Special Report: The illegal immigration racket

AEO projects director John Sanders examines the dubious methods used by some non-EU residents to enter the UK via events.

It may not be the first thing you think of when attracting visitors to your event, but have you ever considered whether or not they are genuine?

Unfortunately, if you run an international event, exhibition or conference, it is something you may need to consider following recent reports that many alleged international visitors from outside the EU are using such shows to try to gain illegal access into the country.

The AEO has teamed up with Interchange Communications to provide information that will help you become aware of these scamsters and some of the techniques they are employing. In light of this, and given the recent press coverage regarding asylum seekers and immigration, we have investigated how exhibition and conference registrations are being used to gain access into the UK.

Although for many countries this is a genuine and necessary requirement in the process of obtaining a visa for entry into the UK, it is now a target for individuals who wish to access the country with no intention of conducting business here. In essence, these people want a legal way to enter the country and will probably disappear shortly after passing through customs. They may end up as long-term illegal immigrants whose mere presence has implications for UK society.

Most of these fraudulent activities are said to stem from Nigeria, although other countries you perhaps would not have thought of are now grasping the idea.

"It is getting difficult to identify quickly the genuine from the fake applications, although the majority of fake requests come through a free webmail email address. The lengths that these people will go to is staggering, including creating fake websites and fake company addresses," explains Interchange Communications director David Pearson.

An exhibition visitor badge will be registered or conference place booked and paid for on a stolen or fake credit card, and a request made for a letter of invitation. The organiser then forwards a letter of invitation (on the required letterhead), for the individual to obtain a visa from his local embassy. On arriving to the UK and sailing through immigration control, that person will then disappear.

As well as the impact on the country, the implications for organisers are that it artificially inflates the numbers of pre-registered attendees for an event and has a financial impact that not only involves the cost of international postage, but also the inserts, stationery and the time involved in administering such cases.

The Nigerian government recognises the problem in its own country and has set up a devoted website to tackle it. This can be found at www.efccnigeria.org.

Since April 2005, and until further notice, the visa departments in Lagos and Abuja Nigeria have ceased to accept visa applications from first-time visitors to the UK (including business visitors) aged between 18 and 30 inclusive.

The official statement from the Passport Service here in the UK is that this restriction has been implemented due to the unprecedented increase in the number of visa applications received by both the British High Commission in Abuja and the Deputy High Commission in Lagos. This has had an adverse effect on the efficient operation of their visa-issuing operations.

In addition, the Home Office and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office have set up UK Visas, the website of which details the whole visa application process at www.ukvisas.gov.uk.

The most difficult aspect of the situation is identifying those who are genuine and separating them from those seeking to enter for more dubious reasons.

With this in mind, many organisers have ceased to issue invitation letters because of the number of false requests, preferring to organise groups of international hosted buyers through trusted agents.

A sponsorship letter does not guarantee entry into the UK and is not mandatory, so what do you do if a visitor or exhibitor requests a letter of invitation? After taking advice from the Passport Service, the AEO now issues the following advice if the person requesting the invitation is a visa national (a person who requires a visa to enter the UK):

"A letter of invitation can be sent to an individual or group, addressed to their relevant High Commission or embassy. It should include: purpose of visit, length of stay, details of who is responsible for paying for the trip, accommodation for the individual or group. If the exhibition organiser is not responsible for any part of the cost of travel etc, this must be mentioned. You will not then be held responsible for the applicant. Many false applications for visas are made and the High Commissions and embassies are well aware of this. It may be that you are contacted to verify you sent the letter of invitation."

It is unlikely that the problem is going to disappear overnight, but taking steps such as these will at least ensure that people trying to gain illegal entry into the UK are aware that their underhand methods are being monitored.

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