Overseas students and workers targeted in illicit UK visa trade
Brokers in south Asia charging up to £800 for appointments that should be free
UK visa appointments are being booked up by brokers and sold on for hundreds of pounds in an illicit trade targeting overseas workers and students.
An Observer investigation has found brokers in some parts of south Asia charging up to £800 for the biometric appointments, which are widely advertised on Facebook and the Telegram messaging service.
“Are you excited about your journey to the UK? Don’t let the hassle of visa appointments hold you back,” said one post advertising flexible slots in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Others offer to help people beat backlogs in the official system, promising next-day appointments at “reasonable prices” with no upfront payment.
The underground market is thriving as agents exploit pressure on some consular services overseas, driven in part by increased visa applications from international students and healthcare workers.
Anyone planning to stay in the UK for more than six months – and short-term visitors from certain countries – must attend an in-person appointment in their home country to provide fingerprints and a photograph.
But while direct booking of biometric appointments is typically free or between £30 and £85 for priority services, some people in south Asia are facing difficulties securing slots via VFS Global, the outsourcing company contracted by the Home Office to handle UK visa applications in the region.
The methods used by local agents vary. Some use automated bots to detect newly released slots before booking them on clients’ behalf, while others manually monitor VFS Global’s booking portal.
Agents are also requesting appointments they do not need, before cancelling them and rebooking the slots on behalf of paying clients, according to the Home Office, which said it was trying to tackle the “fraudulent behaviour”.
The problems are understood to be worst in Pakistan, where abuse of the appointment system by agents is said to have increased significantly over the last year. People applying for UK visas from the country said they were left with no choice but to pay the brokers after struggling to secure appointments through official channels.
One Afghan national who applied for a student visa from Pakistan said he repeatedly checked the booking portal for a slot in September, but each time he looked, none were available. Brokers, meanwhile, offered slots in between one and three days for 250,000 Pakistani rupees (PKR) – about £735.
“If you want to get into the VFS office, you have to pay someone,” he said. “None of my friends have been able to book normal appointments. If they were able to arrange normal appointments directly, nobody would be giving these people so much money.”
Another applicant, a student from Kāmoke, in the Gujranwala district of north-east Pakistan, was quoted 190,000 PKR (about £560) by a broker for an urgent appointment in Islamabad. After driving six hours to VFS Global’s centre, she found the appointment did not exist. She later paid 40,000 PKR (about £120) to another agent, who secured a slot for her eight days later. The delays meant she missed her flight to the UK and had to defer her university start date.
She said almost every education consultant in her home country was a “middleman of appointment-selling”, adding: “If you stand in front of any VFS centre [in Pakistan], so many people will come up to you asking: ‘You need appointment?’”
Inam Raziq, an immigration adviser with Birmingham-based Fast Track Global Consultants, said it was “shocking” that people were having to pay “dodgy agents” due to issues booking appointments online. He said students were often particularly “desperate” due to imminent course enrolment deadlines. “On the official website, there are no appointments available. But the agents say, ‘If you give us the money I’ll give you one,” he said.
Rakesh Ranjan, south Asia coordinator for the migrant workers’ programme at the UK-based Institute for Human Rights and Business, said appointment brokering was big business across south Asia, with agents selling VFS Global appointments for people travelling to the US, Canada and EU countries, as well as the UK.
When applying for a visa from New Delhi recently, Ranjan was quoted the equivalent of £500 by an agent – excluding government fees – who offered to help him arrange his documents and book an appointment.
He said workers often did not know they were paying out unnecessarily, with some relying on agents because they did not have easy access to the internet. “It is a massive issue. It all adds to the debt people pay to come to the UK,” he said.
VFS Global, which provides consular services for 70 governments, including the UK, said it was trying to crack down on middlemen who were charging a premium or scamming applicants by selling slots that did not exist. Measures include monitoring the use of bots, removing the ability to cancel or reschedule appointments and cancelling bookings from fake customers.
It said free appointments were released randomly on a first come, first served basis and that most locations in south Asia had no issues with availability. The exception was Pakistan, where it said agents had “significantly ramped up their claims and activities this year”, in response to high demand from people to study and live in the UK.
“We take all attempts to misuse the visa application appointment system exceptionally seriously. We have not experienced this type or scale of abuse in any other UKVI [UK visas and immigration] locations and have been working closely with the UK Home Office to combat this abuse,” a VFS Global spokesperson said. They added that customers were “strongly encouraged” to avoid unauthorised agents and only book appointments through the company’s website.
Critics have called on the company and the Home Office to simplify the booking process – for example, by assigning appointments directly to applicants or releasing them at certain times each day, rather than randomly.
An agent who sells UK visa appointments in India and Pakistan said some agents were “greedy” but others were offering a genuine service that was only needed because it was so hard to book slots via the official website. Appointments appear randomly and are often “online for only one minute, and then they disappear”, he said.
In 2021, an inspection of UK visa services by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration highlighted availability issues at application centres overseas. One applicant described finding a free appointment on VFS Global’s system as a lottery” and said that they had to check the website at various times during the night.
VFS Global said releasing slots at set times would heighten abuse from fraudsters and that the issues identified in the inspection report were due to delays caused by Covid-19.
The Home Office said it was taking robust action to tackle “abuse of the visa appointment booking process” by “unauthorised agents” in south Asia. “We are continuing to work with the provider to introduce measures to stop this fraudulent behaviour and ensure appointments are made available to genuine individuals,” a spokesperson said.
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