A visa — at any price

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

There is much discussion in France, like across Europe, about tightening immigration controls. Jacques Lhuillery reports from the Ivory Coast capital Abidjan, with a glimpse of the miserable side of this sour debate.

The man falls to his knees and, with hands folded, demands forgiveness in the office of the French consul general — before being led out in handcuffs. He is one of thousands who, every year, strive to obtain a visa to France using false documents.

The Ivory Coast was once a haven of peace and stability in an otherwised troubled west Africa — until it was rocked by a military coup in December 1999. Until then, a yearly average of 12,000 Ivorians applied for a visa to France but today the consulate delivers more than twice as many.

For the average Ivorian, former colonial power France represents a means to a new life and an end to economic misery. "Germany issues the same number of visas in a year as we do in a month," French Consul General, Bernard Demange, says. Indeed, more Ivorians claim visas to france than to all the other countries of the European Union and the United States put together.

Out of the estimated 25,000 who are lucky enough to get short-term tourist visas, about 20 percent do not return. "That represents about 5,000 persons; in 10 years you have the equivalent of a medium-sized town," comments a consular official who did not want to be named.

According to French estimates, there are today some 80,000 Ivorians residing in France, of whom about half are staying on illegally.

Officials here cite the example of the world hairdressing championships held in Paris in October last year. Twenty Ivorians participated but only three came back.

While immigration is a recurrent and burning theme in Europe today, and especially in France, many officials say, on condition of anonymity, that the official policy on visa applicants is lax.

"We do not have any instructions to limit the number of visas issued. No quotas, no limitations," one such consular employee explains.

once a haven of peace and stability in an otherwised troubled west Africa — until it was rocked by a military coup in December 1999. Until then, a yearly average of 12,000 Ivorians applied for a visa to France but today the consulate delivers more than twice as many.

For the average Ivorian, former colonial power France represents a means to a new life and an end to economic misery. "Germany issues the same number of visas in a year as we do in a month," French Consul General, Bernard Demange, says. Indeed, more Ivorians claim visas to france than to all the other countries of the European Union and the United States put together.

Out of the estimated 25,000 who are lucky enough to get short-term tourist visas, about 20 percent do not return. "That represents about 5,000 persons; in 10 years you have the equivalent of a medium-sized town," comments a consular official who did not want to be named.

According to French estimates, there are today some 80,000 Ivorians residing in France, of whom about half are staying on illegally.

Officials here cite the example of the world hairdressing championships held in Paris in October last year. Twenty Ivorians participated but only three came back.

While immigration is a recurrent and burning theme in Europe today, and especially in France, many officials say, on condition of anonymity, that the official policy on visa applicants is lax.

"We do not have any instructions to limit the number of visas issued. No quotas, no limitations," one such consular employee explains.

e="dynamicanimation"> Outside the consulate, on the rue Lecoeur, where the French embassy is located in Abidjan's downtown Plateau quarter — hustlers and touts are promising the moon. A false birth certificate, a fake reservation in a French hotel, parking space and a place in the long queue of applicants — everything is up for sale.

A fake visa sells for between 10,000 and two million CFA francs (between EUR 15 and EUR 3,050). Some of the sharks are dressed in suits. They are approached by visa seekers to obtain false bank documents and attestations.

Many visa seekers ultimately do not make it. "We turn down about 30 percent of the visa seekers, most of these having presented us with false documents," Demange says. "They lament 'I have failed,' just as though they had sat for an examination."

The unsuccessful ones are immediately approached by the touts who often pass themselves off as people with links to the consulate. Their papers are looked into and 'jazzed up' for another try.

There are some who even forge papers to show that they are being backed by a well-known Ivorian parliamentary deputy, claiming that it was imperative for them to go to Paris to "chase away the bad spirits" surrounding former president Henri Konan Bedie, who lived in exile in France for two years after being toppled in December 1999. The papers claim that the visa seekers are mystics.

©AFP

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