Visa violation!
British HC's privatised visa office shatters Palm Grove's peace and tranquillity
By Marisa de Silva
"Shorter queues and longer opening hours for UK visa applicants," stated a press release from the British High Commission last month, announcing its 'improved visa application facilities in Colombo'. "The new procedures have been introduced after detailed consultations with visa applicants with an aim of eliminating the long queues outside the British High Commission,” the release added.

There certainly is no queue outside the British High Commission on Galle Road, in Kollupitiya. However, it has emerged at the High Commission's new Visa Application Centre at 29, Palm Grove, Colombo 3. This office, which was opened on July 22, is run by the Indian-based Visa Facilitation Service (VFS), an outsource agency authorised by the British High Commission to accept applications and provide guidance to would-be applicants.

The office is open from 8 a.m to noon and from 1 p.m. to 3.30 p.m. from Monday to Thursday and from 8 a.m to 12.30 p.m on Friday. Though the High Commission had consulted visa applicants to improve the service, it has apparently not consulted residents of Palm Grove, one of Colombo's oldest residential areas, with more than 20 houses located in a tranquil setting. These residents are protesting against the presence of the new visa office, saying it has shattered their peace.

Palm Grove resident Mangala Gunasekera said that they could not even open their front doors because people in the queue could see right into their homes. Besides, the residents are forced to comply with requests for water and the use of toilets from weary applicants in the queue, he said.

The sound pollution caused by a surge in vehicular movements up and down the road and frequent verbal duels involving touts, applicants and security guards have gobbled up Palm Grove's tranquillity, Mr. Gunasekera said. "Vehicles are parked on both sides of the road, with only a narrow space available for single file traffic. This has caused a major traffic problem," Mr. Gunasekera said.

Another resident said the problems began as early as 3 in the morning with visa applicants coming in vehicles and parking outside the doorsteps of residences."An Englishman treats his home like his castle," said this irate resident, adding that the High Commission had overlooked their inconvenience just because Sri Lanka was a Third World country. "In Dubai and Singapore, British visa offices are based in commercial areas. Why can't they relocate the visa office in a non-residential area?" he asked.

His wife said she found it impossible to get her car out of her house due to vehicles blocking their entrance. She said that at times she was forced to walk into the visa office and find the owner of the vehicle to get it removed. The residents said they had complained to the British High Commissioner, who gave them a patient hearing, but offered no solution.

The High Commissioner is reported to have told them that since the mission no longer dealt with visa applications and a private firm was handling it, there was very little he could do by way of redress. The residents also complained about the stench as their walls have been turned into urinals by some applicants.

One of the reasons cited by the High Commission in relocating the visa office at Palm Grove is that its Kollupitiya visa section was not spacious enough to accommodate a large number of applicants. But Palm Grove residents dismissing this claim said the new office was not even one tenth of the size of the High Commission's visa office.

The office also lacks proper shelters for the applicants and adequate parking facilities. The litter the applicants leave behind has polluted a hitherto well-maintained area. Residents said there were instances when the CMC garbage truck couldn't enter the lane due to severe congestion. The CMC workers had even threatened to skip the Palm Grove garbage collection, if the situation did not improve.

The security aspect too must be addressed, said another resident citing last week's suspected anthrax threat to the US Embassy. "We've never felt so insecure in our own neighbourhood as we do now," he added. Some security personnel have been deployed to ease the traffic jam and bring some order in the queue, but it has not solved the problems of the Palm Grove residents or helped restore the peace and tranquillity they enjoyed before July 22.

We are doing our best to help residents, says visa company
"These are just the initial teething problems," said S.S. Gopinath, Country Manager for VFS India (Pvt) Ltd. "Give us a little more time, things will definitely improve."

Explaining why they selected Palm Grove, Mr. Gopinath said factors such as proximity to the High Commission and easy accessibility for visa applicants made them choose this location. The interior of the office too met with the specifications required and it had been a well thought-out decision, he said.

Asked if any of their other offices abroad were located in residential areas, he said their offices in India and Malaysia were located in residential areas and they encountered no problems. Mr. Gopinath said his company had taken measures to minimise inconvenience to the residents of the area.

"We make applicants aware that they do not have to queue up from early morning. The applicants are free to walk in any time during the specified office hours and have been advised not to disturb the residents or the peace of the area.

Those accompanying the applicants are asked not to loiter around but to come later, so that the congestion can be reduced. Notices to this effect have been put up outside the office in all three languages," he said.

As regards the traffic congestion on the road, he said they were working with the police to allow applicants to park their vehicles either on Duplication Road or on the road parallel to it at the end of Palm Grove. "The situation is worsened by road construction which is now underway," he admitted.

Mr. Gopinath said the Palm Grove office processed about 120-150 applications a day and had enough seating facilities to accommodate all the applicants. He said extra security had been deployed to maintain order. "We are in constant touch with the residents and are trying our best to improve the situation," he said.

British HC passes the buck
British High Commission Press Officer Margaret Tongue said residents should direct their complaints to the VFS which is handling the visa office at Palm Grove.

When asked who was responsible for taking the decision to relocate the visa section in a residential area and what steps would be taken to redress the grievances of the residents, Ms. Tongue was tight-lipped.

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