Australia: Plans to outsource visa processing are scary, former immigration official says

The risks are real without proper consideration and oversight:

A Department of Home Affairs plan to outsource visa processing will lead to increased automation and “premium” services that could undermine the integrity of the system, a former senior immigration official has warned.

Abul Rizvi, a former departmental deputy secretary, told Guardian Australia the potential for a private provider to create a fast and slow lane for processing had “frightening” long-term implications and the proposed use of applicants’ data for marketing purposes was “appalling”.

Rizvi joins the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia in expressing concern about the outsourcing plan, which has not received a final sign-off from the cabinet after months of testing the market for expressions of interest.

In February Guardian Australia reported that departmental briefings to industry had revealed that a successful private bidder could offset the $1bn cost of a new visa processing system by raising revenue through “premium services for high-value applicants”, different access for those able to pay more, and “commercial value-added services”, such as offers from banks, telcos and tourist operators.

Rizvi said he was “very concerned” about the prospect of premium services because “there would inevitably be an incentive for the company to be more facilitative with regard to subjective criteria for applicants who have paid for the fast lane”.

“Any monopoly provider would want to maximise charges for the fast lane and try to drive as many applicants as possible into that lane.”

He said applicants whocould not afford the higher charges were likely to come to Australia on visitor visas and apply for other visas after arrival, exacerbating “integrity problems” caused by the existing backlog of people in Australia because of the department’s “extraordinarily poor administration”.

In July, the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, boasted about a decline in permanent migration, despite industry warning that the government was “throttling back the rate of migration by stealth” through longer wait times.

Rizvi predicted that outsourced visa processing would lead to tension between the Department of Home Affairs’ increased use of “subjective criteria” for certain visas and the private operator’s desire for increased automation.

“The company or companies that win these tenders will want to automate decision-making as much as possible to minimise costs.”

Rizvi said it was appalling that “extraordinarily personal information” such as an applicant’s relationship status, job, income and health could be used by a commercial firm for marketing purposes.

The chairwoman of the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia, Mary Patetsos, said it would be “very concerned” about commercialisation of applicant information. She also opposed measures that could lead to an increased cost of visas, particularly for family and partner visas.

“Australia has a long-standing reputation for its impartial, fair and transparent immigration system,” she said. “It should not be put at risk.”

Patetsos warned that premium services “could undermine fairness”. “The opportunity to bring family to Australia to live or visit for extended periods should be available to all Australians – not just the wealthy.”

She said it would be unacceptable for Australian families of limited means to be denied family reunion, which was “integral to successful settlement, social cohesion and wellbeing”.

The deputy national president of the CPSU, Lisa Newman, said a two-tiered visa processing system “will lead to dangerous outcomes”, with the operating company incentivised to to put its profits ahead of the need to assess “gold-plated” visa applicants to the same standards applied to those who could not afford to pay a premium.

“It would also give the company an incentive to further delay processing times for regular customers to try to force them into upgrading.”

She called on the Coalition to abandon the proposal.

The CPSU intends to campaign on the visa outsourcing issue at the next federal election, targeting the immigration minister David Coleman’s seat of Banks, and other electorates with a high number of Australians born overseas, including in western Sydney.

Tender requests went to the market in July and there have been industry briefings in Sydney, Canberra, San Francisco, Singapore and Bengaluru, as well as consultation by the Department of Home Affairs with its workforce.

Groups reportedly keen to bid include a joint venture between Accenture and Australia Post, and a consortium involving Pacific Blue Capital, Qantas Ventures, PwC and Ellerston Capital.

Pacific Blue Capital is run by Malcolm Turnbull’s former employee and friend Scott Briggs. In September, Labor signalled it would pursue the government’s planned outsourcing of the $1bn visa processing system in Senate estimates and called on ministers linked to Briggs to recuse themselves from consideration of the outsourcing proposal.

Source: Plans to outsource visa processing are scary, former immigration official says

Access denied: Canada’s refusal rate for visitor visas soars – The Globe and Mail

Good in-depth reporting. Data indicates that Liberal government is not as soft on immigration and refugees as opposition would lead us to believe. Article would have benefitted, however, for a more balanced discussion regarding the risks of those over staying their visas or claiming asylum which largely drives visa policy (i.e., the benefits, not just the costs).

The different rates for countries suggest this is risk-based.

And like any system that has to make numerous decisions, it sometimes gets them wrong, either refusing people who should be let in, or letting in others that should not:

For a country that prides itself on its openness to the world, Canada makes its borders surprisingly impenetrable for millions of people who want to visit from abroad.

Last year alone, Canada refused entry to nearly 600,000 people who wanted to come for a short stay for tourism, school, business, academic conferences or simply to see their families. And the refusals have skyrocketed: The number has more than doubled since 2012, according to data obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The trend has huge implications for Canada’s relationship with the world, yet the issue is rarely debated. Entry decisions are left to mid-level bureaucrats, and little information is provided to applicants, even though the rising number of refusals and opaque application process can damage Canada’s reputation on the global stage.

Part of the trend is simply due to globalization. People are more mobile, formerly poor countries have more wealth and the number of entry-visa applications has soared in recent years, leading to a larger number of visitors.

But the data also suggest it is becoming tougher to get into Canada, and the odds against applicants are rising.

In 2012, the number of rejections was about 18 per cent of the total number of applications for Canadian visitor visas (excluding student visas). By last year, the refusal rate had increased to 26 per cent. And in the first three months of this year, the refusal rate had risen again to about 30 per cent. Similarly, the refusal rate for student visas has also increased, from 26 per cent in 2012 to a new rate of 33 per cent last year.

Statistics obtained by The Globe from the federal immigration department show that the highest refusal rates are clustered in Africa and the Middle East. Over the past two years, Canada rejected more than 75 per cent of visitor applications from countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan.

Other countries are affected, too. About 200 delegates, including dozens of Chinese government officials, were denied visas to attend a recent conference of the World Guangdong Community Federation in Vancouver.

When scholars gathered at Queen’s University in early May for their annual African studies conference, the program had a dozen gaps. Twelve invited scholars from Africa were denied an entry visa or could not obtain one in time.

Organizers had to scramble to find replacements or combine sessions to make up for missing panelists. “It’s frustrating and disruptive, and it discourages people from coming next time,” said Belinda Dodson, a geographer and Africa migration expert based in Ottawa.

The intangible costs for Canada

The World Economic Forum, which conducts an annual study of travel and tourism competitiveness around the world, puts Canada’s visa requirements among the most complex and opaque in the world. In a 2017 survey that ranks 136 countries from best to worst when it comes to the difficulty of their visa rules, Canada placed a dismal 120th – a drop of 14 places from an earlier survey in 2013.

The process is about to become even more difficult. Beginning on July 31, visa applicants from Africa, Europe and the Middle East will be required to give their fingerprints at a foreign-based application centre. The rule will be imposed for Asians and Latin Americans at the end of December.

In most cases of denied visas, Canadian officials say they are not satisfied that the applicants would leave at the end of their visit. Officials can reject an application if they believe the applicant has not shown evidence of sufficient funds to pay for their stay, or has close family or financial connections to Canada and looser ties to their home country.

Denying visas to tourists or business investors costs the country millions of dollars in potential revenue. Canadian tourism promoters say the visa system is one of their biggest headaches.

The Tourism Industry Association of Canada, which estimates that tourism employs 1.7 million people in Canada, says the visa application process is “an area of significant concern.” It can be an “unnecessarily complex” barrier to visitors, it says.

“Canada continues to lag behind its competitors in terms of requirements, processing times and reciprocity programs,” the association said in a recent report. “Canada must find ways to ease or eliminate such access barriers for legitimate travellers.”

And there is a more intangible cost. When officials reject an application from a respected scholar or activist, it often leads to a flurry of negative publicity, undercutting Canada’s image as progressive on freedom and human rights, especially when the poorest countries seem to suffer the highest refusal rates.

“It casts Canada in a poor light, belying the government’s encouragement of transnational exchange of academic research,” Audrey Macklin, a law professor at the University of Toronto, said after many African and Asian scholars were denied visas to attend a recent conference she helped organize in Toronto.

“Participants denied visas lose – and we lose, too. It certainly damages Canada’s reputation abroad.”

Angola’s most famous anti-corruption campaigner, Rafael Marques de Morais, and a prominent Bahraini human-rights activist, Maryam al-Khawaja, are among those who were recently denied visas to visit Canada, although the decisions were reversed. Both had been penalized in the visa process for criminal charges against them – even though they were charged by authoritarian regimes as a result of their human-rights work.

Scientists from around the world protested in 2013 when Canada denied a visa to Russian scholar Vladimir Kolossov, then president of the International Geographical Union (IGU), to attend an assembly of the International Social Science Council in Montreal. Visa officials said he had failed to give proof of his employment and financial resources, but the IGU said he had provided documentation of both. The geographical union called it an “arbitrary and unreasonable denial of free scientific exchange.

Applications on the rise

Requests for Canadian visas have surged to record numbers in recent years. Applications increased from about 1.3 million in 2012 to about 2.3 million last year. Many of the new applicants are tourists or business visitors from booming countries such as China and India who have more money to travel. But the surge has been accompanied by an even faster growing number of rejections.

The government insists it can handle the dramatic rise. “Updated technology allows the department to take advantage of capacity anywhere in our global network so that applications can be processed quickly,” Shannon Ker, a spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said in response to questions from The Globe.

But errors can happen. Shuvai Mandigo, a 38-year-old Zimbabwean with eight years of experience in community development work, won a scholarship to study at the Coady International Institute in Nova Scotia – but was denied a Canadian student visa. Officials mistakenly told her she had applied in a different category.

She applied a second time, and was again denied. Officials decreed that she might try to stay illegally, even though she visited Canada twice before and returned home both times.

The decision “breaks my heart,” she said. “I was really hurt. Opportunities come once in a lifetime, and to think that the only opportunity I had to study in Canada – after so much effort by my Canadian friends and well-wishers – could not come to pass because someone just thought I will not come back to Zimbabwe after my stay is really unfair.”

The House of Commons standing committee on citizenship and immigration, in a report last year, recommended that Canada provide more detailed information to applicants to explain its visa denials. “It is possible to provide failed applicants with a more fulsome explanation, while maintaining fast processing,” the committee said.

The soaring number of visa applications could be leading to mistakes and arbitrary rejections in an overly hasty processing system. Rejections typically come in a terse and generic letter that provides no explanation of the specific reasons for the denial.

In many cases, Canadian civil servants have not made the decisions, because Canada has outsourced the job to private foreign firms in the countries where the applicants originate.

The Canadian branch of Amnesty International often invites foreign human-rights activists and civil society leaders to Canada for meetings and conferences. “Every time we are faced with this, we steel ourselves for what we know is going to be an arduous, fraught and highly unpredictable process,” said Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty’s office in Canada.

Foreign human-rights activists have suffered “blatantly discriminatory” visa delays and denials from the Canadian government for years, Mr. Neve said. They are forced to “jump through an immense number of hoops” to get the paperwork Canada demands.

When not all applicants are equal

The government denies any discrimination. “All applications from around the world are assessed equally against the same criteria,” Ms. Ker said.

But not every applicant is equal. One of the factors visa officers consider is the “economic and political stability of the home country,” according to Mathieu Genest, press secretary to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.

Mr. Neve expressed particular concern about the high refusal rates for visa applications from countries with serious records of human-rights violations, such as African and Middle Eastern countries. He said those applications require even more special attention to ensure people are not penalized because they’re from a certain country.

“If there’s a possibility here that people’s visa applications are being refused simply because they come from a country experiencing war or human-rights violations, that there’s an irreversible presumption that they’re not going to go home and their … application gets treated differently, that certainly is a concern.”

Annie Bunting, a social sciences professor and Africa expert at York University, said two of her Nigerian colleagues were recently denied visitor visas to travel to Toronto, where they were scheduled to present their research at a law and society conference. Their participation had been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), a federal research funding agency.

One of the scholars, Lawan Balami, a medical doctor and researcher, was planning to present research on women and girls kidnapped by Islamist radical group Boko Haram.

Umar Ahmad Umar was planning to present his research on access to justice for Nigerian victims of gender-based violence and child marriage. “He has a family in Nigeria, has full-time employment,” Ms. Bunting said. “He has travelled before. He’s fully funded. It’s an international conference with a letter of invitation from the conference, from me, and mention of the SSHRC grant – and that is not enough to get a visitor’s visa to come for a week.”

via Access denied: Canada’s refusal rate for visitor visas soars – The Globe and Mail

Ottawa expands program to collect fingerprints, photos from foreign nationals coming to Canada | CBC News

Planned for some time:

Canada is expanding a program to collect biometric data — including fingerprints — from foreign nationals coming to this country, while experts are warning of the potential for heightened risks to privacy.

The expanded biometrics program will be rolled out over two years, beginning next month, with new requirements to collect biometric data from people from Europe, the Middle East and Africa coming to Canada to visit, work, study or immigrate. Previously, the program was limited to visa applicants from countries believed to pose a higher risk of immigration document fraud, as well as refugee claimants and asylum seekers.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has said the program’s expansion from 30 to about 150 countries will strengthen border and immigration systems with the ability to quickly and accurately establish a traveller’s identity.

Brenda McPhail, director of privacy, technology and surveillance at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said greater use of biometrics — physiological identifiers like fingerprints — is probably inevitable, given global trends. She said she sees both benefits and risks.

“Every time you expand a program like this, you add to the level of risk and complication and increase the chances that something could go wrong,” she said.

Due to the highly sensitive nature of biometric information, McPhail said, data collected by Canada likely would be targeted by “malicious actors.” She said the program’s collection process is risky because the data is collected on foreign soil on Canada’s behalf by private sector firms contracted to do the work — making it extremely important that those third-party employees are screened and their activities are tracked and audited.

Biometric data from the expanded collection program will be shared with Canada’s international intelligence partners: the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand. McPhail said that degree of information-sharing introduces its own risks.

“The more counties you start sharing information with, the more dependent we are (on) other people to also have good processes in place to make sure that the information they’re sharing with us is accurate, that they’re storing it properly and transmitting it safely,” she said.

Hussen’s spokesman Mathieu Genest said detailed privacy risk mitigation measures have been outlined in a series of privacy assessments that were shared with the Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, and in turn informed the department’s policy development.

“The government of Canada takes its privacy obligations very seriously, and safeguards have been built into policies, procedures and technical systems,” Genest wrote in an email.

RCMP to retain data

The privacy commissioner’s office said the act of collecting fingerprints from visitors is justified by the need to verify admissibility to Canada, and cited the fact that data will be retained for 10 years and destroyed when a permanent resident is granted citizenship as a “positive feature.” The office also said the RCMP will retain the data under strict safeguards.

The commissioner’s office has received various privacy impact assessments on biometric data collection from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in the past, and has advised the government on the need for strict protocols on information sharing and safeguards protecting the fingerprints, photos and documents collected by private sector employees at visa centres abroad.

Applicants from Europe, Middle East and Africa will be required to pay an $85 fee to capture their biometric data beginning July 31. (IRCC)
“We are awaiting an update from IRCC and may have additional comments to make down the road,” said privacy commissioner spokeswoman Valerie Lawton.

​Applicants from Europe, Middle East and Africa will be required to pay the $85 fee to capture their biometric data beginning July 31, 2018. As of Dec. 31, applicants from Asia, Asia Pacific and the Americas will be required to do the same.

Those exempt include:

  • Canadian citizens, citizenship applicants (including passport applicants), or existing permanent residents;
  • visa-exempt nationals coming to Canada as tourists who hold a valid Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA);
  • American citizens on a work or study permit;
  • children under 14 and seniors over 79;
  • heads of state or government, cabinet ministers and accredited diplomats on official business;
  • U.S. visa holders transiting through Canada.

Ann Cavoukian, a privacy expert at Ryerson University and the former privacy commissioner for Ontario, said that when used properly and stored securely, biometrics data can protect privacy because using it leaves authorities less dependent on documents that are vulnerable to theft.

There is a potential for privacy breaches, though, when data is used without strict protocols or is shared too broadly, she said.

Cavoukian said expanded collection should not proceed until an updated privacy impact assessment is submitted and adequate time given to make any changes recommended by the privacy commissioner.

“This is a major, major development. We rely on his independent oversight and comments and his independent assessment of this,” she said.

via Ottawa expands program to collect fingerprints, photos from foreign nationals coming to Canada | CBC News

Americans revoking travel visas from visitors who plan to claim asylum in Canada

Another push factor for asylum seekers:

American authorities say an ongoing operation along their northern border has led them to revoke U.S.-issued travel visas for thousands of people, most of whom were headed to Canada to claim asylum.

Some, according to a U.S. State Department report, are associated with terrorist groups.

The revocations happened as part of what’s called Operation Northern Watch, which focuses on criminal activity such as visa fraud, human smuggling and terrorist threats at the Canada-U.S. border.

Since the operation began in January 2015, authorities have revoked approximately 2,400 visas that were issued from 85 different American diplomatic posts abroad.

“Although some suspects have committed crimes in the United States, the vast majority of the individuals referred through Operation Northern Watch are individuals intending to claim asylum in Canada or have already claimed asylum,” reads the annual report of the State Department’s diplomatic security service (DSS).

“Included in this group were individuals with ties to designated terrorist organizations.”

In an email, a U.S. State Department official told CBC News the DSS is unable to release information about the terrorist groups and any alleged ties people may have had with them.

The DSS also would not specify how many of the revoked visas belonged to people headed to Canada.

“When speaking to law enforcement, some of the identified subjects admitted that they either attempted to claim asylum in Canada or stated that it was their intention to claim asylum in Canada. For others, the diplomatic security service had reason to believe that they planned to claim asylum in Canada,” wrote the official.

The DSS says every prospective traveller to the United States undergoes extensive security screening but that in some cases “derogatory information” surfaces after someone enters the country.

In late October, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told CBC News how Canadian officials had identified trends where documents identified from certain U.S. embassies and consulates are being misused.

“We have asked them to go back upstream and examine the pattern of these travel documents being issued and how come the people to whom they were issued appear to have had no intention of staying in the United States, but were simply using the documents as vehicles to get into the United States and then make a beeline for the Canadian border,” he said at the time.

Undermines narrative

National security expert Christian Leuprecht said Operation Northern Watch demonstrates how the U.S. understands and is acting on loopholes in its travel visa system.

“At the moment, the Americans realize there’s a Canadian dimension to this,” said Leuprecht, who teaches at Queen’s University and the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.

Leuprecht said the annual report also undermines the long-standing narrative that people with ties to terrorist organizations easily enter Canada and head to the United States.

“There’s not really much of a problem in terms of people coming from Canada to the U.S., certainly not since 9/11, because of all the measures we’ve put in place. But we continue to have a challenge with people who are inadmissible and who have ties to illegal organizations, who find their way to the United States and then make their way to Canada,” he explained.

Karine Côté-Boucher, an assistant professor at the University of Montreal criminology school, cautions that terrorist ties aren’t always as scary as they sound.

“What are those ties? To know someone or [be] related to [someone], is sometimes enough to put you on a terrorist watch list. We have kids in Canada who are on no-fly lists right now,” she said.

Côté-Boucher added that just because someone used criminal means to enter Canada, does not mean they intend to do harm.

“Do they have criminal intent? That’s different, right? That’s a different question. There’s nothing in there that suggests to me that people have criminal intent in Canada,” she explained.

Travel visa harmonization

But Leuprecht believes, given the ongoing pattern of human migration, that it’s time for North American leaders to take a co-ordinated approach to travel visas to prevent people from abusing the travel visa system.

After all, he said, Canada and the U.S. already share data on land, sea and air ports of entry.

“We probably need to start sharing data on people who request visas into North America, show that we can jointly assess whether the claims that people are making and the intelligence people are providing are effective, because we can see that people are trying to exploit the travel regime,” he said.

For her part though, Côté-Boucher said she can’t see a good reason to give up sovereignty over who gets to come to Canada. She explained how she feels Canada’s tight border control mechanisms are partly responsible for the rise in irregular border crossings by migrants who are looking for a safe place to live.

“We have introduced so many border control mechanisms in North America right now that we have forced people to go through human smuggling networks, to go through visa fraud,” said Côté-Boucher.

As for Operation Northern Watch, the DSS initiative has already expanded beyond its offices in New York State to Minnesota and Detroit as well as its regional security offices in Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, where it works with Canadian authorities.

No one from the Canadian departments of Public Safety or Immigration responded to requests for more information about the operation.

via Americans revoking travel visas from visitors who plan to claim asylum in Canada – Politics – CBC News