By Own Correspondent – The British High Commission in Banjul will in few weeks time a relocate its visa section to Accra, Ghana, due to what its officials call a “massive budget deficit” facing the UK government.
Ian Underhill, Regional Entry Clearance Manager, UK Border Agency International Group, told journalists at a press conference held at the High Commission in Fajara on Friday that the UK government has a massive budget deficit and, as a result, each government department has been asked to make savings in their budget, not just for this current financial year, but for the next four to five years.
“There is a budget deficit, money has to be saved, and this is part of our reorganization so that we are able to maintain the standards that we operate,” Underhill said, adding that the move is not something that is affecting Gambia alone, but it’s a global thing and a global requirement to restructure.
With the relocation, the Visa Section of the British High Commission, which has also been receiving applications from neighbouring Senegal and Sierra Leone, will only receive applications for visas, courier it to Accra, where decisions will now be taken.
According to Ian, there is no change as to what the applicants do. “The only difference is that the decision for issuing a visa will now be moved from Banjul to Accra,” he said, adding that “the visa section will still have somebody in Banjul, who if necessary will call an applicant to come in to be interviewed face-to-face”.
The move, which comes as a surprise to many Gambians, will reduce by half the number of staff in the section.
“We have to reduce the number of our staff roughly by half, and that is a combination of both UK and local staff. That is the unfortunate side of it, because when you make such types of changes, it does have an impact on the staff,” he revealed.
In his view, Banjul is a small post since the High Commission receives only 5000 applications a year.
“In 2010, the UK received 2.5 million visa applications globally. So Banjul’s share of that is very small. It’s not insignificant, and we don’t want to forget about it, but we are simply putting in measures to enable us to still treat those applications in the same way as other applications will be treated, irrespective of where they might be submitted,” he added.
“This”, he went on, “is a way of doing it; it is a way of putting our resources where we can to ensure that we maintain the quality of the decisions we make”.
The UK Border Agency official further stated that simply because the visa section is moving where it takes decisions has no impact on what that decision may be, because they get exactly the same information.
He also revealed that by the end of this year, there will be only four countries in Africa where decisions for visas will be taken namely, Pretoria in (South Africa), Accra (Ghana), Nairobi (Kenya) and Abuja (Nigeria).
However, he dismissed suggestions that the move of relocating the visa section is a signal that the High Commission is considering closing its mission in Banjul, stressing that there are no plans whatsoever to do so.
“I can clearly tell you that there are no plans that I saw or heard to close this mission. I do know that all options were looked at, but the consideration of closing places like Banjul and other places elsewhere were looked at and a decision was taken not to do that. They would make their savings in other ways,” he emphasized.
In concluding, he added: “Not being a foreign office worker, I cannot give much more information on that. I can just say that there are no plans at the moment to close the High Commission.”