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African Academics Routinely Denied UK Visit Visas

UK Visa

Hal Fish is a content writer and correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service.

The process undergone in application for a UK visit visa is not a particularly over-complicated one, and yet refusal rates have steeply risen in recent years. Last year, 260,00 visit visas were rejected, leaving critics fearing that perhaps the Home Office are adopting a needlessly restrictive approach to these applications.

After a parliamentary inquiry found African visitors to be disproportionately affected, more questions were required. Indeed, rejections were issued at a twice the rate to African applicants compared to those applying from elsewhere in the world. In 2016, African applicants were reported to have a refusal rate of 21%, in just one year this figure rose to 28% – all the while, the average rejection rate for other applicants remained somewhere between 13% and 16%. Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment policy’, introduced back in 2010 with the aim to make the UK so unwelcoming and uncomfortable for ‘illegal’ immigrants that they would eventually leave voluntarily, may be an explanation for this racial profiling. Prior to the ‘hostile environment’ approach, the average refusal rate for a visit visa was 16%, with applicants from Africa having a 14% refusal rate.

These refusals are becoming a notable concern: funded PhD students, interns and delegates are frequently being denied by the Home Office. Recently, as many as 17 delegates were denied entry to the European Conference of African Studies; 24 out of 25 researchers were not allowed to attend the LSE Africa Summit and Save the Children centennial celebrations; seven more were blocked from the World Community Development Conference in Dundee – with denied visit visas causing all these issues. As academic organisations endeavour to find a diverse range of talented individuals from across the world to fill their conferences, the Home Office’s overzealous restrictions are repeatedly leaving space only for empty seats.

Following the aforementioned incident in Dundee, the city’s West MP, Chris Law, felt obliged to write to Immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes, imploring to help with the crisis. Law felt that “the Home Office’s hostile approach to visiting academics, sportsmen and artists is causing massive hurt to both Dundee and the UK’s international reputation”. Looking at the evidence, it would be contrarian to say his fears are unfounded, and the negative affects these visa rejections are having on the UK can be found with ease. Only six African academics actually managed to make a £1.5 million flagship preparedness programme, hosted by the Wellcome Trust, to tackle Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And last year, following another set of visit visa refusals, in which several scholars were unable to attend a conference in Liverpool, The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned, much like Law, that the UK’s immigration system is closing the door on international academic cooperation.

Critics now consider these refusals as evidence that the UK is enforcing an unofficial “travel ban” on academics, businesses, church and NGO leaders, musicians, artists and performers from all Middle Eastern and African countries. The Government’s common ground explanation for these refusals is the unfounded claim that they believe the applicant will stay in the UK illegally and not return to their home country. Law firmly criticised this assertion as a “ludicrous” suggestion, stating that those professionals “are [not] going to abandon their life’s work, their jobs and their families”.

Yet such problems cause major concerns for the future when EU entrants are subjected to the same rules. For the time being, EU nationals can apply for Settled Status which ultimately leads to British Citizenship. However, after 2021 when the skills-based plan comes in, EU academics will also be at the mercy of the visit visa rules.

Casting yet another dark shadow on the situation, is the fact that visitor visa applicants have no right to appeal their rejection; unless they do on human rights grounds, which is usually reserved for applicants seeking to visit close family. The preposterous reasons for visa denial are further evidence as to why applicants should be allowed to appeal. A well-respected social anthropologist hoping to attend the Ebola workshop was refused by the Home Office who, despite having letters from his university to verify his character, said: “on the balance of probabilities we don’t believe you a researcher”. Others have been denied because they didn’t have children in their home country to return to, or simply because they had “previously been sent on similar training in the UK”.

Stretching back to 2014, the Immigration Inspector discovered that many of the refusal notices were “not balanced and failed to show that consideration had been given to both positive and negative evidence”. In light of this distinct spree of visa denials, critics now claim that the Government are ‘institutionally racist’ and that Home Office caseworkers are undermining the contribution and research made by African academics which points toward blatant discriminatory attitudes.

Professor Dan Haydon of the Glasgow Centre for International Development conducted a study made of 29 examples in which 11 visa applications – ‘of the highest calibre students and researchers’ – were refused because the Home Office felt they would not return to their home country. Mary Ryan, a research manager at the same institute, found a “deep-seated concern for the ability of UK research institutions to be globally relevant.” Situations such as this not only humiliate the applicants, but they also damage relationships between researchers and organisations.

Such visible bigotry will not go unnoticed, as a result the UK will suffer reputational damage and will begin lose out on the exchange of foreign expertise and talent; as well as cross-collaborative and cutting-edge projects. A letter from 70 senior leaders and academics urged the Government to ease up on its prevailing position of hostility, warning that the projects missed by the UK would include “climate breakdown, poverty, disease outbreaks and conflicts”. The letter reads: “As leaders of organisations, institutions and programmes that are striving to strengthen the UK’s position as a science, research and development world leader, we continue to be extremely concerned that growing numbers of African partners are being refused entry to the UK.”

The detrimental affects are already begging to tell: LSE have moved their conferences to Belgium as a result of the nation’s uncooperative attitudes, and African academics are allegedly refusing all invites from the UK to avoid the humiliating process of being refused a visa and then earning a ‘dark spot’ on their passports and travel history.

Until the Home Office can start judging individual applications on their own merits, instead of racially profiling a whole continent, the scarcity of accepted visit visas will deny Britain valuable world resources and information in the immediate future.

Photo © Valiik30 /

Article © Hal Fish, all rights reserved