I haven’t travelled across the continent or abroad as much I’d like to so perhaps I’m a little spoilt. Every visa application I have ever made has been approved. This has allowed me to write Snapshots of Berlin, about Jean Pierre and the Tiny Penises in Amsterdam and Lagos Suya.
However, my recent attempt to attend a workshop in Slovenia has yielded a whole new experience. Obviously all countries through their citizens posted at embassies/consulates/ high commissions/Ministries of Foreign Affairs/other across the globe have the right to vet persons interested in entering their borders. There is, afterall, no legal right to a visa.
But that isn’t what this post is about.
I’m more concerned about documenting irregularities in a visa application process and how applicants are sometimes treated. I’m making a special focus on the Austrian embassy in Nairobi.
Slovenia is a tiny country with a total population of at least 2 million people. It was once part of Yugoslavia. And it was where four of us had been invited to attend a 10-day training course on how to leverage traditional and new media to better highlight and combat gender issues, especially inequality.
The workshop runs June 15th -24th in (currently) sunny Koper. This is a city by the Adriatic sea and I hear it is quite lovely. Our itinerary was to be Nairobi-Istanbul-Venice-Koper and back. I cannot begin to explain how much I was looking forward to all this.
Being that Slovenia is so tiny, they outsourced their visa processing to the Austrian embassy in Kenya. Typically, applications are vetted within 15 calendar days therefore we all trouped down to their Limuru Road offices on May 13th to give them enough time to review our requests.
We arrived at the embassy to find that applicants are required to queue in the open air along a short flight of stairs leading to a large metallic gate. A guard occasionally cracked it open to answer hesitant knocks. People tended to scatter themselves along the raised pavement; marking the faces of those they found already waiting and mentally calculating what time they’d likely get served. Others took shelter under the banana trees whose overhanging fronds brought respite from the harsh sun. But there were those who preferred to stand facing the unwelcoming gate.
I can only assume that we all read the notices posted on the gate ad nauseam:
Consulate’s opening times:
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 09.00 to 12.00 o’clock.
Embassy closed on Thursday, May 14th for Austrian National holiday.
We’d arrived at 9:30 am but it wasn’t until 12:30pm that any of us were served. We tried to enter as a group (since we shared a few crucial documents) but they only let us in two then three at a time.
When I finally got in, I walked down the long walkway to the massive office building only to queue up, again. There were about five people waiting to be attended to—this isn’t including my two colleagues. There were only two tellers who between them looked over documents, asked probing questions and received visa fees.
It’s always such an ugly interface between officer and applicant. Air thick with trepidation; thicker than the layers of glass separating the two, exaggerated humility meets extreme scrutiny and always that stern voice over the intercom. Never ceases to fascinate me how quickly these agents switch from cold to warm when addressing those at and behind their windows. Without fail, these agents always pause in the middle of sifting through your documents to talk to a colleague. That power play bana.
In any case, the officer looked over my documents and found a few things amiss. Turns out they require certain proportions in applicant’s passport photos. I also had to submit proof of hotel and flight bookings and a personal bank statement. Later, our team leader swore he’d given a couple of these documents while making his application (the trip is funded by the EU and the organizers had sent one large document outlining how they’d cover our expenses and stating all our details) but they insisted that we submit the documents afresh. It was annoying but these were documents that were easy enough to gather.
The officer then handed over individual forms with a list of missing items circled. Both the applicant and officer signed and dated the document.
We then left, took fresh passport pictures at Village Market, dropped these with the guard at the gate and had the rest of the required documents taken to the embassy on Monday, May 18th.
On June 2nd (12 working days later), I received a text from the team leader telling me to call the embassy and inquire about my visa. Seems he’d been issued with his already. I made the call in the afternoon and was told that mine wasn’t ready yet. As the trip was still 13 days away, I wasn’t too worried. Every few days I would make my call, receive the same answer then ask my colleagues what they’d been told.
The panic truly set in when two colleagues received their visas, as did a third (who’d applied after us!) I started making two calls in a day: one in the morning and another in the afternoon. The answer stayed the same.
Finally, on June 8th, I notice a missed call from the embassy. I quickly call back only to be informed that my travel insurance policy was missing. I’m like, whattttt? I know I submitted it. In fact, I had the proof. Remember that damn document that both the officer and myself signed with the missing documents circled in black? Yeah. There’s nothing around no. 18, sis.
Here’s the shitty part. After asking my travel insurers to reissue a letter and delivering it to the embassy the next day, I was informed that my application was now to be reviewed afresh…within 15 working days. This was June 10th mind you.
I was livid, especially because the lady on the other end was not going to admit the embassy’s fault. First of all, why didn’t they then tell me on June 2nd that my policy was missing? But really, how could it have gone missing when I know I submitted it and a document issued and signed by them supports my claim? The officer’s condescending tone and absolutely unhelpful attitude was so off-putting. I wasn’t getting a chance to defend my application nor was this new review going to be hastened so that I could make my trip.
(Btw, one other person on the team suffered the same fate. He had to resubmit his personal bank statement three times.)
The trip organizers have been supportive. They even offered to fly us in as late as Thursday, June 18th even as my colleagues boarded a Turkish Airlines flight on Sunday, June 14th.
My last few calls to the embassy revealed:
On Monday, the visa officer told me my visa was still being processed even before I gave my second name.
On Tuesday, the visa officer was in a meeting all day (I couldn’t reach her both times).
On Wednesday (today) she was feeling unwell and therefore could not process any visa.
“Nothing to be done.”
Except maybe these visa officers could stop being robots (much like the “machine” they kept saying was yet to spit out a definite answer) and actually give realistic feedback. It would certainly help if they were less unfriendly and just did their job. Also, it would be great if they scrapped that stupid policy requiring successful applicants to come with a paid ticket before the embassy can release their passports.
In any case, my Vladimir and I are no longer waiting for our Godot. We’re both off to places that require no visas: Kisumu and Uganda; respectively.