The British high commissioner to Islamabad has risked sparking a diplomatic storm after accusing Pakistanis of being “world leaders” in visa fraud.
During a news conference to publicise the London Olympics, Adam Thomson said UK visa officials had sifted out thousands of forged documents submitted by Pakistanis trying to obtain travel documents for Britain during the past year.
His strong words will anger Pakistanis who are sensitive to allegations that they are visa cheats.
“You are world leaders in the visa fraud business which is why we have to check very scrupulously every single application, every single passport, every single document,” said Mr Thomson, who is usually known for a more mild mannered approach to diplomacy.
“Last year we weeded out, I think, 4,000 forged documents or false passports.”
The issue has already threatened relations this week after revelations in The Sun that passport officials and travel agents in Lahore were selling bogus documents.
The government of Pakistan hit back saying it will sue for defamation and accusing the newspaper of being part of an international conspiracy against the country.
With more than one million people of Pakistani origin living in Britain, questions about visa processing, restrictions and delays are a constant feature of news conferences involving British officials.
Mr Thomson was peppered with questions about visas even as he kept trying to steer questioners back to the Olympics.
In the end he offered the brutal truth that fraud and forgery were “very strong” industries in Pakistan, before recovering to add that fraudulent documents made for a fraction of the 150,000 applications submitted each year and that Britain was satisfied with local visa controls.
That was not enough to keep his negative comments from the front pages or from Geo News, the country’s most influential TV station.
Javed Siddiq, Islamabad editor of the Nawa-e-Waqt newspaper, said Pakistan was used to being criticised by America but not by such a close ally.
“I think this will upset many people, particularly when UK-Pakistan relations are so strong,” he said.
“The visa issue has been bubbling all week and the government and business people will be frustrated and disappointed that he could say something like this.” No government spokesman was available for comment last night.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “This puts the government on a bit of a sticky wicket. It is one thing to threaten to sue The Sun for defaming Pakistan, quite another to act against the British High Commissioner.”
A spokeswoman for the British High Commission said the two countries were working closely to tackle the problem of fiddled applications.
“The High Commissioner raised the incidence of visa abuse stemming from Pakistan, explaining that it was among the highest in the world, although passport and visa forgeries exist in all countries,” she said.
“He also warned Pakistanis against using untrustworthy visa agents, who encourage false applications.”