"They are the visa mercenaries," Rosa Teixeira Ribeiro, secretary general of the STCDE - Union of Consular Workers and Diplomatic Missions Abroad, told Lusa, who has seen with apprehension the growth in the outsourcing of Portuguese State services.

At issue is the Portuguese Government's option to outsource visa applications to external service providers, which is provided for in the European Union Visa Code, as well as its contractual conditions.

Official information from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MNE) states that the use of these certified companies aims to ensure "a service closer to visa applicants".

These companies accept, in exchange for a service fee, requests for treatment to obtain a national visa for Portugal, whose decision is always up to the Portuguese State, through the embassies.

Currently, the information provided by the MNE website (Diplomatic Portal) indicates that Portugal has contracted these services in 21 countries, which translates into a territorial coverage of 77 cities.

Lusa found that in 18 of these 21 countries, the company that handles these visa applications is VFS Global, which operates in 144 countries through 3,395 centres, with 66 government customers.

The other companies providing this service to Portugal are TLS (in two countries) and BLS (present in one country).

Contacted by Lusa, a source from the VFS communication office said that the company has been working with the Portuguese Government since November 2008, dealing with "administrative matters related to visa, passport and consular services applications".

Consular officials have the task of evaluating and deciding on the applications, prepared by VFS, at a cost that can vary between 22 and 40 euros for the applicant, according to information from the company.

On the VFS Global website, the company indicates that, since 2001, it has dealt with 248,402,862 applications in the various countries where they operate.

Access to documents

One of the reasons that leads the STCDE to criticize this use of companies is related to the content of the documents to which they have access.

"It is worrying when such confidential information is placed in the hands of people who have nothing to do with Portugal, in addition to the fact that, despite not deciding on applications, the way they handle the processes can be decisive for the approval or lead of the request", said Rosa Teixeira Ribeiro.

To Lusa, the Portuguese MNE indicated that "monitoring is carried out by each of the [EU] Member States and is subject to control and supervision by the European Commission".

"Its service is always established through the signing of contracts, safeguarding the protection of applicants' data, in accordance with the EU Visa Code" and the legislation "concerning the protection of natural persons, with regard to the processing of personal data and the free movement of such data".

Regarding payment, the MNE states that the fees established in the law in force, which approves the Table of Consular Fees, are charged, as well as contractual administrative service fees.

The regulation of service fees establishes that "the service fee must be proportional to the costs borne by the external service provider in carrying out the tasks, and cannot exceed half of the fixed fees".

For Rosa Teixeira Ribeiro, "Portugal must have the means to ensure the continuation of the [Public] Administration abroad" and "this Administration has a component that is visas".

And that's why she defends a greater investment in human resources and less in external companies, questioning: "Eighteen in 21? This is an authentic monopoly".