What is VFS?

During the month of June 2014, the legislature amended South Africa’s existing immigration laws. One of the changes that took place was the implementation of eleven Visa Facilitation Service Centres (VFS), although as it would seem to many of us, this happened practically overnight and without transitional provisions in place.

Upon careful scrutiny of the Immigration Act 13 of 2002 as amended and its corresponding Immigration Regulations of 2014, it is clear that there is no foundation in law for such a centre to exist.

Nonetheless, VFS, a foreign and private company, won the tender placed by the Department of Home Affairs to implement these services. With eleven operational VFS centres to date, which take in between roughly 100 to 150 applications per day, per facility, at a minimum charge of R1 350. This is a multi-million rand business that seems to have appeared with limited insight from interested parties.

A smoother adjudication process?

Upon entering VFS or looking at their website, one has a brief period of relief and a sense of calm when applying for a visa. The offices are run based off of pre-booked appointments, and the website gives a list of requirements for each visa that is being applied for. There is even a call centre to answer queries prior to and after an application is accepted.

Regardless of the application being applied for, there is a charge of R1 350 on top of fees already charged by home affairs (which can range from zero up to R1 520). The R1 350 goes directly to VFS in order for them to take in an application and send to the Department in Pretoria, whereby it will be adjudicated.

The staff is friendly, helpful and makes the process seem very smooth and easy. With the initial statement that the turn-around time of an application being four weeks, foreigners delighted in the much more simple process of applying for visas.

However, soon after opening, the problems around VFS have become clear. Appointment dates soon became difficult to obtain, meaning that if a person observed the appointment time given to them, it is quite possible their current visa or appeal would not adhere to the required timeline in terms of the Act. Unless of course, a customer would like to pay an additional R500 on top of the R1 350 to use the “VIP Lounge”.

Troubles are furthered by the fact that despite VFS being an extension of the Department, as one can no longer submit their applications at Home Affairs, VFS closed their offices from the 22nd of December 2014 to the 4th of January 2015 for the submission of new applications. This lead to long lines curling around the ABSA building the third week of December, with waiting times of up to six hours, since appointments can now be circumvented in the case of appeals and rectifications.

In response to the holiday closure, the Department issued a notice stating that: “The closing of the Visa Facilitation Centres during this period will not be a reason for any person for having failed to submit their application within 60 days.”

Advice given by VFS

Through the VFS website and call centre, foreigners often call for advises on what documents need to be submitted in order for a successful outcome of their application. However, in terms of the law and a notice issued by the Department of Home Affairs, VFS is not meant to give advises, but merely to take in the application and make sure it is received by the Department in Pretoria.

VFS officials are not trained on the requirements for visa applications, but merely follow a “tick list” issued by the Department, which is also flawed in many aspects. For example the legal requirements for a critical skills visa in terms of section 19(4) of the Act do not line up with the “tick list” that the Department and VFS issue. This can lead to applicants producing the wrong documentation for the type of visa for which they are applying.

Craig Smith & Associates is the leading immigration law firm in South Africa on the subject of temporary and permanent residency applications and can assist applicants with their applications to make sure that all the correct and necessary documentation is provided to the Department for adjudication.

What about national security?

As the Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba stated in an interview regarding the implementation of VFS, the Department still exercises “full control over the decision-making processes to ensure that our national interests and security imperatives are served at all times.”

Although all applications are adjudicated by the Department, it is noteworthy that VFS is a private company that takes in personal details of applicants, from birth certificates to financials and even fingerprints. For a government, and in particular a Minister, that is concerned with national security, it seems dubious that such valuable information would be left to a private company.

There has yet to be a statement about what actually is happening with the biometrics taken at the eleven VFS centres. It surely isn’t for efficiency, as those that have been to VFS more than once in the recent months have noted that they must give their biometrics each time. As South Africa continues to tighten national security, one has to wonder what protection is in place to protect such personal information of applicants.

Final thoughts

VFS centres give applicants a false sense of security upon entrance. With helpful staff and apparently efficient service, applicants are lulled into a false sense of security with regards to their application.

At the end of the day, VFS does not cure the root of the problem with immigration matters, which is the Department of Home Affairs itself. The Department is an overworked and overburdened branch of government, which needs to employ more staff and provide additional training in the change of laws.

Article by June Luna

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