Sri Lankan Visa Woes: Undermining National Interests

Show us any country where VFS has a desk in the airport alongside immigration and emigration officers.

by Sakunthala Perera

It’s disheartening to witness the unchecked dissemination of information by much of the Sri Lankan media, uncritically parroting the response of a private company vested with the exclusive authority to issue visas for visitors to Sri Lanka. This situation bears eerie resemblance to the past, where the LTTE once claimed sole representation of Tamil people, exploiting their rights to further its fascist agenda. From a marketing perspective, if the Sri Lankan government were truly desperate to outsource this function, they could have initiated it as a pilot project without undermining the crucial role of the Immigration and Emigration Department. This government entity should not be reduced to a mere rubber-stamping machine, as it has its own vital responsibilities.

File Photo

In the convoluted discourse surrounding the visa controversy involving VFS, two glaring points emerge. Firstly, their press release, disseminated through a relatively obscure local Public Relations Agency, shamelessly asserts, “The solution is offered through a user-pay model, at no cost to the government. All investments related to technology, infrastructure, and staff are borne by the company.” This amounts to little more than a thinly veiled attempt to reassure the populace: ‘Rest assured, citizens, we’re not fleecing you; we’re profiting off those who wish to enter your country. After all, that money isn’t yours anyway.’

Secondly, they boldly declare, “The total service fee approved by the Cabinet is US$ 18.50 across all visa categories. Payment processing charges and applicable local taxes are in addition to the service fee.” This transparently reveals their ulterior motives and voracious appetite for profit at the expense of those visiting Sri Lanka. How can a foreign entity, which provides a mere 100 employment opportunities for Sri Lankans (of which only 60 are currently employed), claim to benefit the national economy? If the income generated from visas were correctly utilized, it could provide many more employment opportunities for locals.

Furthermore, their statement arrogantly asserts, “The government benefits from increased efficiencies and transparency in managing the complete process and improved resource utilization.” Yet, conspicuously absent from their rhetoric are any meaningful discussions addressing the controversies surrounding their operations, opting instead for a feeble attempt to aggrandize themselves and their purportedly stellar services.

Moreover, their claim that “VFS Global has experience offering its digital E-Visa platform to 12 governments including Thailand, Dubai, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, Suriname, amongst others” is not a testament to their current activities but merely to their past endeavors. In reality, no sovereign nation would permit a foreign entity to encroach upon the domain of government agencies in the issuance of visas. This is a fundamental infringement upon the constitutional rights of government officers, an affront that should not be countenanced by any responsible party. Show us any country where VFS has a desk in the airport alongside immigration and emigration officers. We’ve learned that similar projects were submitted to the aforementioned countries, but they were vehemently rejected.

Meanwhile, Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group aptly critiques the new visa procedure, stating, “Just checked the new Sri Lanka online visa system, run by VFS: having applied for many visas – tourist, business & residence – in the past 24 years, I can report this is the most cumbersome – more documents, more time – & almost the most expensive scheme ever.”

Our contention does not lie in the mere existence of a private company to fill the void left by incompetent government entities. Rather, it stems from the myriad issues and lack of transparency surrounding this deal, compounded by the reckless justifications provided by the company and its allies. They evade accountability for any concerns regarding the integrity of the country, viewing this solely as a business transaction devoid of any national interest.

The crux of the matter is that entities like VFS may find relevance in Western countries where stringent immigration policies necessitate robust scrutiny of applicants’ documents. They may discourage influxes of people from other developing countries. To perform such work, an entity comprising members of the local community of each country would likely do the job better than officers in foreign missions. This would alleviate the burden on them. However, in the context of a country like Sri Lanka, with a fragile economy striving for stability and in dire need of revenue, the entry of such a private entity represents nothing short of opportunistic exploitation. They jeopardize Sri Lanka’s burgeoning tourism industry and exacerbate the economic vulnerabilities of its citizens. Therefore, although it may not be hyperbolic to think so, this could be a long-term plot to cripple Sri Lanka’s promising tourism industry.