ISLAMABAD - Visa box holders working for Saudi Embassy in Pakistan are fleecing Pakistanis seeking visas of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under the controversial visa box system.

With the Haj corruption scandal still fresh in the people’s memory, visa drop box holders for the Saudi Embassy (under controversial visa drop box system) have been found extorting millions of rupees for processing about 350,000 visas every year from Pakistanis leaving for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on work or family visas.

Owing to the increased number of complaints against the box holders, Saudi authorities have also issued a warning to the box holders to mend their ways, otherwise, strict action will be taken against them, credible sources disclosed the other day.

They said Pakistanis going to Saudi Arabia for work etc have to get visas from the Saudi Embassy only with cooperation of eight selected companies (visa box holders) in Pakistan. The eight contractors for the Saudi Embassy have included recruiting agencies to maintain their monopoly, in two groups, refusing to recognise the restoration of the body that previously dealt with passports – Pakistan Overseas Employment Promoters Association (POEPA).

The United Group consists of Bismillah International (Islamabad/Rawalpindi zone), Swat Enterprises (Peshawar-Malakand zone), National Manpower Bureau (Lahore zone) and Tayyab Enterprises (Karachi zone) while the Lion Group consists of Al-Waqas Enterprises (Islamabad-Rawalpindi zone), Manpower Project Services (Lahore zone), Tecno Power (Karachi zone) and Bakht Rawan Recruiting Agency (Peshawar-Malakand zone).

The errant companies among those listed have been allegedly extorting millions of rupees from Pakistanis for the last five years under the present controversial visa box system. Owing to the practice of preying on the hapless, the number of individuals from the labour force interested in going to Saudi Arabia to earn a livelihood for their families has fallen significantly, and so have remittances, officials said.

A Human Resource Development Ministry investigation available with The Nation has confirmed this information and has called the visa system faulty that needs to be abolished because it is creating problems for the OEPs (Overseas Employment Promoters) and resulting in decline of demand for Pakistani emigrants abroad.

“The visa box system needs to be revised and the system should be evolved on a first-come, first-served basis and on merit,” the probe report of the ministry said.

The ministry’s report also disclosed to this scribe that the eight visa box contractors were fleecing Pakistanis desirous of going to Saudi Arabia for work or on family visas by charging Rs 25,000, not covered by any law, rule or regulation. The box holders collect passports and charge Rs 300 for each passport without maintaining record of the collected money.

Over the swindle of Pakistanis without any record and legal cover, the ministry’s report says, “The proper record of funds collected from the OEPs and individuals should be maintained. After the necessary expenses, the remaining amount should be deposited in the public exchequer.”

Around 100,000 documents are attested by the Saudi authorities every month. The Saudi Embassy charges Rs 750 while the box holders charge Rs 1,000 for the attestation of each document. The box contractors have also failed to provide details of the revenue they generate this way because they do not maintain a record of the money collected through submission of passports to the Saudi Embassy, the report says, adding these companies are minting the money that cannot be accounted for.

Furthermore, these contractors have shifted passport collection offices to their own premises though Pakistan’s Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment has, through a letter, asked them not to do so.

The drop box system was introduced as an ad-hoc arrangement because of cancellation of the licence of POEPA (Pakistan Overseas Employment Promoters Association). The drop box contractors were chosen by the leaders of the two groups, United Group and Lion Group.

As POEPA’s licence was restored, its representatives approached the drop box contractors for reversion to the old system of submission of passports, but the contractors refused to accept POEPA’s existence.

Sources in the Overseas Employment Promoters have proposed that since the visa box system is creating difficulties, only one collection and issuance/distribution point of visas should be established under the supervision of the bureau/ministry having representation of Overseas Employment Promoters (OEPs) and passports should be processed on a first-come, first-served basis.

In their opinion, this will bring an end to the corruption in the submission of passport system and increase employment opportunities for Pakistanis workers.