Immigration New Zealand hires 100 as Beijing office shuts

Part of other office closures (Mumbai, Manila and Pretoria) given reduced volumes, with more “anchoring” of visa processing and “strengthening our risk and verification”.

INZ shed more than 300 jobs overseas as it shut branches in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, but recruitment had been on hold due to financial constraints.

It today announced its Beijing visa processing office would shut by the end of July, joining closures in Mumbai, Manila and Pretoria earlier this year.

Before Covid-19 struck, the Beijing office decided half of all New Zealand’s temporary visas.

One overseas visa processing office will remain – in Samoa – when the branch in China closes, although risk and verification staff will continue to work in other offshore locations.

“This is a continuation of INZ’s adaptation to the impact of Covid-19,” a spokesperson said.

“INZ is taking this opportunity to reduce costs, introduce advanced technology to improve efficiency, manage offshore risk more effectively and move visa processing activities onshore.”

Some of the newly recruited staff in New Zealand are understood to have been taken on to process residence applications.

The government asked for 50,000 to 60,000 new residents to be approved in the last 18 months under the residence programme (NZRP).

The NZRP is the framework for granting residence to skilled, family and humanitarian migrants. With one month left before the NZRP expires, it is 3500 away from the lowest end of that range.

In a statement, INZ said that from January 2020 to last month it had approved 46,562 people for residence.

“INZ continues to ensure that resourcing for the processing of skilled residence applications remains in line with the levels agreed to under the previous NZRP, as agreed with the previous Minister of Immigration,” INZ border and visa operations general manager Nicola Hogg said.

“Skilled residence applications are processed in INZ’s Manukau office. As at 21 May 2021, 85 immigration officers are responsible for processing skilled residence applications. Residence applications take time to process given how much there is at stake and the level of scrutiny required for each application.

“Recruitment throughout Immigration New Zealand’s onshore visa processing network is under way, with 100 vacancies recently being filled. This recruitment will allow INZ to increase its onshore visa processing capacity.”

The government is reviewing how it will draw up residence targets in future, alongside policy work on the skilled migrant category.

Among skilled migrant residence visas, the number of residents decided last month fell to 658, down from a high of 1925 in November. Rejection rates increased from 7 percent to 21 percent over the same period.

A quarter of applicants have been waiting two years for a decision.

For the past two months since March 2021, INZ has been working on applications made in August 2019.

Source: Immigration New Zealand hires 100 as Beijing office shuts

Ottawa says it only learned Chinese police ran visa centre this year

Appears to be lack of due diligence as should have been caught earlier:

Ottawa says it only learned in February that Canada’s visa-application centre in Beijing is managed by Chinese police, the same month The Globe and Mail reported the arrangement.

The federal government has trusted its visa centre in Beijing to a police-owned company since 2008, and has been required to conduct due-diligence screenings during renewals of the contract in subsequent years including 2018.

The government acknowledged its lack of awareness in documents tabled in the House of Commons this week in response to written questions from NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan.

“In February, 2021, Public Services and Procurement became aware that Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Company is ultimately owned by the Beijing Public Security Bureau,” the government said in an answer to Ms. Kwan that was signed by Steven MacKinnon, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Services and Procurement.

The Globe reported the ownership structure of the company managing the visa-application centre on Feb. 8.

Ottawa said in the documents that government officials have conducted three site visits to visa-application centres in China “since becoming aware of the subcontractor ownership,” according to another response to Ms. Kwan signed by Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.

Ms. Kwan said she’s surprised by the government’s admission. “That to me is absolutely shocking. … How on Earth did they not know about the ownership structure?”

She blamed both the Liberal government and previous Conservative government for failing to stop this arrangement and said she remains concerned about how Canada can safeguard visa applicants’ private and confidential information. “I fear for the applicants who use the Canadian government’s services there.”

Canada’s visa-application centre in Beijing is operated by Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Company, which is owned by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, The Globe discovered. And at least some of the people working inside the centre are members of the Chinese Communist Party, recruited from a school that trains the next generation of party elite.

Beijing Shuangxiong is a subcontractor for VFS Global, a company headquartered in Zurich and Dubai that holds a wide-reaching contract to provide visa-processing services around the world for the Canadian government. VFS offices collect personal and biometric information that is then forwarded to Canadian immigration officials for decisions on who will be granted visas.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has given no indication that it intends to end the Beijing arrangement.

Alexander Cohen, press secretary for Mr. Mendicino, said Wednesday that Immigration officials regularly audit and inspect visa-application centres for compliance, including through unannounced audits, and that video cameras are used for ongoing monitoring.

He said no privacy breaches have been reported at these centres by those operating them and that VFS Global has complied with all security requirements in its contract. “Since 2018, [the Immigration department] has conducted over 20 site visits to visa-application centres in China,” Mr. Cohen said.

The government had acknowledged earlier this year that it was unaware from the start of the contract that Chinese police ultimately owned the company that is the facilities manager of the Beijing visa-application centre. At the time, though, it did not reveal when precisely it learned of the matter.

Richard Fadden, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, who served as national security adviser to two prime ministers, has said that Ottawa should end the visa situation in Beijing.

“An instrument of the Chinese government has access to a facility in China with connections to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada,” he said. “I cannot think of a more promising entry point for China’s cyberspies.”

The 2018 contract was not the first time VFS and affiliated companies had won federal contracts to operate visa-application centres, including the ones in China. Earlier contracts were awarded under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. And during parliamentary hearings in February, MPs learned that Beijing Shuangxiong has actually provided facilities and staff for Canada’s visa-application centre in China’s capital since 2008.

VFS told the hearings it informed Ottawa in 2008 that it intended to use Beijing Shuangxiong as the local subcontractor, or as it calls the company, its local facility-management company.

However, two former Conservative immigration ministers Jason Kenney, now the Premier of Alberta, as well as Chris Alexander, have told The Globe that they were unaware the subcontractor for the visa-application centre in Beijing was a company owned by the Chinese police.

“There was a public tendering process, and as you know there can be no political interference in tendering. If this happened during my tenure and I had been made aware of it, obviously I would have stopped it,” Mr. Kenney told The Globe earlier this year.

Mr. Alexander, for his part, said: “I was never informed of this arrangement in Beijing: it should never have happened. No state body in any region should be controlling access to our immigration or any other programs.”

Jeremy McIntee, a spokesman for former Conservative immigration minister Diane Finley, who was in charge of the department in 2008, said she does not recall whether she was informed of the subcontractor’s ownership.

VFS has said it is obligated to use local partners under Chinese law. It has also said it conducts “deep identity, credit, criminal, residency, education and employment checks” on employees, uses encrypted systems to send application information to Canadian servers, and employs a raft of measures to secure information, including an obligation for employees to hand over mobile phones to managers inside the visa centre.

Beijing Shuangxiong also acts as a subcontracted facility manager for VFS in Beijing for other Western countries, including New Zealand, Britain and Ireland. Immigration New Zealand has said it knew “from the outset” that the Beijing police have ownership of Beijing Shuangxiong.

VFS spokesman Peter Brun has previously said the Chinese companies it works with “are managed by VFS Global and we ensure they operate entirely according to all VFS Global security processes and protocols, and according to the Canadian government’s visa-application process and data-protection requirements, which are audited regularly by the Canadian government.”


Canada’s visa application centre in Beijing run by Chinese police

Getting a fair amount of attention and concern. Comments by former Canadian Ambassador Guy Saint-Jacques of note:

Chinese police own a company that collects details of people applying for visas to Canada and numerous other countries, giving Beijing security services a direct stake in the processing of private information provided by people planning travel outside China.

Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Company, which operates the Canadian visa-application centre in the Chinese capital, is owned by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, a Globe and Mail investigation has found. And at least some of the people working inside the centre are members of the Communist Party, recruited from a school that trains the next generation of party elite.

Beijing Shuangxiong is a subcontractor for VFS Global, a company headquartered in Zurich and Dubai that holds a wide-reaching contract to provide visa-processing services around the globe for the Canadian government. VFS offices collect personal and biometric information that is then forwarded to Canadian immigration officials for decisions on who shall be granted visas.

In China, VFS relies on subcontractors to operate its 11 Canadian visa centre locations. The company, which provides visa services for 34 countries in China, says it has strict processes in place to safeguard personal data.

However, the police ownership of the Beijing centre raises questions about the extent to which it is possible for VFS to shield people’s private and confidential information from authorities in a country such as China, which maintains a sweeping and invasive surveillance apparatus, and restricts international travel for some officials and ethnic groups.

Chinese security services “obviously have a huge interest in mining visa data,” said Robert Potter, a cybersecurity consultant in Australia who has worked as an adviser to the Canadian government.

Knowledge of what happens inside a visa centre could have high-level intelligence value. “If you can see who is getting declined and who is getting approved, it gives you a better chance of getting your agent through,” Mr. Potter said.

It could also be used to bar people from leaving China. For some people, like the country’s Muslims, “even applying for a visa to get out of China is enough to get flagged as a terrorist,” he said. “If you’re a Uyghur and you’re applying for a visa to Canada on humanitarian grounds, giving that information to the security service is really dangerous.”

Ward Elcock, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said the fact that companies connected to China’s security forces or its government are playing a part in the Canada visa-application process “represents a lazy abdication of our standards to those of a police state.”

VFS Global said in a statement that neither individuals nor operators of the local companies with which it partners are able to gain access to visa-application data.

Other Western countries also use Beijing Shuangxiong, including Britain, Italy, Belgium, Ireland and New Zealand.

VFS Global handles visa services for Canada in at least 83 countries.

The Globe has previously reported that China Investment Corp., one of the biggest state-run financial institutions in the world, is a backer of an investment fund that is VFS’s majority owner. VFS says investors do not have a say in how the company operates.

In Ottawa, opposition parties have urged the federal government to reconsider its contract with VFS. NDP MPs have written to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Public Services Minister Anita Anand to express “serious concerns around the security of information handled by VFS Global.”

VFS, which operates in 144 countries, has said the investment fund “doesn’t have access to any data from VFS Global nor any of its other portfolio companies.”

But the company has developed much closer operational ties with Chinese state-backed companies inside China, The Globe has discovered.

The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission owns 30 per cent of the Canadian visa office in that city. China Travel Services, a large centrally owned company, owns the majority of the centre in Guangzhou. In Jinan, the 93.55-per-cent owner of the subcontracting company is Pei Zhongyi, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a key part of China’s ruling apparatus. People who answered the phone at those locations declined to answer questions.

But the Beijing centre stands out for its proximity to China’s security and political establishment.

Chinese corporate records show that Beijing Shuangxiong is wholly owned by Beijing Tongda Asset Management Group, which is a subsidiary of Beijing Sifu Enterprise Management Office. Corporate records list Beijing Sifu as an arm of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, the city’s police. A 2017 city of Beijing document describes Beijing Sifu as a work unit of the city’s police.

Asked if police or security services had access to visa-application information, a woman who answered the phone at the Canada Visa Centre in Beijing said she could only discuss visas. Beijing Shuangxiong did not respond to an e-mail request for comment. A receptionist at Beijing Sifu provided a fax number to the Beijing police, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Peter Brun, chief communications officer for VFS Global, said that like many foreign companies, VFS operates with locally owned “facility management companies” to provide visa-application services on the ground. “Individuals or local companies having a stake in the facility management companies you describe have no access to visa-application data. They cannot influence the visa-application process set by the Canadian government,” the VFS official said.

Mr. Brun said all application data are encrypted upon entry and then transferred “securely and directly to servers located in Canada only.” He said only Canadian government officials can gain access to this data.

He said no data are stored in China and the servers processing the applications are located in Canada. Mr. Brun said VFS conducts thorough “credit and criminal record checks on all employees before they are hired” and staff’s e-mail and telecommunications are monitored “for security risks.”

He said the Canadian government either installs or supervises the Immigration department data servers and biometric equipment at the visa-application centres.

Mr. Brun said it has 64 governments as clients around the world including the U.S., Britain and nearly all European Union countries.

Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, said it’s best to assume there is no privacy for visa applications made in China.

“You can bet the Chinese government is interested in knowing who is going to study where abroad, who is going as a tourist and who wants to leave and immigrate,” he said.

Canada’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration is defending the visa-application arrangements it has made in Beijing and throughout China.

“For any foreign company to operate in China, they must be partnered with a local Chinese company, and Canadian contractors are not exempted from this,” department spokesman Rémi Larivière said in a statement. “Canadian officials closely monitor the activities of visa-application centres (VACs) around the world to ensure that our stringent privacy standards are met.”

He said applications are handled “according to Canada’s privacy laws” and the service providers have pledged not to interfere with visa applications. “As set out in the contract, VACs are expressly forbidden from providing any visa-related advice to applicants or from making any type of determination on their application.”

Beijing Shuangxiong dates back to 1993, and describes itself as among the first agencies approved by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau to provide entry and exit services.

It also has close ties with China’s ruling party.

You Xiangdong, the company’s legal representative and general manager, serves as secretary of its Communist Party branch, and the company has cultivated close ties to Beijing Youth Politics College, a school that has for decades played a foundational role in training new generations of Communist Party leadership.

The college’s English study students have become coveted workers for Beijing Shuangxiong, which has brought many in to work in its visa centres. In a report on the partnership, the company said it valued the political reliability of students from the school.


Chinese state-owned fund among backers of company handling Canadian visa applications

Worrisome. Of note, however, according to their website TT Services lists Australia, New Zealand and the USA as clients, so the issue is broader than just Canada:

One of China’s largest state-owned investment funds is among the biggest backers of a company the Canadian government uses to collect and process personal information from visa applicants around the world.

The ownership structure has prompted some of Canada’s former foreign intelligence leaders to warn that Ottawa should think carefully about trusting sensitive information to a company partly owned by the Chinese state.

Documents filed with Britain’s corporate registry, Companies House, show Chengdong Investment Corp. as one of the most significant contributing partners to the parent company of TT Services, which runs visa application centres for the Canadian government in 24 countries. Its services include collecting fingerprints, photos, biographical information and other personal data.

Chengdong is a subsidiary of China Investment Corp., a Chinese state-run giant with more than US$1-trillion in assets.

TT Services is owned by VFS Global, which calls itself the “world’s largest visa outsourcing and technology services specialist.” Headquartered in Dubai, VFS operates in 144 countries.

Immigration consultants in Canada have raised concerns about the contract with VFS since 2008, when the company began processing visas in China, where police can access corporate offices. Chinese national law also requires any organization operating inside the country to co-operate with intelligence services.

Richard Kurland, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer, said the amount of personal information VFS handles is immense.

“Passing through their hands are the family trees of applicants,” Mr. Kurland said. “The VFS organization may have more personal information on applicants for immigrant services than entire countries do.”

VFS was founded in 2001 by Zubin Karkaria, an Indian entrepreneur who remains its chief executive officer. But today, its majority owner is EQT VII (No. 1) Limited Partnership, whose registered office is in Edinburgh. That company, British documents show, has numerous partners.

Two of the largest are Eight Finance Investment Co. Ltd., which belongs to the Hong Kong sovereign wealth fund, and Chengdong Investment Corp.

The records show that both Eight and Chengdong made €25,000 ($39,000) in capital contributions, considerably more than other investors, which include pension funds and banks – some of whom contributed as little as €20.

The small figures belie the importance of those investments. In limited partnerships, investments are often made as loans, the size of which can far outstrip the capital contributions. Larger contributions usually entitle investors to a larger share of profits.

In general, “if you contribute more, you get more out of the investment,” said Bobby Reddy, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Law.

VFS and the Canadian government say their agreement includes privacy safeguards. And under British law, limited partners such as Chengdong are meant to be “passive or silent investors,” Mr. Reddy said.

But Richard Fadden, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) who served as national security adviser to two prime ministers, said he does not think it is appropriate for a company with Chinese state-enterprise ownership to handle visa applications for the Canadian government.

He said that Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne recently ordered a review of a deal in which a Chinese state-owned company would provide new X-ray security equipment for Canadian embassies.

“It seems to me that if there are concerns in Ottawa about a company that is owned by the Chinese company operating X-ray machines in Canadian embassies, then there should be an equal amount of concern about the possibility that a Chinese company might have access to all sorts of information about foreigners wanting to come to Canada,” Mr. Fadden said.

“This is information that might be just as useful to the Chinese state, especially, if and when, they reach Canada.”

In a statement to The Globe, EQT spokesman Daniel Ketema confirmed that EQT VII (No. 1) holds majority ownership of VFS, but declined comment on the role of Chengdong.

“We are not allowed to disclose names of investors or their stakes in EQT’s funds,” Mr. Ketema wrote in an e-mail.

VFS chief communications officer Peter Brun said “VFS Global does not store any personal data related to a visa application. All data is purged from its systems in accordance with regulations set out by client governments.”

“The EQT VII fund doesn’t have access to any data from VFS Global nor any of its other portfolio companies,” he said.

The Chinese government has in recent years asserted more intensive control of companies inside its borders, both state-controlled and private entities alike. In September, the Communist Party urged privately owned companies to employ “politically sensible people” who will “firmly listen to the party and follow the party.”

State-owned firms also form a key pillar of Chinese foreign policy, and the country has sought to boost the overseas reach of its financial institutions.

Ward Elcock, a former director of CSIS, said the connections of a Chinese state-owned firm and the Hong Kong sovereign wealth fund to VFS Global need to be investigated further to determine whether the threat is serious.

“I think that the role that Chengdong plays ought to raise a few eyebrows, even if it is as part of a limited partnership,” Mr. Elcock said. “Visas and the associated applications would, I suspect, be of interest to the Chinese, so there is at least the risk that they would want to find some way to obtain access.”

“In the current environment, it would be less than wise to ignore the potential risks,” he said. “As to the Hong Kong sovereign wealth fund, we would not have thought of them as a problem until recently, but increasingly it is clear that the Hong Kong of the past will not be the Hong Kong of the future. Instead, it will simply be an extension of the regime in Beijing with a few bells and whistles retained … so, again reason for more enquiries.”

In Canada, the Liberal government has said it wants to bring in 1.2 million immigrants over the next three years, including 401,000 new permanent residents in 2021.

In other countries, VFS shares revenues with governments. Canada’s government “does not receive a portion of revenues from VFS for premium services nor does it collect any revenues from VFS Global,” Béatrice Fénelon, spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said in a statement.

“Safeguards governing the protection of personal information are built into the terms of the contract between the VACs and the government of Canada,” Ms. Fénelon said.

She declined comment on the VFS ownership structure, but said using the company allows the Canadian government to “offer extended hours of operation and more points of service that make it convenient and accessible for applicants to submit their application and provide their biometrics.”

The contract with VFS will remain in place until Oct. 31, 2023. It can be extended for up to three years, but late this summer, Ottawa began a process to replace current contracts.

The government is seeking input on what visa application centres might look like in the future, including promotion of Canada as a destination of choice; collection of biometric information; premium services that would be offered for a fee; and tighter links with the government through provision of “interview facilitation, interview rooms, and videoconferencing.”