For years, Iranians have had their visa requests denied for different reasons. But recently, as the economic and political situation of the country started taking a turn for the worse, number of rejected visa applications have been increasing due to European countries’ concern that the applicants might not return to their own country.
As summer approaches, many among Iranian diaspora, including those in exile, hope and plan for their family members to visit them in European countries. The Schengen visa application process for Iranian citizens, however, is still the same, if not worse.
A year ago, a group of Iranian immigrants in Sweden enraged about their family members’ – especially their parents’ – visa applications being rejected, launched an effort to organize civil protests over this issue. They formed a committee, chose representatives, created a Facebook page, contacted members of the parliament, the Swedish embassy in Iran, the immigration office and even the European Parliament, and tried to follow the issue through the Swedish media as well.
As a result, some information was gathered. But after the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement started in Iran and Iranian protesters started taking part in gatherings in Europe as well as in Iran, the committee decided to put the issue on hold till the dust settles in Iran.
Now, with the beginning of the summer tourist season, visa application issues are once again attracting much heated discussion. Notwithstanding, as many Iranians have reported, the procedures are still the same as the previous years with many applicants’ requests for a visa being denied.
According to the latest statistics received by the members of the committee in Sweden, in 2020, 62% of visa applications lodged at the Swedish embassy in Tehran were rejected. In 2021, rejection rates were 32%, whereas in 2022, according to the official statistics of the Swedish Embassy, 64% of visa requests were rejected. In 2023, 90% of visa applications have been rejected to date.
If we exclude the rejection rates relating to 2021 when the overall number of visa applications was affected by Covid-19 restrictions, the statistics show that the situation for Iranians as Schengen visa applicants to the Swedish embassy has worsened with every passing year. Their situation in other European embassies is no better.
Many Iranians whose visa applications have been rejected by European countries say the reason cited in the denial notice is “the current situation in Iran and lack of evidence showing that the applicant will return to their country after a temporary visit”. European countries often point to being subject to the laws of the European Union in this field. According to these laws, the economic and social conditions of a country are part of the criteria for applicants’ eligibility.
In response to the complaints, the head of the Schengen Visa department of the European Commission wrote in a letter on behalf of Dimitri Giotakos, head of the visa policy unit:
Regarding the role of the European Commission, we would like to draw your attention to the following: firstly, the decision on whether or not to issue a visa rests solely with the member states. Even though EU law creates a list of criteria that must be taken into account when examining an application, the decision remains entirely within the authority of member states. According to the information we have, the applicants’ requests in Tehran are processed in accordance with relevant laws, which also include the assessment of the risk of their not returning to Iran after staying in the Schengen area. Moreover, applicants in Tehran have the right to appeal against the decision made in their cases. Appeal cases are handled by administrative courts (immigration court in Sweden) free of charge and in line with procedures. These courts have the right to reverse the initial decision. It should be emphasized that each request is reviewed based on the circumstances of the case in question. Aspects such as socio-economic stability, the internal situation in the country of residence and previous travel history will all be taken into account.
Iranian citizens in Europe believe one of the most important criteria evaluated by the embassies in relation to socio-economic conditions is the financial status of the applicants. An Iranian living in the Netherlands says:
“In my experience, in 80 to 90 percent of cases where families are granted visas, the mother has a job and a good salary, or both parents are retired and receive pensions, and they most probably own a piece of real estate, too.”
Another Iranian who is a citizen of the Netherlands says:
Applicants’ financial status is everything. Having a pension alone is not enough. The applicant must have savings, property and capital; things that show their financial ties to Iran which makes them unwilling to stay in European countries. The salary of a retired parent with a normal house in which they live is not considered enough evidence for the embassies. They say the situation in Iran is so bad that even older citizens are not willing to stay, especially if they lead a financially ordinary life.
This is the reason why European countries ask the person inviting an Iranian citizen living in Iran for a visit to provide significant financial guarantees. Providing a financial guarantee is mandatory in many European countries, including Germany, Austria, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands as part of Schengen visa requirements. These countries ask the guarantor to officially undertake all the applicant’s expenses during their stay. This way, should the applicant apply as a refugee while entering the European country with a tourist visa, no cost will be imposed on the government of the country.
Of course, some countries such as Sweden do not require such guarantees, whereas many Iranian citizens living in these countries are actually willing to provide guarantees for their family members.
As Iran’s economic situation worsens and its national currency’s value erode against the US dollar, the value of Iranian citizens’ assets erodes rapidly, too. For instance, due to the depreciation of the Rial, pensions are no longer considered proof of sufficient funds for travel by European embassies.
Iranian citizens consider such policies by European countries to be discriminatory actions that punish Iranian citizens on different levels.
Mastaneh, who has been living in Germany for fifteen years, says:
They say some European countries have less strict rules for granting a visa. I don’t think that is the case. Most European embassies in Iran fear that Iranian citizens will stay in their countries if they are granted visas and the reasons for such assumptions are political and economic. The actual outcome of such policies is our being humiliated and discriminated against. On the one hand, some of us who have been politically active in Europe during the past few months, are not able to return to Iran. Some others were refugees since the day they came here and can’t therefore travel back to Iran. On the other hand, our parents that are not responsible for the political and economic situation in Iran, now in addition to the pain of being away from their children, are also losing their last hopes of seeing their children and grandchildren. We are citizens here; we work, we pay taxes, but we are treated like second-class citizens.
Administrative hardships of applying for a visa
Not easily being granted a Schengen visa is not the only problem Iranian citizens are facing. Visa application process itself is a real ordeal.
Some European countries no longer accept visa applications directly through their embassies, instead outsourcing the task to intermediary companies that receive and process the applications before transferring them to the relevant European countries. VFS Global and Visa Metric are the two main private companies contracted by European embassies to carry out their visa procedures. Visa Metric handles visa application procedures for Germany, while VFS Global does the same for a number of other European countries.
Although these two companies were founded to facilitate the process of making appointments for submitting documents and to prevent formation of long queues outside embassies and the resulting pressure, making appointments is still the main problem for applicants. The only difference is, instead of dealing with the embassy they now have to deal with these intermediary private companies. Most applicants are not able to make appointments online through the usual channels, because all appointments appear to be booked on the websites. This is where the brokers come in.
According to the applicants, travel agencies book the greater part of the appointments available online and then they sell these appointments back to the applicants. That is why some applicants who have spent hours, sometimes even days, checking the websites to see if an appointment has opened up, finally give up and resort to buying an appointment from a broker.
Nazanin, who has tried to make an appointment directly through the intermediary visa companies’ website, told Zamaneh:
Last year, I spent a month trying to make an appointment on VFS’s website myself, but even on the rare occasions when an appointment opened up, I couldn’t book it because the website was not responding. Finally, I gave up and agreed to pay 100 euros to a broker who booked me an appointment for two weeks later.
But even passing this stage does not end the ordeal. Most applicants describe their experience at these offices as unpleasant. They say that not only do they have to pay every fee in euros, but they are also mistreated by the employees.
Apart from the visa application fee, the costs of having your passport delivered to your home, photocopies, visa photo, and receiving text messages are calculated in euros. Although these are called additional services, in reality, everyone has to pay the extra amount. Until last year, an extra fee was also charged for Covid-19, but it has recently been omitted.
Although one of the goals European countries pursued through contracting these intermediary companies was to curb brokers and eradicate false promises by fraudsters regarding receiving a visa, immigration companies still promise visas with higher guarantees in exchange for money. Most of these companies claim they do this by inserting applicants’ names on a list of applicants who will visit European cities in arranged tour packages, but what they actually do is ask significant financial guarantees from the applicants, and there is no actual guarantee they will be able to deliver on their promises.
If a visa request is denied, applicants can lodge an appeal. In some cases, where visa refusal is due to lack of required documents, a request could be subsequently approved and a visa issued for the applicant. Like any other administrative procedure, filing an appeal about a visa decision is quite complicated. Nevertheless, many Iranians prefer to go through with it in the hope that increasing complaints would force European countries to review and alter their procedures and policies. Although, appeal cases have rarely been reversed in the past as, usually reasons for not being eligible for a visa (such as lack of proof of ties to applicant’s home country) stay valid.
It’s always about money
Applying for a Schengen visa is not free. Applicants for a Schengen visa have to pay an 80-euro fee, which with today’s euro rate in Iran amounts to a significant sum in Rial. To the fees of the extra services, such as passport delivery and text messages mentioned above, are also added the costs of preparing the requisite documents. All documents should be translated and translations should not date back to more than three months before.
Arash, who has applied for a visa to visit his brother, says: “You have to have all your documents translated; ID card, birth certificate, marriage certificate, as well as all the proofs of financial ability, such as property deed, deposit certificate, etc. It costs quite a lot of money.”
According to the applicants, translating each documents costs about one million Tomans and depending on how many documents they are providing, it can amount to several millions of non-refundable costs in case your visa request is denied.
Having your visa request denied after all the trouble you have been through is quite traumatic for both the guarantor and the invitee.
A 69-year-old citizen whose only daughter lives in Belgium and whose request for a Schengen visa was denied last year, told Zamaneh:
I’m depressed. My grandchild was born last year and I haven’t been able to meet her yet. My daughter needed me and I couldn’t be there for her. I feel ashamed that I couldn’t prove I can support myself financially during my trip at my age. Although, it’s not really my fault. It’s the wretched situation of the country and its lack of international credibility.