Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he’s asked his immigration and procurement ministers to ensure the Canadian government can guarantee the safety of its visa application system after The Globe and Mail reported that in Beijing, Chinese police own a company that collects details of people applying for visas to Canada.
“We, of course, take these reports extremely seriously and I’ve asked the ministers involved to follow up and ensure that we can guarantee the safety and integrity of our visa systems for all applicants,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters Tuesday. His office later clarified he was referring to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand.
As The Globe reported earlier this week, Canada’s visa application centre in Beijing is operated by Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Co., which is owned by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau. And at least some of the people working inside the centre are members of the Chinese Communist Party, recruited from a school that trains the next generation of party elite.
The police ownership of the Beijing centre raises questions about the extent to which it is possible to shield people’s private and confidential information from authorities in a country such as China, which maintains a sweeping and invasive surveillance apparatus and restricts international travel for some officials and ethnic groups.
Beijing Shuangxiong is a subcontractor for VFS Global, a company headquartered in Zurich and Dubai that holds a wide-reaching contract to provide visa-processing services around the world for the Canadian government. VFS offices collect personal and biometric information that is then forwarded to Canadian immigration officials for decisions on who will be granted visas.
Mr. Trudeau defended Ottawa’s record on the matter when asked about the connection to the Public Security Bureau. He said Canada thoroughly vetted VFS Global before awarding them visa-processing contracts.
“When we contracted out with a global company that does visa services around the world, we ensured that it is able to keep Canadians’ and applicants’ data private and secure,” the Prime Minister said. “Indeed, when they further subcontract to local offices, and local companies, that is something that we continue to demand.”
He noted, as The Globe reported, that other countries also rely on Beijing Shuangxiong.
“In the case of this particular local office, I can tell you that a number of other countries also use this local company, including Great Britain and New Zealand, which are both Five Eyes allies.”
VFS Global has said that neither individuals nor operators of the local companies with which it partners are able to gain access to visa-application data.
Asked for comment, the British government said it’s confident its visa application process in Beijing is secure. “It is standard practice common in China that state-owned organizations are invested in commercial entities. But these owners/investors have no influence on the integrity of a visa application process defined by client governments and managed by VFS Global, and they have no access to any visa application related data or IT infrastructure.”
British Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell, a member of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee in his country, told The Globe that he’s concerned about the visa application centre arrangement in Beijing.
“This centre’s links to the Beijing Police are very concerning. We cannot allow foreign actors to potentially interfere with applicant’s sensitive and confidential information,” Mr. Rosindell said in a statement. “I would urge the United Kingdom government to act immediately to ensure that our visa application systems are secure and completely independent of any third country.”
In a statement earlier this week, Peter Brun, chief communications officer for VFS Global, described The Globe’s reporting as “speculative,” and said visa applications submitted in China are securely protected to safeguard personal data as it’s sent to Canada’s Immigration department.
He said the local partners, the Chinese “facilities management companies” (FMC) with which VFS contracts, are required to operate according to the Canadian government’s visa application process and data protection requirements. Mr. Brun said the Canadian government regularly conducts audits.
“Individuals or local companies having a stake in the FMCs that you described have no access to visa application data and no influence on the integrity of the visa application process as defined by any client government we serve,” he said.
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