The Malta Independent 25 June 2019, Tuesday

Updated (2): NAO slams Maltese Schengen visas for Algerians - one in four never returned home

David Lindsay Wednesday, 30 January 2019, 16:25 Last update: about 6 months ago

The National Audit Office has slammed the issuance of Malta visas for Algerians and the thousands of which were issued between March 2014 and September 2015, reporting the one in every four Algerians granted a Maltese Schengen visa never returned home.

The findings give considerable weight to allegations made by Nationalist MP Beppe Fenech Adami, who had blown the lid off the whole scam.

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The investigation, which has been ongoing since November 2015 at the behest of the Public Accounts Committee found that during the under review, period, 14,640 applications were received, of which 6,779 were issued a visa while 7,589 were refused. The NAO established that 99.5% of applications were decided within the 15-days stipulated in the Visa Code.

Irrespective of that the NAO found that “there was no visibility over the process beyond the point when the Consul decides to issue or refuse a visa, at which stage third parties are involved.

“This heightened the risk of wrongdoing, precluding the NAO from establishing whether the issuance of visas was intentionally prolonged to elicit payments for hastening thereof.”

The NAO also found that the setting within which the Consulate operated “facilitated the incidence of allegations”.

“The fact that the Consulate operated from the same premises as the VFS, the Consulate’s external service provider, blurred the distinction between the two from the perspective of applicants.”

Aggravating matters were the difficulties encountered by prospective applicants when seeking to schedule appointments with the VFS.

The NAO found that, “Gaps in the screening process, attributed by the Consul to a lack of resources, also resulted in a less than optimal system of vetting applicants. Another factor was the poor contract management of the VFS by the Consulate, with various contractual obligations not adhered to with no consequence.

“The extent to which this and other shortcomings could be attributed to the lack of experience of the Consul is debatable, with the language-related issues identified by this Office compounding matters.”

The NAO established that the government was aware of the allegations made in relation to the Consulate, and deemed the action taken by the government as having been appropriate, as the Consul and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs duly informed the Police of alleged irregularities. The Minister for Foreign Affairs was also informed.

While the police took action by seeking the views of persons of interest, in particular, the Consul and the Algerian travel agent, from whom most allegations originated, the NAO found that “Whether any other action could have been taken by the government remains subject to debate, conditioned by the context within which the Consulate was operating, as well as its operational set up.

“Moreover, the NAO acknowledges that there were aspects of the allegations beyond the control of the Consulate, particularly the involvement of the VFS and other agents in the visa process.”

During the period reviewed, arrivals from and departures to Algeria amounted to 5,083 and 2,664, respectively. Of the 5,083 arrivals and 2,664 departures, 3,696 and 882, respectively, travelled on the basis of a visa issued by the Consulate.

The NAO established that for every four arrivals presenting a visa issued by the Consulate, there was one departure. At least 2,846 of the 3,696 arrivals did not have a corresponding departure. Of the 882 departures, in 32 instances, no corresponding arrival was identified within the audit period. These discrepancies, the NAO said, must be considered in terms of the regulatory framework that allows for free, unrecorded movement within Schengen.

The Consul, the Prime Minister’s relative Robert Falzon, had been engaged following an internal call for applications for commercial representatives issued by the Malta Enterprise, with consular duties forming part of this role, the NAO found.

But while the NAO acknowledged an element of convergence in these responsibilities and that of a consul, “this Office is of the understanding that the latter’s role encompasses a broader array of functions that extend beyond the promotion of business.

“The NAO contends that requirements deemed satisfactory for the appointment of a commercial representative may be inadequate in the selection of a consul.”

 

Government reaction

The Foreign Affairs ministry has taken note of the Auditor General's report on the issuing of Maltese visas to Algerians and will analyse the report in detail so that action can be taken and so that more detailed reactions can be published about the investigation's contents, the government said in a statement.

The government also said that the ministry took note of the Auditor's conclusion that the action taken by the government with regards to the allegations was proper.  They quoted the Auditor General who said that the Consul and Foreign Affairs Ministry had informed the police of the alleged irregularities along with the Foreign Affairs Minister himself.  The police then took action by obtaining information from persons of interest, most particularly the Consul and the Algerian travel agent from whom the majority of the allegations originated, the Auditor was quoted as saying.

The government said that as always it respects the report by all institutions and that it will be analysing in detail the full report.

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