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Even legal African visitors to Europe face hurdles

ALGIERS, Algeria — France has twice rejected visa applications from Nabil Tabarout, a 29-year-old web developer from Algeria who hopes this year to visit his sister there.

He’s among the many people navigating the often-arduous visa process throughout Africa, which faces higher visa rejection rates than anywhere else in the world when it comes to visiting Europe’s Schengen Area. Appointments are often difficult to secure. Applicants often must prove a minimum bank balance, substantiate the purpose of their visit and prove they plan to return home.

“That’s how it is. Every pleasure deserves pain,” said Tabarout, who has succeeded just once in obtaining a French visa.

Though much of Europe’s debate about migration centers on people who arrive without authorization, many more people choose to come by legal means. It’s painful, then, to discover that following the rules often fails.

The disproportionate rejection rates — 10% higher in Africa than the global average — hinder trade, business and educational partnerships at the expense of African economies, according to an April study from U.K.-based migration consultancy firm Henley & Partners.

The study called the practices discriminatory and urged Schengen countries to reform them.

Nowhere are applicants more rejected than in Algeria, where more than 392,000 applicants were rejected in 2022. The 45.8% rejection rate is followed by a 45.2% rejection rate in Guinea-Bissau and 45.1% in Nigeria.

Only one in 25 applicants living in the United States were rejected.

While the study found that applicants from poorer countries experienced higher rejections in general, it noted that applicants from Turkey and India experienced fewer rejection than applicants from the majority of African countries.

The reasons for that anti-Africa bias could be political, according to the study’s author, Mehari Taddele Maru of the European University Institute’s Migration Policy Center. Visa rejections are used as a political tool by European governments, including France, to negotiate the deportation of those who migrate to Europe without proper authorization. North African governments have refused to provide consular documents for their citizens facing deportation.

In an interview, Maru said Algeria has continent-high rejection rates because its number of applicants outpaces those from other African countries for geographic, economic and historical reasons. Many Algerians apply for visas in France, where they speak the language and may have family ties. And North Africa’s proximity to Europe means flights are short and cheap compared to flights from sub-Saharan Africa, leading more people to apply, he said.

Beyond rejection rates, the difficulty of applying is also a policy choice by European governments, Maru said. “When we talk about increasing barriers for potential applicants, it’s not only the rate of rejections, it’s also the restrictions to apply.”

That means the challenges can be local too.

For Algerians like Tabarout, VFS Global is a new player in the visa application process. The subcontractor was hired by French consular authorities after years of criticism about the previous system being dominated by a so-called “visa mafia.”

Applicants previously faced challenges securing time slots, which are quickly reserved by third-party brokers and then resold to the public — similar to how scalpers have dominated concert platforms. Rumors swirled about intricate computer programs connecting to appointment platforms and gobbling up slots within moments.

“They’re a bunch of swindlers who’ve been at it for years, making fortunes on the backs of poor citizens by making them pay dearly to make an appointment to apply for a visa,” asserted Ali Challali, who recently helped his daughter submit a French student visa application.

Under the previous system, applicants told The Associated Press they had to pay 15,000 to 120,000 Algerian dinars (103 to 825 euros) just to get an appointment.

In Algeria, many decide to pursue opportunities in France after not finding adequate economic opportunities at home or seek residency after going to French universities on student visas. According to a 2023 report from France’s Directorate General for Foreign Nationals, 78% of Algerian students “say they have no intention of returning to Algeria” upon finishing their studies.

The visa issue has historically been a cause of political tensions between the countries. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune is scheduled to visit France later this year.

“Everything that can contribute to increasing trade between France, Europe and Algeria must be facilitated in both directions,” French Ambassador Stephane Ramotet said at a recent economic conference in Algiers. “Algerians who want to go to France to develop a business must be able to benefit from all the facilities, particularly visas.”

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