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On Schengen Visas

Omkar Goswami


There are 15 Schengen countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden — all of whom barring Norway and Iceland are members of the European Union. The Schengen visa is a wonderful thing. Suppose you as an Indian are visiting Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Italy on work or to travel. Instead of getting four separate visas, you can get a Schengen which, once you enter one of these countries, allows you unrestricted access to the other 14. Essentially, it means that that travel between these countries are treated as domestic trips, no different from travelling between Delhi and Bangalore.


With Schengen alleviating border hassles within most parts of Europe, there must be many immigration touts in the developing world who are trying to leverage this system to get their clients into a Schengen country and then make them disappear. Hence, I fully support the Schengen embassies in being careful to whom they give these visas and for how long.


What I can’t understand is the ham-handedness of some of these embassies. Here are two recent examples from one such — in this case the Germans.


In May this year, my wife, Radhika, and her colleague were formally invited by the Bonn Biennale to host a major pictorial exhibition that they had curated called ‘Try to See It My Way’, which comprised photographs of children of Kolkata’s sex workers. As is the case for persons so chosen, they were being paid for their work as well as for travel, stay and other incidentals. Everything was completely documented.


Since Radhika had a valid Schengen visa, she didn’t bother going to the embassy. Her colleague had to submit all the documentation (which is fair), plus details of her bank account, photocopies of credit cards, income tax certificates, plane tickets and the like — which I think are quite unacceptable if you are going as a paid-for invited delegate to something that is being hosted by an arm of the government. That was the beginning. In the first instance, she was refused point-blank, with no reasons given. Radhika then called the Biennale director’s office at Bonn, who called the German embassy in India, who called her again to graciously give a single entry visa for exactly the number of days that the photos were exhibited. Seven to be exact. She could arrive two days before to put up the exhibition and leave on the very day the show ended. If she — a photographer and a graphics designer in her own right — chose to travel for even a day after the exhibition, she would have been an illegal immigrant.


I thought it may be a one-off. No such luck. In late August, a company where I am a director, and which has a significant German subsidiary, decided to have its board meetings at Bavaria. One of my fellow independent directors who has been in senior positions in leading Indian companies, travels incessantly on work and whose passport is replete with many booklets containing several valid visas at any point of time, also had to submit bank statements, tax certificates, credit card copies and the works. The Germans gave him a six months’ visa. But for his equally well travelled wife it was exactly for the period of the board meeting — five days in all. She was put off enough not to go.


Germany isn’t the only country. I know of Austrian cases as well. So, what’s going on? Am I to assume that the visa counsellors can no longer distinguish between one-off travellers and regular business visitors and their spouses? Or is there some not too subtle discrimination going on against us Indians? Imagine if we retaliated and asked our embassies in Berlin and Vienna to demand bank statements and income tax certificates. How lovely that would be for the Indo-EU relationship! It bears serious thinking. And sensible course correction.


Published: Business World, October 2006


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