In-depth | Visa

Visametric vs. the people

By - 15.05.2023

Suspect practices from private visa-processing center Visametric are brought to a halt.

A verdict from April 27, 2023 was publicly reported on May 9. Kosovo’s Commercial Court prohibited the visa-processing center Visametric from forcing Schengen visa applicants to pay additional money to receive passports by courier service. The verdict requires Visametric to enable applicants to collect their passports directly from the Visametric offices.

Visametric is a private company which has been contracted by the German Embassy since September 2022 to process visa applications in Kosovo. The lawsuit against the company was filed by lawyer Flamur Abdullahu in November 2022.

Germany was among the last EU states to outsource these services to private companies. Most did so between 2013 and 2015. Today, TLScontact and VFS Global process visa applications for states such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, France, Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Visametric, which operates in 11 countries, has required Kosovars to pay an additional 30 euro fee to send items to applicants by courier service. This mandatory fee was the same for everybody, whether they lived in the same Prishtina neighborhood as the Visametric office or in a different municipality outside Prishtina. There were cases where members of the same family paid 30 euros each despite their passports being delivered to the same address bundled together in a single envelope.

Visametric charges Kosovars more for courier services than they do in any other country where they operate. In Azerbaijan, document delivery is an additional service and costs 10 euros. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan the service costs seven euros, in Turkey six euros and in Iran nine euros. In Russia and Ukraine, the fee depends on the destination. Most of these states have higher GDPs per capita than Kosovo. Meanwhile, the Visa Code that regulates visa application procedures for EU member states calls for fees that are adapted to local circumstances.

K2.0 February 2023 article “We are in a real ghetto,” notes that Visametric did not allow applicants to decide whether they wanted to receive their passports by mail or if they wanted to collect them from the Visametric office. While Visametric’s website listed delivery as an additional service, interviewees said the website did not allow them to not choose delivery. They also said that at the Visametric office they were given a document which they had to sign stating that the applicant agreed to have their passport delivered despite the fact that they had expressed the desire to collect it in person. According to them, in addition to having to pay 30 euros per passport delivered, Visametric required them to sign a document stating that they do not hold Visametric responsible if their passport is lost by the courier service.

From April 27, 2023, the Commercial Court’s decision prohibits Visametric from forcing customers to sign such documents.

As reported in “We are in a real ghetto,” the Visa Code requires that the amount for service payments should not exceed 40 euros. Visametric required a total of 60 euros — 30 for their service and 30 for mandatory courier services. 

Regardless of the Visa Code, the recent news about Visametric shows that the requirement for applicants to pay for delivery is contrary to the Consumer Protection Law. As an economic operator registered in Kosovo, Visametric is obliged to respect this law.

How did the Commercial Court come to its decision?

Since its establishment in February 2022, the Commercial Court judges all commercial disputes and administrative conflicts. K2.0 requested and received the court’s decision on Visametric.

According to these documents, some of which have been public since May 9, in November 2022, lawyer Flamur Abdullahu submitted a lawsuit and a proposal for a temporary measure against Visametric in the Commercial Court. According to the Law on Consumer Protection, until a final decision is made the court can issue a temporary measure ordering the suspension of procedures that violate the collective interests of consumers.

Visametric was asked to stop requiring applicants to pay for delivery and to allow applicants to pick up their passports themselves at a VisaMetric office. It also called Visametric to stop its practice of forcing applicants to pay 60 euros for additional prime-time services during December, which allows applicants to submit their visa application outside usual working hours.

At the end of December 2022, the court partially approved Abdullahu’s proposal. As a result, Visametric was prohibited from requiring applicants to receive their passports by delivery, making applicants pay for delivery and making applicants sign to agree to receive their passport by courier (including the online form where the courier service is automatically selected by Visametric). The decision called for Visametric to allow applicants to collect their passports at the Visametric office. The proposal to stop seeking payment for prime-time services was rejected.

This decision initially did not enter into force because Visametric appealed it on January 17. The court rejected the appeal and on March 15 reaffirmed its December decision. Visametric lodged a complaint against the decision and on April 27 the court issued a final verdict re-confirming their March 15 decision and rejecting Visametric’s appeal as groundless.

With the decision now final, Kosovars can no longer be obliged to pay for courier service delivery and have the right to choose whether they want to pick up their passport at the Visametric office or receive it by mail.

MIET said that after the inspection and identification of irregularities the organization will initiate court proceedings against Visametric.

There have been increasing complaints made about Visametric. On April 27, 2023, the same day the final decision on the courier service fees was delivered, the Ministry of Industry, Enterprise and Trade (MIET) indicated in a press release that in recent months it has received a large number of complaints from consumers about the services and payments made to VisaMetric. The Market Inspectorate is part of this Ministry and responsible for ensuring compliance with the Law on Consumer Protection.

MIET told K2.0 that complaints against Visametric started in October 2022 and increased through the beginning of 2023. Four complaints were filed in 2022 and 90 complaints in 2023. According to MIET, these complaints are mainly related to each applicant having to pay a delivery fee for their passport, even though they were family members and the passports were sent to the same address. Other complaints were due to applicants not being reimbursed when encountering problems in the application process and after the cancellation of visa appointments.

During the investigation, the Market Inspectorate also found violations in the content of the document which Visametric obliged applicants to sign regarding receiving their passport.

In communication with K2.0, a representative from MIET said that after the inspection and identification of irregularities, the organization will initiate court proceedings against Visametric. As of May 2, the representative was unaware of the recent Commercial Court decision against Visametric.

MIET has also confirmed that they are asking Visametric to reimburse citizens whose complaints were found to be grounded and that they have notified representatives of the German Embassy, which contracts Visametric, about the findings of the investigation.

The German Embassy has not issued any public statements regarding the complaints received by MIET or on the decisions made public on May 9.

When K2.0 raised the issue of forcing applicants to pay for delivery a few months ago, the Embassy responded that due to the high demand in Kosovo, the German Federal Office for Foreign Affairs has approved this practice. According to them, this was done to maximize the number of applications received and processed and to avoid overcrowding at the visa center.

The responsibility of local institutions

On April 18, 2023, the European Parliament voted in favor of visa liberalization for Kosovars. This decision is expected to enter into force no later than January 1, 2024 or earlier after the implementation of the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS), the EU’s border control system.

From 2014 to 2021, Kosovars spent roughly 99 million euros on about 600,000 Schengen visa applications, of which about 20% were rejected.

Although the issue of visa liberalism is often discussed, Kosovo’s institutions had never addressed the violations that the citizens of Kosovo faced over the years. 

Kosovars have faced an expensive and drawn-out visa application process characterized by frequent violations of the Visa Code, which K2.0 identified in our article from February. One of these violations relates to the waiting time for a visa application appointment, which instead of being two weeks, as called for in the Visa Code, was between one and five months.

People who are exempt from visa fees have also often ended up paying. Frequent travelers have not had access to assistance and the Cascade system, which regulates the duration of visas and calls for progressively longer visas for repeat applicants, has not been respected. Interviewees also expressed their concerns about the protection of personal data during the processing of their applications.

According to Donika Emini, PhD candidate in politics and international relations at Westminster University in London and researcher and expert on issues related to the EU, the guarantee of dignified treatment of citizens should have been addressed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at three levels: with the embassies of the EU states in Kosovo on a bilateral level, with the Ministries of Internal Affairs of the EU member countries and with the EU representatives in Kosovo and Brussels.

Emini mentioned the case of Belarus, which in 2020 signed an agreement with the EU to facilitate visa applications for its citizens. The agreement aimed to make it easier for citizens of Belarus to obtain short-term visas and to make the process less expensive by shortening the time taken to issue visas by reducing the number of documents that certain categories of travelers must submit to the embassy, among other measures to expedite the process.

K2.0 asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about its plans regarding this, but received no response. Neither the Office of the Prime Minister of Kosovo, head of the European Integration Commission Rrezarta Krasniqi, first deputy head Fjolla Ujkani, nor second deputy head Fridon Lala have answered K2.0’s questions regarding what they’ve done to address violations and facilitate the visa application process for Kosovars.

Feature Image: K2.0.

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