July Issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

In 2008, Amir Jamil* a young banker from Lahore, planned to visit Canada. Having already applied for Canadian immigration with his family, he thought everything was under control, but while checking his documents he discovered that his Permanent Resident card was two days away from expiring. Upon learning this, Jamil panicked. His roommate offered to help by introducing him to “a friend of a friend,” Zamir Islam,* who claimed to be a lawyer with a Canadian immigration firm. Jamil did a quick background check to discover that “his father knew of my father.” Knowing this he handed over $20,000 to Islam as advance payment to get him back into Canada. Islam planned to produce fake documents proving that Jamil worked for a ghost company in Canada called Gultrans and would then get Jamil and his sister through immigration as Islam claimed he had ‘contacts’ at the border. Islam also promised to travel with Jamil and his sister to guarantee their safe arrival in Toronto. So, in October 2008 Jamil boarded a plane to Canada. The plan was to meet Islam mid-way at Abu Dhabi airport from where they would proceed to Canada’s largest city together. Jamil also paid for Islam’s first-class ticket since Islam claimed he had arthritis, while Jamil travelled in economy class. Once everyone was on the plane, Islam bailed, faking illness and was immediately off-loaded, leaving Jamil stranded. Jamil says he walked into the one-room clinic at Abu Dhabi airport to overhear the doctor asking Islam, “Why he was in no mood to travel?” Jamil eventually discovered that Islam, a self-professed immigration expert, was not a qualified lawyer at all. He had lost out on $20,000 and spent a miserable night at Abu Dhabi airport.

There are hundreds of stories like Jamil’s where suave agents claiming to be specialised immigration consultants have cheated unsuspecting clients out of their money. Haroon Rashid, CEO of IASS Business Worldwide, a recognised immigration consultancy in Lahore, is amazed “that even educated applicants are so naïve” and are tricked by fake consultants. But do the fraudsters really have the upper hand?

Immigration consultancies have sprung up by the thousands, promising a hassle-free experience as they take over the paperwork from families and individuals wanting to migrate. They charge a non-refundable consultancy fee that varies from consultant to consultant and from one application to another. Some consultants charge Rs. 10,000-15,000 for reviewing an application while others may charge a total of Rs. 25,000 and additional fees are added on at every stage of the application procedure. The United Kingdom, Canada and Australia are the top three choices for families and individuals looking to migrate from Pakistan — with Malaysia running close behind.

Consultants also help Pakistanis navigate the intricate “points system.” The points system is a kind of barometer that measures the eligibility of each candidate for migration, in the three top countries. All three prioritise those in highly skilled professions — Australia prefers applicants under 45 and accountants, computer professionals, dentists, carpenters and nurses, to name a few, are some of the top in-demand professions. The UK prefers applicants under 30 and lists doctors, scientists and engineers amongst others, under the HSMP (Highly Skilled Immigrant Programme) while a PhD earns applicants the most points. Applicants for Canada can increase their number of points if they are fluent in both French and English as Canadians measure an adaptability factor, along with other factors.

Finding a consultant is not difficult at all in Pakistan, says Mahmood Ahmed, marketing manager of Sun Consulting (Pvt.) Ltd. “There are more so-called immigration consultancies than local paan shops — one around every corner.” They make for a tempting alternative to the long lines at the embassy, but one has to be very careful to invest in recognised and legal consultancies. Haroon Rashid says, “Many of them who have been bitten have approached us. In the Independent Skilled Worker category, almost 60% have been cheated the first time, learnt their lesson the hard way and come to us for advice. They are afraid, apprehensive and extremely gullible. Some of the consultants these applicants accuse are big names, companies that advertise heavily and have set-ups that are almost intimidating.”

Doing proper, basic background checks is not difficult. Immigration consultants for Canada now have a CSIC number and are listed on the CSIC website. The 16 registered agents for Australia in Pakistan are listed under International Business and Introduction Brokers (INBIB). An adviser at Global Work and Live Migration services spoke to Newsline to reveal that they are the sole Australian registered migration consultants in Karachi and all qualifying agencies have Migration Agents Registration Numbers (MARN) to prove that they are legally registered. Some UK immigration consultants are registered with the Offices of Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC), while legitimate educational consultants should represent universities listed on the “Tier 4” list on the UK Border Agency’s website. Tier 4 universities in category A have been certified as authentic by the UK government.

02Immigration07-10Qadri International specialises in student visas. During a telephone conversation, Ilyas Qadri of Qadri International revealed that thousands of people process applications through his agency, with a “98% success rate.” Qadri transferred the line to the coordinator at Qadri International, who took over and said that their consultancy has links with 30-50 universities in Malaysia, Australia and the UK, among others, but she refused to divulge the names of the universities. She claimed that Qadri International had been in the same location since 1986, while the mark of a fake consultancy is that they change addresses frequently to disappear after students file their applications.

Pakistani authorities are well aware of this tactic of changing locations. Shakeel Durrani, acting director of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), in Karachi, spoke to Newsline, and admitted that the FIA has a problem targeting fake consultancies. Most consultancies do not have a permanent location, he says, and hence tracing them is very difficult.

Syed Iqbal Ghazi, president of Sun Consultancy, says it is really very easy to identify a legitimate consultant. According to Ghazi “people have clear choices” as they only have to look for the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants (CSIC) number that immigration consultants for Canada have to verify their authenticity. Another way to spot a fake consultant is to evaluate the content of advertisements in newspapers to avoid “junk ads or heavy advertisements.” He explained that junk ads are long ads, with photographs, spread over a number of pages, with little information regarding the consultant’s qualifications and long paragraphs on his achievements and pictures. Some consultancies make promises that they cannot deliver. Mr. Ghazi went on to say that he was also concerned about “one-stop shops” consultancies that offer to assist in migration to multiple countries.

Haroon Rashid agrees that spotting a fake consultant is simple. “The demeanour, the size of the advertisement, the charges and the text of the advertisement are all giveaways.” He advises all applicants to check the Canadian government’s website, which is full of guidelines, and elaborates that “anyone who guarantees this or that, specially a job offer, are usually fakes.” But Rashid explains that many migrants are quickly conned. “Once an applicant walks in, they are simply trapped by the gloss, glitter and the size of the office. They are made to look so small in the face of the office that they get taken in easily — they are almost forced to sign on. Some offices have elaborate surveillance cameras and guards, and so it seems that you are entering Fort Knox — it’s a wonderful way of laying hands on innocent and inconsequential applicants who are desperate to do anything to get out of Pakistan.”

But according to Ghazi, all the information is available on the Internet and there is no “secret” knowledge that consultants have that the people don’t. The reason why people still approach consultants is to simplify the process. Jamil, recalling his experience, says that in hindsight if he had travelled to Canada by himself and approached the immigration desk for help, he would have been spared the ugly incident with the fake consultant.

Haroon Rashid explains that the problem exists because no authorisation from the government of Canada or any regulatory body is needed to operate in Pakistan. “Even a friend can become a representative for an applicant according to Canadian rules, he says. “However, if a firm is offering such services, the Canadians recommend that they be authorised advisors, meaning authorised to offer the Investor program, a member of the CSIC, or member of one of the provincial law societies such as the Quebec Bar. It is ultimately the responsibility of the applicant to ensure that he or she is engaging a bonafide consultant. The Pakistani government has no special rules either, except the normal registration of a sole proprietorship or a limited company.”

An investigative journalist who has been looking into fake consultancies in Lahore revealed that there are over 1,000 consultancies in the city of Lahore and this is one profession where there are no regulations by the government. He claims that in the past three to four years alone, allegedly 300-400 colleges in the UK have been discovered to be fakes. The journalist knew of students who had been in limbo for over seven months because their consultancies told them that the colleges they had applied to had shut down and they had to wait for further information.

Spokesperson FIA Punjab Masood Naseem recounted his own experience of going through HR Consultants Pvt. Limited, an immigration consultancy in Lahore, for studies in the UK. Through HR Consultants he received his visa in time. He warned that students should be wary of consultancies that claim to represent ‘colleges’, and not registered and recognised universities. He said that newspapers are full of advertisements of immigration consultancies because there is no formal registration system for such businesses. According to Naseem, the FIA has recommended that these companies be formally registered. He says immigration consultants should be registered with the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment, which was set up in 1971, under the Ministry of Labour and Manpower. The FIA operates according to the conditions in the Immigration Ordinance, 1979, and tackles those consultancies that forge documents. Naseem went on to say that there is no definition of a consultancy and that has proven to be the biggest hurdle. According to the FIA’s statistics, in 2010 there are 11 inquires against educational consultants in Lahore and three out of those are against Future Concern Associates. (An inquiry does not mean the company has been charged with the crime. It only means that the FIA is investigating the consultancy based on a formal complaint that they have received). According to a 2004 report in Dawn, Future Concern Associates had eight inquires against them with the FIA.

Asim Malik, CEO of Future Concern Associates, says that his “consultancy has dealt with tens of thousands of applicants over the years, and if even two per cent of these applicants, hypothetically speaking, get their visa rejected, they blame the consultancy since they have invested a large sum of money in the application procedure.” When asked whether he held a valid license to operate or was a registered consultant, Asim Malik made the distinction between Pakistani laws and laws in other countries. He said Canada has a law that only CSIC members can be consultants, but the Pakistani Interior Ministry has no law regarding the operation of consultants. Malik has, allegedly, written to the interior ministry in 2006, asking them to formulate laws pertaining to the function of immigration consultancies and has followed that up with several requests, but the ministry has not, to date, defined a law. Malik said he too would like transparency on the matter since Pakistan does not have a defined migration policy. According to Malik, he has never had a case registered against him, and inquiries are only “baseless allegations.” He said he has not violated section 17 or section 22 of the Immigration Ordinance of 1979.

Section 17 (4) states “Whoever, in contravention of the provisions of section 9, recruits a citizen of Pakistan or holds an interview or examination or issues an advertisement for such recruitment, and the editor, printer and publisher of a newspaper in which such advertisement is published, shall be liable to punishment provided by subsection (2).”

Section 22 deals with receiving money, etc, for providing foreign employment: “Whoever, for providing or securing, or on the pretext of providing or securing, to or for any person employment in any country; beyond the limits of Pakistan.

(a) Being an overseas employment promoter, charges any fee in addition to the prescribed amount, or

(b) Not being such a promoter, demands or receives, or attempts to receive, for himself or for any other valuable thing shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to fourteen years, or with fine or with both.”

Amanat Ali Anjum, Manager Education of HR Consultants maintains that there are over 500 educational consultancies in Pakistan and only 10 out of the 500 are legitimate and honest. It is a simple process for immigration consultancies that deal with student visas: the university pays a fee to the consultancy to represent them in Pakistan and the consultancy handles the paper work for students seeking a study visa. But Anjum says fake consultants all over Pakistan have abused this system heavily. According to Anjum, over 4,000, two-to-four room colleges were set in up the UK over a 10 year period and approved by the British Accreditation Council (BAC). When BAC caught on to the “fake college” scam in April 2009, the British Border Agency stepped in and went on to publish the Tier 4 (list) of the Points Based System for Managed Migration. This list names those universities that are registered as “A rated” and the Highly Trusted Sponsors, hence are legitimate and trusted. The “B rating” on the Tier 4 list is a transitional rating, which means that the sponsor is downgraded if a serious offence is committed, along with other additional reasons listed on the UK Border Agency website. Anjum spoke of an incident that took place in 2008, when a fake college by the name of Cambridge Learning College, in East London, granted visas for immigrants to study at the college and charged 2,500-4,000 pounds for each qualification. It was selling diplomas for cash and the Home Office rejected 2,500 visas on the basis of this. Saif Ullah, a Pakistani national was the principal and owner of the college and he had personally signed thousands of diplomas whilst operating from a five-room set-up. The UK Border Agency has since stepped up its efforts in carrying out inspections and raids into privately run colleges to eradicate the fake ones. Amanat explains that the UK has not decreased the number of visas it issues, but has become wary of fake consultants. According to Anjum, by June 30, 2010, fake colleges will be shut down in the UK, but very few “obstinate” and illegal ones may remain.

With increasing suspicious activities and doctoring of documents, British Council officials have now announced that all recognised universities are registered with British border control, but this is still not enough to deter illegal agents. Underneath huge signboards with beaming students smiling and clutching degrees, there are two- and three-room offices with derelict interiors and suave agents who lure desperate students. News items warn against these smooth-talking agents with one website saying, “If it’s too good too be true, it is.” The arrests of 11 Pakistan-born nationals in Britain on student visas last year revealed a host of fake documents. Amid fears of terrorism and intensifying competition for jobs in difficult economic times, citizens and politicians in the West are ringing alarm bells. The British High Commissioner in Islamabad issued a statement in 2008 saying “We will take swift action against anyone trying to cheat the UK visa system,” and “mostly, that means agents providing false documents, or applicants trying to use them in their application. But we will also act where we find instances of internal fraud.”

And in Pakistan, despite the difficulties it encounters, the FIA continues to work against bogus immigration consultants. But clearly, the system is failing. What will the government do to seriously crack down on illegal immigration offices?

Foreign countries at the receiving end of this dubious immigration system are asking the same question and don’t plan to sit still waiting for Pakistan to get their house in order. The Canadian immigration minister Jason Kenney has warned that there are more ghost consultants than those registered with the CSIC. “It’s about time to exorcise these ghosts. Our international reputation, and our national security, depends on it.”

Perhaps it will take more foreign pressure for the Pakistani authorities to do more. But it shouldn’t have to. Many honest Pakistani citizens are being taken advantage of and swindled. Amir Jamil says that in the absence of government regulation there is no other way to complete the process, other than to do it yourself. Of course, regulation only solves part of the problem. He says “Our government should offer a life in Pakistan, so no one should want to leave.”

*Certain names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

Maheen Bashir Adamjee is an APNS award-winning journalist. She was an editorial assistant at Newsline from 2010-2011.