The Auditor General's office has been unable to draw conclusions following allegations over the manner how the Maltese consulate issued visas in Algiers, but it found a "less than optimal" system for vetting applicants.
The Public Accounts Committee asked the Auditor General to investigate the matter in November 2015, after an Algerian travel agent had alleged that irregular payments were made by visa applicants for preferential treatment.
No evidence was provided in support of these claims and following referral to the Algerian Police by the travel agent, nothing illegal was established. The alleged wrongdoing did not include the consul.
The audit office investigation covered the period between March 2014 and September 2015. During this period, 14,640 applications were received, of which 6,779 were issued a visa while 7,589 were refused. 99.5% of applications were decided within the 15 days stipulated in the Visa Code.
"Notwithstanding this, there was no visibility over the process beyond the point when the Consul decides to issue or refuse a visa, at which stage third parties are involved. This heightened the risk of wrongdoing, precluding the National Audit Office from establishing whether the issuance of visas was intentionally prolonged to elicit payments for hastening thereof," the Audit Office said.
It said that the setting within which the consulate operated itself gave rise to allegations. The consulate operated from the same premises as VFS,the consulate’s external service provider, blurring the distinction between the two from the perspective of applicants.
Aggravating matters were the difficulties encountered by prospective applicants when seeking to schedule appointments with the VFS. Gaps in the screening process, attributed by the consul to a lack of resources, also resulted in "a less than optimal system" of vetting applicants.
Another factor was the poor contract management of the VFS by the consulate, with various contractual obligations not adhered to, with no consequence.
"The extent to which this and other shortcomings could be attributed to the lack of experience of the consul is debatable, with the language-related issues identified by this Office compounding matters. The NAO also acknowledges
the possible effect that the high refusal rate may have had on agents and other third parties, which rate was deemed significant when compared to that of other representations in Algeria."
During the period reviewed, arrivals from Algeria to Malta and departures from Malta to Algeria amounted to 5,083 and 2,664, respectively. Of the 5,083 arrivals and 2,664 departures, 3,696 and 882, respectively, travelled on the basis of a visa issued by the Consulate.
The NAO established that for every four arrivals presenting a visa issued by the consulate, there was one departure. At least 2,846 of the 3,696 arrivals did not have a corresponding departure. Of the 882 departures, in 32 instances, no
corresponding arrival was identified within the audit period. These discrepancies had to be considered in terms of the regulatory framework that allows for free, unrecorded movement within Schengen, the Audit Office said.
It said that the government was aware of the allegations made in relation to the
consulate and it acted appropriately by informing the police of the alleged irregularities. The police took action by seeking the views of persons of interest, including the consul and the Algerian travel agent, from whom most allegations originated.
"Whether any other action could have been taken by Government remains subject to debate, conditioned by the context within which the consulate was operating, as well as its operational setup. Moreover, the NAO acknowledges that there were aspects of the allegations beyond the control of the Consulate, particularly the involvement of the VFS and other agents in the visa process," the audit office said.
The consul was engaged following an internal call for applications for commercial representatives issued by the Malta Enterprise, with consular duties forming part of this role.
"While the NAO acknowledges an element of convergence in these responsibilities and that of a consul, this Office is of the understanding that the latter’s role encompasses a broader array of functions that extend beyond the promotion of business. The NAO contends that requirements deemed satisfactory for the appointment of a commercial representative may be inadequate in the selection of a consul," the audit office said.
Foreign Ministry to study auditor's report
In a reaction to the report, the Foreign Ministry said it would analyse the conclusions before deciding on its actions.
The ministry welcomed the fact, however, that the auditor had said it acted appropriately by calling in the police when the allegations became known.
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