Opposition MPs are urging the Canadian government to stop contracting out the work of processing visa applications, saying they are concerned that one of China’s largest state-owned investment funds is among the biggest backers of a company the Canadian government currently entrusts with this task.
As The Globe and Mail first reported last December, VFS Global, which processes visa applications in dozens of countries for Canada, is majority-owned by EQT VII (No. 1) Limited Partnership, whose registered office is in Edinburgh.
Documents filed with Britain’s corporate registry, Companies House, show Chengdong Investment Corp. as one of the backers of EQT VII. Chengdong is a subsidiary of China Investment Corp., a Chinese state-run giant with more than US$1-trillion in assets. Another investor is Eight Finance Investment Co. Ltd., which belongs to the Hong Kong sovereign wealth fund.
VFS Global’s Canadian website lists 83 countries where foreigners can use its services to apply for a Canadian visa. Another company it owns, TT Services, also has a contract to provide visa application services. These include collecting fingerprints, photos, biographical information and other personal data.
NDP MPs, including immigration critic Jenny Kwan, foreign affairs critic Jack Harris and procurement critic Matthew Green, have written to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand concerning VFS Global, saying the presence of investors such as China Investment Corp. raises “serious concerns around the security of information handled by VFS Global.”
Compounding their concern, they say, is law in China requiring individuals or companies to turn over information. Article 7 of China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law says Chinese companies must “support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work” when asked.
Visa applications require foreigners to disclose “extremely sensitive information about their personal lives, their families and their Canadian sponsors where applicable,” the NDP MPs wrote in their letter to the ministers.
China’s unprecedented crackdown in Hong Kong, where Beijing has quashed many of the rights it had promised the former British colony would retain for 50 years, is uppermost in the opposition MPs’ minds: “With the situation currently unfolding in Hong Kong, we fear that that simple awareness of the existence of certain applications could put pro-democracy activists further at risk.”
They urge Ottawa to return the task of visa application processing to the federal public service to better protect information security.
“We trust that you appreciate the intense and intrusive nature of the information collected by Immigration and Refugee and Citizenship Canada and visa offices, which goes much deeper into people’s personal lives than what other departments typically request,” the MPs wrote.
Conservative immigration critic Raquel Dancho is calling on Ottawa to cancel the VFS contract. “The Liberals need to take immediate action and cancel the contract between the Government of Canada and this ... vendor,” Ms. Dancho said.
“The possibility that private and confidential information from Chinese and Hong Kong pro-democracy activists could be accessed by the Communist Party of China is a risk to Canada’s national interest.“
Shannon Ker, a spokeswoman with the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, said contractual obligations protect the personal information collected during visa applications.
“As per the contract, no application or biometric collection data is stored at the VAC – all databases containing personal information must be located in Canada,” she said. “IT safeguards are also in place to ensure that client information is collected, stored and transmitted securely using encryption.”
VFS Global did not immediately respond to a request for comment. VFS chief communications officer Peter Brun previously told The Globe that investors do not have access to the application data. “VFS Global does not store any personal data related to a visa application. All data is purged from its systems in accordance with regulations set out by client governments,” he said.
“The EQT VII fund doesn’t have access to any data from VFS Global nor any of its other portfolio companies,” he said.
The contract with VFS will remain in place until Oct. 31, 2023.
It can be extended for up to three years, but last summer, Ottawa began a process to replace current contracts.
The government is seeking input on what visa application centres might look like in the future, including promotion of Canada as a destination of choice; collection of biometric information; premium services that would be offered for a fee; and tighter links with the government through provision of “interview facilitation, interview rooms and videoconferencing.”
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