By Tetiana KATRYCHENKO The more we hear about the likely or unlikely visa liberalization with the EU, the more eagerly Ukrainians look to the West and the Internet is strewn with announcements, such as “Schengen visa! Multi-Schengen in just two days” or “We give a 100-percent guarantee for a Schengen visa without prepayment or additional fees! Right now into your passport!”
“PROFESSIONALS” AT WORK
Representatives of the firms that offer this kind of “services” argue: “We cannot remove borders between countries, but we can help get a visa.” And they ask “only” 300-900 euros for a “window to Europe.” The amount depends on the visa’s term – three months, six months, or a year. They also mention the countries whose consulates issue this kind of visas: Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Greece, Lithuania, and even Germany.
The Day first turned for comment to some consular institution but never received an answer. Then we tried to seek advice at a company about getting a multiple-entry tourist visa. They told us they could make a visa to, say, Hungary for a year. We could bring documents – the foreign-travel passport, a copy of the Ukrainian internal passport, and two photographs – even the next day in person or hand them over through the firm’s delivery man. Then we have to wait for 14 days. The firm cooperates with the consulates in Kyiv and Uzhhorod. If one urgently needs a Schengen visa, the firm agrees to do this in one or two days with the assistance of the Lithuanian or Greek consulates. In this case the applicant should also bring credibility references from their place of work and bank. If you do not have these, it is not much of a problem – the firm has a “magic pencil” to draws them very quickly. Of course, it is not a freebie: each “piece of paper” costs 200 hryvnias.
This firm is even more verbose on its Facebook page. “We guarantee that the visa will be issued. We offer services to citizens of all countries. In spite of the simplicity of modern-day traveling, there are endless restrictions and obstacles in the world,” they write. “We work with any documents and guarantee the result within a brief period of time. Communicating with us, you can do your daily routine with no worry, allowing professionals to open a visa.”
What does “opening a visa by professionals” mean? Officially, agencies of this kind do not, of course, issue visas and, in general, they maintain no contacts with consular institutions – they only offer consultative services as the required documents are being collected. They book hotels and flights and buy insurance policies. This is not banned formally. But, in reality, they make arrangements – through their relatives, friends, and acquaintances – with diplomatic establishments about ahead-of-schedule services and make available, if necessary, references from the place of work on the amount of salary and from a bank on whether there is an active account at it.
FRIENDLY ATTITUDE OR SUPPORT FOR TOURIST BUSINESS?
A Ukrainian will find it difficult to obtain a multiple-entry Schengen visa on his own. Iryna Sushko, chairperson of the NGO Europe without Barriers, confirms this.
“As a rule, consulates do not issue multiple-entry long-term tourist visas,” the expert says, “because no agreements provide for such a category as ‘tourism.’ Therefore, if various consulates resort to this practice on their own initiative, it is an exclusive demonstration of their own friendly attitude, on the one hand. On the other hand, this shows natural interest in supporting national, including tourist, business. There was a similar story with the Slovaks. However, it became clear after a talk with the consul that their journalists had misunderstood the point – what the consulate was prepared to issue was not long-term tourist visas but visas intended for the categories mentioned in the visa liberalization agreement.”
Yet some applicants are saying that the Slovaks do issue multiple-entry tourist visas valid for one year. “Tourists applied for visas to a Slovak downhill skiing resort in March, and they received them not only for the period of the trip but for the whole year. By our observations, those who plan to spend about five days in the country can count on this generosity. For the issue of a multiple-entry tourist visa is in fact nothing but a gift. I think it is a very subjective process,” says Natalia Oleshko, manager of a small travel company. She adds that the consulates of Greece and the Czech Republic resorted to this practice last and this year, respectively.
The Czech Embassy’s official press release emphasizes that it was decided to issue multiple-entry Schengen visas in order to promote organized and individual tourism and health resort development. It is planned to issue them if the applicant substantiates or proves their intention to travel regularly and often or when the applicant can prove his or her reliability and credibility, particularly, by the fact that he or she used the earlier-issued Schengen visas in accordance with rules. It is about two or more visas in the past two years.
The Polish Gazeta Prawna assessed recently that in the first half of 2013 more Ukrainians crossed the border of Poland than that of Russia – 3.2 million against 2.8 million, respectively. This situation perhaps emerged because, in spite of being part of the Schengen zone, Poland has considerably simplified the procedure of issuing visas to Ukrainians – consulates do not even require an incomes reference. And Poland’s Consul General in Lviv, Jaroslaw Drozd, thinks that this liberalization causes fewer and fewer Ukrainians to turn to the black market for Polish visas.
Yet there are, naturally, consulates that are not too friendly to Ukrainians. For example, according to Oleksandr Novykovsky, president of the Ukrainian Association of Tourist Business Leaders, the Italian consulate is considered to be the biggest source of problems – they require a huge heap of documents.
Difficulties in the collection of documents and long lines in some consulates are the reasons why many people turn to visa go-between companies. But, while the instances of much-talked-about consular refusals are known almost all over Ukraine, there is complete silence about unsuccessful applications for visas through the go-betweens. “Naturally, the people who had problems with the visas they obtained in a not-so-lawful way do not, as a rule, complain to anybody,” Iryna Sushko says, “for they are aware of taking some objectionable actions at a certain stage. But I don’t think there have been many cases like this. Otherwise, people would not be using the services of these agencies. Still we do not rule out the danger and risk of cooperating with the firms which peremptorily promise the moon. One must know what documents the applicant has, which of them may be fake, and who the firm’s partners are.
THE RISK OF BEING “BLACK-LISTED”
There are many risks of which Ms. Sushko is speaking. The first is to get a refusal. Representatives of illegal and semi-legal firms may often furnish warped information, for they are not specialists. And this dubious information may provoke a visa denial. “There was an instance when people applied to the Slovak consulate for long-term tourist visas, but the filling of forms was entrusted to a travel agency representative who pointed out that the applicants had never been on the EU territory, which was not true. As a result, the people did not get what they wanted, although had every reason to get it. The firm did a slipshod job – they failed to check the information,” Sushko says.
The second risk is the ban on entering the EU for several years.
“You can find yourself on the Schengen gray or black list,” the expert explains. “Consulates have a special system with recorded information about the applicant. This means that if some of the applicant’s documents turn out to be falsified, he or she may be banned from entering the EU for several years.”
There was an instance when an individual, who was applying for the first time and had not been on the EU territory before, was denied visa. The explanation was that he had been entered into the Schengen information system as offender. How could this happen? Experts presume there might have been a banal coincidence in the first and last names or the patronymic. The man asks: “How can I have my name withdrawn from that system?” “It is extremely difficult, for this is a closed-access system in Strasbourg,” Sushko specifies. So, before applying to an unofficial agency, one must be aware that he or she may be deprived of this possibility for four to ten years.
The third risk is apprehension on the border and denial of entry into an EU country.
In some cases policemen apprehended Ukrainian on the border, for the purpose of their visit did not correspond to the visas they had. One of the latest instances occurred on the border of Germany, when a tourist bus carried some Ukrainians with business visas intended for crossing the border of an entirely different country. The people were apprehended and had their visas canceled.
This may happen to anyone who travels for purposes other than those prescribed by the visa. We often forget that being granted a visa is only the first step to Europe. The second is the actual crossing of the border. Border guards have the right to ask some questions and, as a result, to call into question the purpose of the visit. In this case the individual loses time and money. Cancellation is tantamount to denial.
The fourth and by no means the least risk is administrative and even criminal liability for document forging. “Although the Schengen law sets out no penalties, the applicant may be held responsible under the Ukrainian law in case an investigation is conducted into the cases notified by EU consulates,” the chair of the NGO Europe without Barriers says. “It is for this reason that consulates ask applicants to put down all contact telephones and individuals while filling up the form so they may check this. There is also a solid system of indirect questions which can also raise a doubt. And this can end up with criminal, not only administrative, liability. This depends on what documents were forged.”
“Once the British Consulate spotted an offender – the applicant had forged the wages reference which showed a much overrated amount,” Ms. Oleshko recalls. “The girl who wanted to travel to that country was scared by the consulate’s steep demands and brought a reference that showed high wages. She came to know that the deception was exposed in a telephone call – the Ukrainian law-enforcers summoned her to the police station. It turned out that they had already had a photocopy of the reference and found out that it showed a wrong figure. The worst side of this story is not that consulate employees notified the police of this crime but that the police suggested that the girl buy her way out of this.”
But while the long hand of the law usually reaches the people who submit bogus references, we do not know about any instances when the go-between firms that offer visa services for hundreds of euros have been brought to justice. “I know that consulates sometimes discontinued cooperation with some travel agencies accredited at the embassies as consultants (this is the way they are called here) because they were suspected of forging documents,” Sushko adds. “But small commercial firms are usually not closed, for they fetch a handsome income to the staff of not only these travel firms, but also of embassies. This question should also be addressed to the Ukrainian government because consulates defend themselves very well – they officially declare that they have nothing to do with this kind of entities.”
According to Oleksandr Sushko, director of the Institute of Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, citizens of Ukraine pay an annual 40 million euros to EU countries for visas, while the illegal visa market has reached an estimated billion dollars. In the expert’s view, the black visa market problem can only be solved by abolishing visa requirements.