guidelines amid coronavirus.
“During this time, we have continued to make more than half of our appointments at core sites available for free, between 9am-7pm Monday to Friday.
“As expected, there has been unprecedented demand for these free appointments and customers with urgent or exceptional cases can contact UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) using the Coronavirus Immigration Team helpline,” the spokesperson added.
Possible new process for biometrics
Sopra Steria is reportedly looking to introduce a new process that will reduce the number of people having to attend appointments in person and minimise waiting times. The new process would give the Home Office access to previous biometrics supplied by customers.
The Sopra Steria spokesperson said: “We look forward to providing more information on this very soon.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “We are committed to providing a world class service and visa applicants still have the option to book a free appointment at six core centres across the UK including London, Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester.”
According to the spokesperson, the Home Office will reopen other visa centres as soon as possible to offer more appointments, provided they can do so in line with public health guidance.
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