No visa for you

Our friend Jacks and three of his co-workers at the New Delhi restaurant on Tumanyan Street are having problems renewing their visas. They are expected to pay $1500 each to stay in Armenia, although the one-year visa’s actual worth is $300. Sounds like corruption is in play to me.

Apparently Jacks, who is an Indian national, and the three cooks who are from Nepal, applied for one-year visas in September 2005, as their papers were expiring. Jacks’ visa was due to be renewed in January 2006 but he applied with them nevertheless. The person allegedly responsible for making sure the visas were processed was the co-owner of the restaurant at the time, an Armenian citizen, whose job was basically to run the back-end operations of the business, mainly attending to the legal aspects. Several months later Jacks learned that their applications were rejected, with no explanation given. The partner, who has since sold his share to the previous owner of Tandoori restaurant, repeatedly assured Jacks and the others that supposedly their visas would be processed, and in the meantime they were allowed to keep working and living “legally.” At the time the partner apparently solicited $500 from each of the four employees in order to facilitate obtaining the visas, but later returned the money to them when nothing was panning out. He left the restaurant without finalizing the matter, and unfortunately the other partner and our friend, Sanjiv, left for India soon thereafter with their fate hanging.

So not only were they supposedly denied visas for the last 12 months, on that basis they are being denied for the coming year. And the only way out is to pay a total of $6000 for all four workers, mostly in undefined “fees.” The interesting thing is that no visa rejection letters were ever received—not by the co-owner, and not by the workers themselves.

The Embassy of India has sent two letters to the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs—one in February and the other just last month—requesting that it look into determining a resolution to the matter. But both times the ministry insisted that there was nothing it could do. Supposedly the Indian ambassador herself has done little to help resolve the situation.

Jacks has been living in Yerevan off and on since 2003 with his buddy from New Delhi, Sanjiv. They worked as waiters at the fabled, now-defunct Indian restaurant on Gomidas Street, which apparently closed before I could ever find the place to treat my wife. They left for India, then decided to return to Armenia when something was beckoning them to so, as they love the country. After their return they opened the New Delhi restaurant in mid-summer 2005. The place became hugely popular among expatriates and local citizens alike, and as I have written several times on this blog, it is my favorite hang out. Now the restaurant faces being closed permanently if the four of them leave. You can’t run a restaurant if you don’t have anyone around to cook the food.

All they want is to be able to live and work legally without complications. And the infamous OVIR (Office of Visas and Registration) of Armenia has done nothing but cause headaches for them. Not only did the agency refuse to process their visas when they applied for them on time, it is now trying to extort money from each of them so they can continue to work and live here. Basically, what is apparent is that they were refused visas so that they would be forced to pay something extra later on to straighten out OVIR’s incompetence. I have only heard horror stories from individuals having to deal with this sternly bureaucratic governmental department for one reason or another. I have to go in there myself in a couple of months since I have to re-register with them for some reason, being a special residency visa holder for five years now. I am not looking forward to the experience.

Jacks met with one of the OVIR officers and told him that he as well as the others refused to pay the $1500 fee or bribe, depending on how you look at it. The OVIR officer then threatened him with immediate deportation, but a few weeks have gone by without any action thus far. It seems they are still stalling in hopes of being able to collect what they expect—I can’t say as I always have trouble trying to figure out what Armenians are thinking. However one thing is certain—they are trying to take advantage of foreign nationals who do not entirely know their rights and how to even defend them with fair representation.

The Armenian government should welcome any foreigners wanting to live and do business in Armenia, no matter how lucrative their undertakings may be in nature. At a time when the trend amongst the masses is to leave the country by any means necessary—no matter how much opportunity may lie in store for them in their homeland—the government should do its utmost to attract people to live and work here, despite where they are from or their ethnicity. Armenian logic is now playing a dangerous game. Corrupt practices in visa allocations will do nothing to entice foreign nationals from doing business here. The refusal to accommodate people from outside for seemingly no valid reason demonstrates the inability for Armenia to truly advance as a diverse, progressive society. Armenia considers itself to be more or less a culturally European country, since it holds no affinity with its fellow former Soviet republics to the east. So it needs to start behaving like one. It should wholeheartedly welcome peoples from all nations who are willing to take part in daily Armenian social and cultural life, rather than ostracize them.

It’s unclear what’s in store for Jacks and the others. But one thing is clear—their basic rights to be treated as equal members of Armenian society are being violated. I wrote him a little while ago at someone’s suggestion, encouraging him to contact the office of the state human rights defender or ombudsman, Armen Harutyunyan, to see what could be done, if anything, on their behalf. I also told Jacks to keep on top of the Indian embassy each day by phoning them repeatedly, or else visit there and demand that the ambassador directly intervenes. A journalist friend of mine is also looking into the situation to discover what OVIR is up to regarding their case. Other than these things, I don’t know what else to do for them.


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