The utopia of a foreign land, makes a majority of Pakistanis believe that fleeing the country would solve all of their problems, be it students aspiring for a higher education or seasoned professionals looking to get paid their worth. However, these Pakistanis find themselves quite humbled, even before they leave Pakistan once they start going through the visa process.
In an era dominated by modern technology, where international travel should be just a few clicks away, Pakistani citizens find themselves ensnared in a precarious situation when attempting to secure appointments for foreign visas. And yes, a part of it is due to the worth of the Pakistani passport.
But a bigger part is due to the sheer volume of people trying to leave. As have been reminded time and again, the higher the demand, the higher the price.
This predicament has given rise to an alarming phenomenon – the growing influence of a ‘black market’ in visa scheduling.
Interviews with Pakistani citizens, who are aspirants to have a foreign visa, have unveiled a deep-seated concern regarding the extensive delays in securing foreign visa appointments and the unchecked proliferation of the ‘black market,’ which offers expedited appointments in exchange for substantial sums of money.
What is the Problem?
For a vast majority, going outside Pakistan is a dream. And when they get the opportunity, they pounce on it. In the last 2 years, Pakistan’s economic conditions have worsened significantly, causing an increased sense of urgency amongst the youth to leave. The data is indicative of this reality. The number of people who left Pakistan in 2022, was 3 times more than the number of people in 2021.
Around 80% of the people moving abroad are unskilled or semi skilled labourers struggling to make ends meet at home. According to the Ministry’s report for 2022, out of the 832,339 emigrants, only 1902 were highly qualified and 2777 were highly skilled. In contrast to this, overwhelmingly 24445 were unskilled. That is one problem, albeit not a big one.
The other problem is the skilled, trying to “upscale” or leave. The recent dollar-rupee parity makes it more attractive than ever to go outside and send back a fraction of their pay in remittances.
But how to get out? The easiest way out seems to be as a student for those who can afford it. An investment that is likely to pay back in forex terms is an urban household’s best bet.
Come the admissions season, many students find themselves at the doorsteps of visa consultants. And at that office there is a long queue even after securing an admission. Especially for countries that have easy access and lower cost universities. A low-tier UK university or a public German university remains the most lucrative option for stepping into the developed world without paying a high premium or without securing a scholarship.
The problem is at a higher magnitude for the students wanting to go to Germany. Reportedly, a rising number of Pakistani students who were admitted to German universities are now grappling with the distressing challenge of prolonged delays in obtaining student visas from German missions within Pakistan.
Such a delay not only risks jeopardising their academic admissions but also casts a looming shadow over their future prospects.
For students attempting to secure a visa appointment at the German Embassy in Islamabad these days, the bitter reality is the shockingly extended waiting times, often exceeding an astonishing twelve months. Despite persistent inquiries to the embassy, no satisfactory explanations have been provided for these delays, further intensifying the frustration and anxiety among students.
Speculation points to the absence of stringent criteria for booking visa appointments as a significant factor behind these protracted waiting times. Presently, anyone with a valid passport can apply for an appointment, even without possessing a formal offer letter from a German university. This lax approach has resulted in appointment slots being occupied by individuals who have not yet applied for university admissions, creating a backlog that undermines deserving candidates.
But what do these people who have occupied these slots do with them? They sell.
In the case of the UK, the process is different. Most students don’t need to go through an interview. However, they do need an appointment with the facilitators. The government of the UK has made it simpler for students to submit completed documents through these facilitators.
However, in peak season, internationally affiliated facilitators also have a shortage of appointment slots. Students with late admission decisions find themselves in a fix when they need quick visas.
In come the employees of the said agents and companies, with an easier fix. Pay higher amounts, sometimes under the table and get a fast tracked visa within days.
The Role of Agents in Providing Early Visa Appointments:
Surprisingly, both local and international media outlets have reported the existence of agents who claim to process visas within a significantly shorter timeframe, typically 15 days, albeit at a substantial cost. This glaring disparity in processing times has raised valid questions about the embassies’ efficiency and transparency.
Khalil Khan, hailing from Karrak, shared his personal experience with the ‘black market’ when applying for a visa to Germany. “When I applied for a visa through the German embassy website,” he recalled, “they scheduled an appointment for me a year later.” In a bid to expedite the process, he turned to an agent who secured an appointment for him three months later, in exchange for a fee of 70,000 rupees.
A similar account was shared by a student who went to London to pursue higher studies. “I was told to wait more than 40 days for an appointment. To get an earlier appointment to submit my documents and to make sure that they reached the embassy on time, we had to pay Rs 35,000 to an employee of the visa facilitator’s office in Pakistan. I immediately got an appointment for 5 days after.”
Education Disrupted, Dreams Shattered
The existence of such an opportunity is always cashed unless there’s repercussions. But what is at play here is the counterfactual. Not getting a visa often means a loss of time, money and dreams for these people. What is being cashed is not the system, but the vulnerability of the people.
Arsalan Khan, a resident of Lahore, shared his academic setbacks caused by a late visa appointment from the German embassy. “I applied for a scholarship in Germany for postgraduate studies but wasted two valuable years of my academic career,” he lamented.
Majida, from Quetta, applied for a German visa to pursue her Ph.D. “Initially, they scheduled a two-month duration for my interview, but it took years to be conducted,” she explained. Financial constraints prevented her from seeking assistance from agents offering early appointments for a fee of 80,000 rupees.
In some cases these late appointments have not only disrupted business and education but have also had a profound impact on family relationships. Noor Khan, a German citizen originally from Pakistan, reluctantly divorced his wife, Sania Rehman, due to a visa appointment scheduled three years later.
Talha Jalil, currently residing in Germany, faced similar circumstances as his visa appointment for his wife and son was delayed by two years. The familial pressure became unbearable, leading to his wife seeking a divorce.
Embassy Negligence or Insufficiency to meet demand?
Most countries work with a model of supply and demand. Their foreign offices are staffed only as much as needed.
The alarming growth of the ‘black market’ for visa appointments and the increasing number of complaints about late appointments have raised pressing questions that demand the attention of these embassies.
Why do appointments secured through the ‘black market’, for example in Germany’s case, not appear on the embassy websites? How are visa applicants affected by these prolonged delays? Why does the embassy take such an extended time to schedule visa appointments for foreigners if they allow this practice?
Remarkably, despite mounting concerns and inquiries, the German Embassy in Islamabad has chosen not to respond to queries shared by this scribe via email, even after being formally requested to do so within a week. These delays, with visa interview appointments sometimes scheduled over 24 months after application submission, are gravely impacting the educational prospects of Pakistani students. The embassy has yet to address the role of agents in visa appointments.
Afterall, the right to go outside your homeland to seek education should rest with everybody. It could be due to a dream of settling abroad or it could be a child’s dream to come back and serve their country. Such backlogs not only demand embassy attention but also government intervention.
Ideally, we need to create job opportunities for graduates from local universities such as LUMS, NUST, GIK, FAST etc. While these students have undergraduate degrees, they’re unable to find jobs that match their academic credentials and skill-sets, to stop the infamous “brain drain”. But while we cannot do that, the least we can do is not hinder their progress in their search for employment or higher education.