By Elias Hazou
Another dustup between interior minister Socrates Hasikos and Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides came to the fore on Wednesday over the approval of some 800 student visas to Bangladeshi nationals.
A barrage of to-and-fro correspondence leaked to the media revealed that Michaelides has asked the attorney-general to look into “possible criminal offences” by the interior ministry regarding the approval of visas to students from non-EU countries based on forged documentation.
Hasikos denied any wrongdoing, suggesting the auditor-general did not have his facts straight and was jumping the gun.
On September 30, Michaelides wrote to the attorney-general reporting that “based on verbal complaints and relevant correspondence,” some 800 student visas had been issued to Bangladeshi nationals this year despite the fact the supporting documentation was deemed to be suspect.
From information he received from the foreign ministry, Michaelides said, the Cypriot Honorary Consulate in Dhaka, Bangladesh had reason to believe that the bank statements provided by several visa applicants were dodgy.
In addition, health certificates were in some cases signed off by the same Bangladeshi doctor, but bore different signatures.
The Consul in Dhaka went on to complain that, following a policy change over the last six months, personal interviews conducted by the Consul with visa applicants were replaced by sticker visas, leading to a flood of visa applications.
The Consul warned that, due to widespread corruption in Bangladesh, there was a distinct possibility that economic migrants, as well as “potential agitators” are posing as students to get entry into an EU country.
As such, the foreign ministry advised the Civil Registry and Migration Department, which comes under the interior ministry, to put the suspect visa applications on hold.
Hitting back on Wednesday, Hasikos released a statement claiming that once this was brought to his ministry’s attention, both the migration department and the police were asked to look further into the matter.
Since migration and the police were subsequently unable to establish to any degree of certainty whether the visa documentations were in fact fake, Hasikos added, he instructed- in consultation with private colleges – that the visas be approved.
Nevertheless, and as an additional safeguard, given the misgivings, Hasikos gave instructions that these students be required to pay their college fees on arrival, as well as submit to medical tests here within 48 hours.
At any rate, Hasikos told Sigma television channel, colleges track student attendance, and if non-EU nationals are found to be missing too many classes they are reported to the proper authorities and then deported.
Given that forgery had not been proved, he added, he decided to act and have the visas approved, so that the colleges could enrol the students on time.
“There is no scandal. Hurling accusations is the easiest thing to do. It is taking decisions which is hard,” the minister said.
“If the courts should decide that what I have done is criminal and that I should be condemned, then I am ready for it.”
Weighing into the controversy, the association of accredited colleges said Hasikos’ actions were above board.
In a statement, the association went on to accuse migration authorities of discriminatory treatment against non-EU nationals “verging on racism.”
It said that under Cyprus immigration laws there is no requirement for non-EU nationals to furnish a detailed bank statement, although the visa applicants in question were being asked to do precisely that. The law only stipulates that they provide a simple statement from a bank certifying they can afford living, study and travel expenses during their stay here.
Moreover, the association said, it is illegal to demand that these students submit a comprehensive medical certificate. The only requirement by law is to certify that they are not carriers of Hepatitis B.
In fact, however, the relevant provision calls for “medical tests proving that you do not suffer from Hepatitis B, HIV, syphilis, as well as a chest X-ray.”
It is this spat between Hasikos and Michaelides which prompted the former to ask the Attorney-general to designate the boundaries of the auditor-general’s powers.
The first quarrel – which blew up in parliament on Tuesday – concerns disagreements between Hasikos and Michaelides over the handling of a public contract for the solid-waste management facility at Koshi, Larnaca.
The squabble between the two has dominated the current news cycle.
Daily Politis on Wednesday covered the Koshi contract controversy in detail, convincingly demonstrating that Hasikos and Michaelides are essentially on the same page. They diverge on the minutiae, with Michaelides known to be particularly fastidious in his role as government watchdog.
This has led to some speculation that something else might be behind the ‘feud’.
Asked to comment on Wednesday, DISY leader Averof Neophytou avoided taking sides, although by default he might have been expected to come to the defence of Hasikos, also a member of the ruling party.
Neophytou brushed off the notion, put forward by one reporter, that DISY appears to have double standards: on the one hand knocking the Central Bank governor – also an independent official – but not doing the same for the auditor-general.
Relations between Neophytou and Hasikos are understood to be hostile, and have become the butt of television satire.