UK embassy in capital to double visa handling

Applications from Karachi and Lahore to be routed here while investigators in Pakistan will continue to check documents' authenticity.

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ABU DHABI // The British embassy plans to double the number of visas processed this year as it becomes the regional centre for visa applications to the UK. A number of applications that would previously have been handled in Pakistan are now being routed to Abu Dhabi. The move could mark the first step in the embassy becoming the main processing hub for all visas submitted by residents of Middle East countries to enter the UK.

The embassy has doubled the number of staff assigned to process applications to cope with the expected increase in work, with some brought in from the Pakistan offices. There are now more than 45 visa workers in Abu Dhabi. Peter Chaplin, the regional manager of the UK Borders Agency, said: "What we had before in Islamabad was one main visa-processing hub and four points for applications in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and Mirpur that were then sent on to the High Commissioner's office.

"What we are now piloting is for work from Karachi and Lahore to be sent here instead." Visa work in Islamabad and Mirpur will continue and some staff will remain in Karachi and Lahore. Application forms and copies of all legal paperwork are sent by courier to Abu Dhabi from Pakistan, while investigators whose job is to verify the authenticity of documents such as university certificates will continue to work on behalf of the British government in Pakistan.

Mr Chaplin compared the development to similar set-ups that saw applications submitted to the British embassy in Kathmandu handled in Delhi, and those submitted in the Caribbean processed in New York. If successful, more services could eventually be transferred to Abu Dhabi. Mr Chaplin said that the 140,000 annual British visa applications lodged in Tehran could instead be processed in the capital, as well as, for example, the 20,000 lodged in Qatar and 15,000 in Bahrain.

An employment advertisement for the visa office that was circulated in recent months said: "By the end of 2009, we expect it to be handling up to 250,000 visa applications per year with a team of over 100 staff." Mr Chaplin said the decision on whether the centre would be expanded was likely to be taken by the end of the year. "Abu Dhabi isn't a large centre by any stretch of the imagination but if we decide to go ahead with this, and that decision has not been taken yet, we would look at Abu Dhabi potentially being a major centre of excellence for the Gulf region, Pakistan and Afghanistan," he said.

"It is a big 'if', but certainly not impossible. If we go ahead with this, and bring in all the work from Pakistan and Iran, we could be looking at 250,000 or so. "The region as a whole accounts for a fairly significant proportion of global applications [to the UK]. But it is a big question of whether we could do it all from one location." The busiest days can see 200 visa applications from various nationalities submitted to the embassy in Abu Dhabi.

Of the 20,000 applications for British visas lodged in the capital every year, about half are from Emiratis. Another 50,000 are made at the second British embassy in Dubai. Mr Chaplin said "very, very few" applications from Emiratis were refused, and that the figure was considerably lower than the average global refusal rate of about 20 per cent. The decision to rout some Pakistan applications to Abu Dhabi came after the Sept 20 bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel, which is about a kilometre from the British embassy.

Mr Chaplin, who was leaving home at the time, was knocked over by the blast. Despite the timing, he said the decision to move staff was not related to their security in Pakistan. rhughes@thenational.ae