'Private firms have raked in millions of pounds through the Home Office’s newly outsourced visa system as people are forced to pay “extortionate” fees and travel long distances to apply for UK status.
Immigration lawyers have warned legal migrants risk being “thrown into the hostile environment” after the visa processing service was outsourced to French firm Sopra Steria last November.
Those affected include some people applying for EU settled status ahead of Brexit – despite the government stating that this application is free.
While visa applicants could previously go to their local post office to upload documents and provide biometric data such as fingerprints, they must now attend one of just six “core centres” across the country which offer a free service, or another 51 which charge a fee starting from £60.
Sopra Steria also offers a “premium service” through a partner company called BLS, where appointments start at £200. The service made more than £2m between January and April 2019, according to data obtained through a freedom of information (FOI) request.
Solicitors said applicants had been unable to book free appointments due to a lack of availability on Sopra Steria’s website, with some forced to travel hundreds of miles or pay high fees in order to submit their applications on time.
Other applicants have been met with a “maze of misinformation and misdirection” while completing the new online application forms provided by the firm, which lawyers said had led people to abandon the process or submit inaccurate applications, potentially leading to erroneous refusals.'
Read more: Private firms raking in millions as people forced to pay ‘extortionate’ fees to apply for UK status
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