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PRESS RELEASE BY THE NATIONAL AUDIT OFFICE: An investigation of visas issued by the Maltese Consulate in Algiers

In November 2015, the Public Accounts Committee requested the Auditor General to investigate the issuance of visas by the Maltese Consulate in Algiers between March 2014 and September 2015. During this period, 14,640 applications were received, of which 6,779 were issued a visa while 7,589 were refused. The National Audit Office (NAO) established that 99.5% of applications were decided within the 15-days stipulated in the Visa Code. Notwithstanding this, 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 is of the opinion 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. 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 also acknowledges the possible effect that the high refusal rate may have had on agents and other third parties, which rate was deemed significant when compared to that of other representations in Algeria. 

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 must be considered in terms of the regulatory framework that allows for free, unrecorded movement within Schengen.

The NAO established that the government was aware of the allegations made in relation to the Consulate. This Office deemed action taken by the government as 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. 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. 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.

The Consul was engaged following an internal call for applications for commercial representatives issued by the Malta Enterprise, with consular duties forming part of this role. While the NAO acknowledges 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.

This report may be accessed through the National Audit Office website or on its Facebook page