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Friday July 12th, 2024

Sri Lanka Minister defends VFS, new visas; accuses corrupt officials over controversy

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s Public Security Minister Tiran Alles who is also in charge of visa issuance under the Department of Immigration and Emigration defended the newly appointed visa facilitating agency VFS-led consortium, new visa system, and accused sabotage attempts by a few handful immigration officials for a recent controversy that has gone viral in social media.

Sri Lanka opted for outsourcing scheme for visas which included a steep increase in fees from last month.

The new visa facilitation system, which replaced a previous quick electronic travel authorization (ETA) process, ran into a fresh controversy over visa denials last week after a viral video showed an irate Sri Lanka citizen berating the private visa provider at the airport after his foreign companion was denied an entry visa.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government is facing strong criticism for outsourcing its visa application process to a consortium led by VFS Global as the move could see the private company earning nearly $50 million a year if tourist arrival projections stand as they are.

Sri Lanka’s visa fees went up steeply after the new company started charging an 18.50 dollar service charge for each visa and the government’s failure to continue the single entry $50 visa for 30 days, the cheapest tourist visa.

Alles admitted that the government’s error in removing the cheapest tourist visa, but defended the way VFS was chosen by the cabinet as well as the the new visa system through parliament.

PARLIAMENT, CABINET APPROVED

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa has criticized the new VFS and said Sri Lanka will spend 13.5 billion rupees annually to process visas through VFS and cited it was “absolute corruption”.

However, Alles said the visa revision was tabled in the parliament.

“The visa revision was unanimously approved by the parliament in 2023. This was approved by unanimously by opposition leaders and all the opposition members,” the Minister told reporters at a media briefing in Colombo on Monday (06).

“We can’t do anything with our ETA platform. We had to wait until April 17 to implement what we approved in November last year. We were not able to upload even a picture via ETA. The online visa was processed sometimes only through texts of names and passport numbers.”

“In terms of cost, we had been paying 1.5-2 million rupees for two companies locally to run the operation. Immigration was spending on that. The new (VFS) platform does not cost even 5 cent,” he said.

He said the new visa system had a lot of new categories including 1-year, 5-year, 10-year, and nomad visas which were not possible under ETA.

The proposal to upgrade ETA was approved by the cabinet four years ago and two local firms were given opportunities to do that, Alles said.

“They tried to do, but they failed.”

UNSOLICITED PROPOSAL

Alles also admitted that the VFS was selected without any bidding process given there was no competitor for the private firm in visa facilitation service.

“They sent us a proposal. They are working with 67 governments in 157 countries through 3,300 centers. There is nobody to compete with them in that service in the world. They almost have a monopoly in that service,” he said.

“VFS proposal was there when we were trying to implement the new visa category. Then I asked the secretary and officials to go through and then submitted a cabinet paper on September 8 last year along with our observation.”

“We requested them to assess through appointing a committee. The cabinet decided to appoint a committee on September 11. That committee took three months to assess the VFS. This committee gave the report in December. We then submitted another cabinet paper on December 4 and we got the approval on December 11. We signed the agreement on December 21.”

He said the Attorney General (AG) also included some conditions to the agreement before it went to the cabinet for the second time.

“Even the President noted that general data protection certificate is mandatory and to abide by all the conditions by the AG. It was passed in the cabinet with all these,” Alles said.

He said the VFS cannot issue or reject visa as claimed in the viral video.

“Once VFS receives all the data, the Immigration issues the visa at the backend. VFS can’t issue visa. It can only check the documentation and upload them,” the Minister said.

Wickremesinghe government has seen mounting criticism over lack of transparency in the procurement process of VFS and compromising the previous decision to grant authority to Mobitel for upgrading the visa processing system.

The State-owned Mobitel’s proposed technical fee for each visa was $1 dollar.

There has been also criticism over the new system charging around $25 even from the nationals of countries granted visa fee waivers by Sri Lanka for VFS processing fees.

NO INDIAN INVOLVEMENT

In the video that went viral on social media with the background of long queues at the airport, a Sri Lankan individual was seen shouting at an Indian visa issuing officer, alleging that his wife’s on-arrival visa was rejected.

He questioned how an Indian person could decide his or his wife’s visa status and asserted his rights as a Sri Lankan citizen in the video.

The video which forced the Minister to come up with the explanation on what happened also included the Sri Lankan person insisting on his right to raise his voice in this matter and showed disgust as to why the Sri Lankan Government had to sell the visa issuing system to an Indian company when there were several Sri Lankan companies who could handle that.

He blamed the Sri Lankan Government for permitting Indian companies to operate in Sri Lanka, ignoring the local work force.

“The Indian involvement comes after that video from the airport,” Alles said adding that he had found what exactly happened.

“On that day, all the officers at VFS were Sri Lankans. The Indian is one of the vice president at the (VFS) company and a head of Dubai office. He has come to see the operation because it is only starting on that day. He was the one who stayed there,” the Minister said.

“The person who shouted had gone to immigration counter. His wife had not had a visa. The immigration officer had directed him to get the visa from the VFS. He had gone there and directly spoke to Indian Vice President and said he wanted to get the visa for his wife. He (Indian VFS official) had told him to stay in the queue and get it done.”

“He had started to shout from the time he was asked to be in the queue. He would have expected to get his wife’s visa on a priority basis despite the queues.”

The Minister said the Sri Lankan who shouted at the airport will be investigated for his unruly behaviour.

A PLANNED SABOTAGE?

Alles said there was a motive behind the viral video and he said “a few handful corrupt Immigration officials” were behind the sabotage.

“It was the first day. The VFS was not given proper Wifi connection. VFS had started to work with dongle,” Alles said.

“On the same day, the Ministry secretary had called a meeting and decided to run both VFS and our (Immigration) systems parallel. It also did not happen. When VFS came, our system had been switched off. This is the reason why the problem arose. Immigration has switched off its system.”

He said he has got the names of the officials who were hind the sabotage.

“I will take the action. The filming was done by some immigration official. I have found all these. I will never allow these kinds of sabotage.”

He said the new move could help to reduce corruption that has been reported by foreigners including a $200 bribe recently to provide visa to a foreigner.

“It’s not right for me to talk about my own officials like that. But you must understand some of the officers have done the video. So don’t say immigration is corrupt. Immigration is not corrupt. But there are a few corrupt people in the immigration. And you know in any institution any where it happens. So we will take appropriate action against them.” (Colombo/May 6/2024)

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Sri Lanka appoints new Attorney General

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed K A Parinda Ranasinghe PC as Attorney General.

He was appointed in terms of Article 61E (b) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the president’s media division said.

The new AG received the appointment from President Wickremesinghe at the Presidential Secretariat on Friday.

He fills the post after the retirement of former Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam. (Colombo/Jul12/2024)

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Sri Lanka rupee closes stronger at 301.70/302.00 to US dollar

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s rupee closed stronger at 301.70/302.00 to the US dollar on Friday, from 302.80/303.00 to the US dollar on Thursday, dealers said, while bond yields were up.

A bond maturing on 15.12.2026 closed at 10.90/11.00 percent, up from 10.85/95 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.12.2027 closed at 11.75/80 percent, up from 11.80/88 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.05.2028 closed at 11.90/12.00 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.09.2029 closed at 12.10/30 percent, up from 12.15/25 percent. (Colombo/Jul12/2024)

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Sri Lanka stocks close up, muted activity

ECONOMYNEXT – The Colombo Stock Exchange closed up on Friday, data on its site showed.

The broader All Share Index closed up 0.35 percent, or 41.71 points, at 11,843; while the more liquid S&P SL20 Index closed up 0.56 percent, or 19.20 points, at 3,454.

Turnover was low at 653 million.

“The market picked up a bit from yesterday but it’s still below the psychological 12,000 mark,” Softlogic Stockbrokers said.

“Local retail participation drove the market predominantly.”

John Keells Holdings Plc brought in Rs109mn to the turnover, and the share closed flat at 194.50.

Melstacorp Plc contributed in Rs104mn to the turnover, and the share closed flat at 85.00.

Sentiment around the banking counters was mostly negative. Sampath Bank Plc closed down at 77.00, closed flat at 101.25, and Hatton National Bank Plc closed flat at 195.25.

The top contributors to the ASPI were Commercial Bank of Ceylon Plc (up at 103.50), Bukit Darah Plc (up at 397.00), and Hayleys Plc (up at 101.00).

Foreign participation remained low as well. There was a higher net foreign outflow of 101 million.

“Foreign selling was seen on John Keells Holdings, and banking counters; Hatton National Bank Plc (down at 195.00), Pan Asia Banking Corporation Plc (down at 20.70), and Commercial Bank of Ceylon Plc.

There was selective foreing interest on the diversified financials sector, particularly in companies that had vehicle leasing portfolios. “We think this might be due to the news of the vehicle import ban possibly ending.”

LOLC Holdings Plc closed up at 440.50, People’s Leasing and Finance Plc closed up at 12.20.

Softlogic Holdings Plc which announced the date of its rights issue, closed up at 8.50. (Colombo/Jul12/2024)

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