ISLAMABAD: While the British High Commission hogs on to its claim of having lost just 150 Pakistani passports, additional evidence has come to light suggesting that the scam involves thousands of lost travel documents.
A Pakistani investigating agency is in possession of a list of 3,362 passports, which are believed to have gone missing at one time.
The investigators do not preclude the possibility of some of those passports having been traced subsequently, but say they do not have any information of such recoveries.
Nevertheless, the sheer number of passports suspected to be missing reflects the enormity of the crisis.
Separately, investigators are probing fresh allegations of theft of visa stickers from passports.
The scandal surfaced late last year when the high commission reported unusually high number of lost passports.
An inquiry was initiated by the mission, but it is not yet known what actually caused the loss of such a large number of passports.
Extensive investigations by Dawn, involving interviews with officials at out-sourced visa application centres and employees of the high commission, revealed that the case had roots in the change of visa processing procedures introduced after the implementation of ‘hub and spoke’ model, which had last year also caused a massive visa application logjam at the British mission in Islamabad.
The high commission initially tried to send all passports to Abu Dhabi – the regional hub – for ‘decision making’.
One of the consignments, it has been revealed, was seized by the UAE authorities, who got suspicious about the transfer of a large number of passports.
The matter was eventually resolved on intervention from London, but not before an unspecified number of passports had been lost.
Consequently, the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) which manages visa operations, sources said, increased pressure on Islamabad to permit the transfer of passports to Abu Dhabi for processing.
But, pending the official authorisation from the Pakistan government that was given in January this year, the shipment of passports abroad was suspended. It was precisely at this juncture, it is believed, that a larger number of passports went missing.
How did it happen? Sources disclosed that when VSF, a private firm, joined Gerry’s in handling the UK visa application centres in Pakistan, it found huge stacks of unattended passports lying in their stores. It is said the passports were then properly listed and sent to the high commission.
The list of 3,362 passports was shared by the sources with this correspondent. It is said that subsequently nothing was heard about those passports.
“It is quite possible that when the visa logjam ended, BHC officials were not able to properly correlate the application forms returned from Abu Dhabi with piled-up passports, and conveniently reported lost documents.”
When asked to comment, spokesman for the high commission said the passports had been transferred under strict UKBA observation and secure procedures.
He explained the process employed for shifting passports, but did not explicitly deny that 3,362 passports had been transferred and most of them remain unaccounted. He also did not say anything about seizure of a consignment of passports by UAE authorities.
Another aspect that was revealed by Dawn’s investigation is the poor perusal of documents sent to FIA for verification.
There is no independent confirmation that this could be one of the reasons behind the loss of passports, but sources insisted it had regularly resulted in loss of documents.
“BHC hardly pursues the cases it sends for verification to FIA. It is left to the applicants, if they ever come to know that their documents are being scrutinised, to push for expeditious verification and return of those documents to the high commission or else they remain there (at FIA) forever.”
The spokesman denied this saying: “There is no link between missing passports and verification at FIA.”
In a new twist to the saga, some applicants have reported that on receipt of their passports they found out that visa stickers for other countries were missing.
In at least one instance the FIA is currently probing theft of five Schengen visa stickers at Gerry’s.
There are other cases in which it has been alleged that stickers were removed while the passports were in FIA’s possession for verification.
Sources indicated that a cover-up of the sticker theft was being worked out. The FIA authorities approached for comments refused to discuss the matter.
Clarifications were also sought from Gerry’s and VSF on the issue of lost passports and sticker theft, but they too declined to say anything.