Should we resign to see visas become a profitable business as much for the countries of immigration as for some transnationals decided to take over this lucrative sector? In Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, Togo and many other African countries, citizens are reduced to a feeling of helplessness in the face of ongoing or announced privatization of visa application collection services by the French diplomatic missions on the continent. Not only satisfied with the financial windfall represented by the many visa applications received each year (78 million Euro of net profit in 2011 only for France), the countries of immigration are increasingly outsourcing their visa application services to private providers. The burden falls on the citizens of African countries, forced to apply for visas for all travel, to pay a high price to get the ticket. And yet this situation could be avoided if African politicians had the courage to denounce the injustice of visa requirements for their citizens.
The requirement of visas for certain populations of our planet and the exemption for others is one of the major inequalities of this 21st century. An inequality based on the chance of birth. We do not choose our parents, we do not choose the country where we want to be born. Many Africans would have liked to be born in Germany, South Korea or the United States to benefit from the many advantages offered to the passport holders of these countries. By chance, they were born in Africa. This fact, of which they have no control, obliges them throughout their existence to live under the authorization regime in order to travel. Their skills and their human qualities will never know anything in the eyes of consular agents who have all the power to prevent their mobility in this globalized world. One can not fail to mention the humiliations suffered by African executives for having a European or American visa in order to make a trip beneficial for their country as well as for their family. The visa requirement makes an African manager a person of less value than a tramp from a European country who is not even asked to justify his job and his income in order to travel. Yet we dream of a world where no one will be left behind on behalf of the Sustainable Development Goals. By 2030, and despite the new Global Compact on Migration, nothing is less certain.
The outsourcing of the collection of visa applications to transnational companies (VFS, TLS, CAPAGO, …) raises the delicate question of the privatization of public services but the equally important question of the lucrative market offered to an oligopoly of actors. With administrative fees ranging from 30 US $ to 150 US $ depending on services and countries, private companies are guaranteed substantial revenues from the citizens of the “poor” countries of the world. Another inequality in this world where citizens of “poor” countries spend astronomical sums to get a visa and buy a plane ticket at the last minute. At the same time, the more affluent citizens of “rich” countries do not even need to make these expenses.
A small illustration of the profitable business of visas for embassies and subcontractors. Take a country like Mali, considered one of the poorest in Africa, the French Consulate received about 19,000 visa applications in 2018 at a cost of 60 Euro (68 US $) which represents an approximate turnover 1,140,000 Euro (1,292,897 US $). With the privatization of visa collection since January 2019, Malians applying for a visa pay an additional administrative fee of around 30 Euro (34 US $) to the service provider. The turnover of the company could be estimated at least 570,000 Euro (646,448 US $). A real outsourcing of visa services would have been that a collection office moved to a city far from the capital like Kayes, famous for the migratory culture of its inhabitants. The latter would no longer have to make the long journey to Bamako to apply for their visa. On the contrary, the outsourcing of services is limited to open a collection office a few minutes from the French consulate by charging more Malian citizens for the benefit of a Western company without even the guarantee of having their visa. A bitter pill to swallow.
Leaving aside the legal aspects of European directives that exempt family members from European citizens, the most sensitive issue of visa privatization is the protection of data collected by businesses. Private agents will have access to identity documents, contracts, payslips, bank statements and other important documents for individuals or companies. Even if these documents simply pass through their hands to finish in the consulates, the risks are very real and the violence that it constitutes for the applicants is another.
In a recent speech on the issue of visas in a West African country, I was challenged by a person in her words: “They do not want us in France, so why continue to want to go“. A phrase that reflects a feeling of weariness in the face of these multiple barriers visible and invisible implemented to restrict the mobility of Africans. But to yield to this inevitability of the walls erected between the peoples and to undergo this injustice promoted by xenophobic policies would be to betray the humanist values. Mobility can not be a privilege reserved for certain social categories in a world so connected and interdependent but a right recognized for all in the name of our humanity. In this respect, birds, fish and other animals have more rights or freedom in mobility than Africans living under the authorization of the regime for any movement.
Human history has brought people together at the mercy of conquests and common struggles. Colonization certainly has a bad side in itself, but it has allowed us to unite with Europe, Asia and the world through links of languages and cultures. Millions of Africans are thus educated in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish or Arabic, learning as well the history of the peoples at the origin of these languages. Its links are perpetuated by organizations such as La Francophonie and the Commonwealth. It is therefore our responsibility, in the name of these links, to claim free mobility as a right and not to beg for it as a gift given to us for traveling. Europeans, Americans, Asians will remain welcome in Africa to enjoy our sun and the many resources offered by this wonderful continent. It is up to Africans to go beyond the silence and compromises of our governments in the face of their counterparts from other continents, to make the people of Europe, Asia and America understand that we want the same reciprocity in free movement to live together in a world of equality and fraternity.
(Written by Samir ABI, Permanent Secretary of West African Observatory on Migrations)
 2013 Report of Finance Committee of French National Assembly