An estimated 45,000 fraudulent visas were issued by the department of home affairs between 2014 and June 2021, MPs heard on Tuesday, and the figure could be higher after a deep-dive investigation is conducted.       

The provisional figure was provided by Cassius Lubisi, a former director-general in the presidency and chair of a review panel appointed by home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi in February last year to review all visas and permits issued by the department from 2004 to the end of 2020 to identify irregularities.

Lubisi briefed parliament’s home affairs committee on the panel’s findings and recommendations, noting that there was a persistent and fraudulent “onslaught” on the department by applicants for permits and visas.

Motsoaledi appointed the panel after the irregular issuing of permanent residence permits to Malawian fraud accused Shepherd Bushiri and his family, and after 14 home affairs officials submitted a suspect petition objecting to an investigation of “errors” by the department’s counter-corruption unit. 

The panel found that 12 of the 14 were involved in irregularities in the awarding of certain visas and permits.

The panel has recommended that a multidisciplinary investigating team be appointed to conduct a thorough analysis and forensic investigation into individual permit and visa approvals. 

Lubisi said this could result in certain visas being withdrawn, people being deported and criminal prosecution or disciplinary action instituted against home affairs officials where fraud is detected.

The security vulnerability of the department’s IT system and its fragmented, disparate nature was also a concern, the panel noted, and the system would have to be modernised so officials can have a single view of the status of an individual. 

The review panel was not able to investigate documents before 2014 as the files before then have not been digitised. 

It looked at all kinds of permits and visas including permanent residence permits, business and corporate visas, work visas, critical skills visas, student visas, retired persons visas and citizenship through naturalisation approvals.

The panel’s report painted what IFP MP Liezl van der Merwe said was a “very, very dark picture” of a department facing a full-scale immigration crisis.

Lubisi described how “unscrupulous” home affairs officials had created fake users on the system to issue fraudulent documents and how there was a deliberate bypassing of controls to manipulate visa and permit applications.

Evidence of criminal wrongdoing has already been handed over to the Hawks and is now under investigation. Six officials were dismissed last year, four are on suspension and others face disciplinary action.

Lubisi said whistle-blowers had provided invaluable input to the panel, describing the criminal modes of operation in the issuance of visas and permits.

The panel found that some permanent residence permits were approved even though the applicants had not been in the country for the required five years. 

Spouses, dependants and relatives accounted for 80% of approvals for permanent residence. 

Also, there were quite a lot of cases of permanent residence permits being declined because of fraudulent documentation, only to be approved later rather than being reported to the police.

Also prevalent was what Lubisi described as “forum shopping” where applicants attempted to obtain a visa or permit by shifting from one application type to another in the hope that they would ultimately be permitted to stay in the country. 

“Brute force” was also used in the attempt to obtain a visa or permit by repeatedly submitting applications again, again and again.

The evidence on forum shopping suggested a general trend for applicants to change for example from a visitor visa to an asylum permit, a general worker visa to a critical skills visa, and for those with a study visa to apply for a critical skills visa. 

The panel found that the department of home affairs was wide open for fake study visa applications.

Lubisi noted that the retired persons visa and permits were often used as a ruse to enter SA, after which a work visa was applied for or the person got married. 

A total of 79% of applicants applied for a retirement visa before the age of 55 and 53% of these were eventually approved. 

In 2018, 65% of approved retirement visas were for applicants 55 years or younger. People younger than 25 years had also had their retirement visas approved.

Naturalisation was granted before the required five-year period of permanent residency. Some people were being naturalised even before they received their permanent residence permit, which was against the law.

The panel found that on average 34% of critical skill visas granted between 2014 and June 2021 were for Zimbabwean nationals, and on average 23% of all approvals for study visas between 2014 and 2021 were for Zimbabweans, 11% for Nigerians and 10% for nationals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

These three nationalities represented 44% of all study visa approvals over this period. Some study visas were obtained in one day, which Lubisi said was highly suspicious given the number of checks required.

On a positive note, he said the data available for business visas indicated a “vast improvement” in turnaround times. 

He  attributed this to Operation Vulindela, an initiative of the presidency to introduce structural reforms to the economy. – Business Day