Abu Dhabi // The UK plans to direct more visa applications to its embassy in Abu Dhabi, despite a controversy over a backlog of some 5,000 applications from Pakistan. The processing of Pakistani visa applications was transferred from Islamabad to Abu Dhabi last year after the September 20 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel, which is about a kilometre from the British Embassy.
The backlog of Pakistani applications became a major foreign relations issue last week when many Pakistani students missed the start of classes at British universities, and the topic dominated a trip to Pakistan this week by British Home Secretary Alan Johnson and Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth. An official at the UK Border Agency in Abu Dhabi said the backlog "is mainly due to technical difficulties, including IT".
The technical challenges with processing the visas have been "broad-ranging", including worldwide trouble with the UKBA computer system and local problems such as a slow, unreliable internet connection, said the official, who did not wish to be named, adding that the majority of problems had been resolved. She added that the Abu Dhabi office would also handle even more visa applications - from Iran - in the "very near future", which could increase the office's workload.
She added that media reports indicating that the processing of Pakistani visas would be returned to the British Embassy in Islamabad were inaccurate. "It is not as a result of moving the decision-making operation from Pakistan to Abu Dhabi." The visa issue has been hotly debated in the Pakistani media. Writing on Tuesday in Pakistan's leading English-language paper, Dawn, one columnist, Kamran Shafi, said repairing the damage caused to Britain's reputation would take years.
"It is highly inappropriate that Pakistani applicants' visas should have to be vetted in Abu Dhabi," Mr Shafi said in a column headlined "The Brit visa shemozzle". "If the Americans can do the job in this country why can't the British?" According to the UKBA, the security of its staff was a consideration in moving the visa office, but it said the shift was also intended to create "improved efficiency, quality and consistency of decision-making, as well as a more resilient and flexible operation".
The embassy doubled the amount of staff working on visas to 45 at the beginning of the year, and the number has now been boosted to 146. This summer, visa-processing was taking as long as 60 days, but the time has been reduced to between 14 and 28 days, and the embassy aims to cut the waiting time further, the home secretary said during his visit to Pakistan. Imran Khan, counsellor at the Pakistani Embassy in Abu Dhabi, said a return of the visa office to Islamabad would be "positive".
"It would be much easier for people to approach the visa authorities directly there," he said. The UKBA says the new system is not any more difficult for applicants, who still submit their paperwork in Pakistan. "The difference is the location in which the decisions are made on the applications," the agency said. But delays are not the only problem facing the new Abu Dhabi operations. The points of contention include the UK's rejection of visa applications for frequent visitors, for musicians, some of whom have missed concerts, and for Pakistan's blind cricket team.
The UKBA declined to comment on "individual cases", adding that "tougher checks" were not specific to applications originating in Pakistan. The UK receives about 2,000 visa applications a week from Pakistan, and roughly 65 per cent are refused, the UKBA said. A third of refusals are triggered by document forgery, according to the border agency. firstname.lastname@example.org