Although UK visit visas might seem like a relatively straightforward application process, refusal rates have skyrocketed in recent years.

As many as 260,000 visit visas were rejected last year, prompting critics to fear the Home Office are adopting an overzealously restrictive approach.

Hostile environment

Prior to Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ approach in 2010, the average refusal rate for a visit visa were 16% with applicants from Africa having a 14% refusal rate. However, African academics in particular are now disproportionately refused entry: a parliamentary inquiry discovered rejections were issued at twice the rate for African applicants than those applying from anywhere else in the world. As of 2016, African applicants had a 21% refusal rate which jumped again to 28% the following year while overall rejections were kept at the same level (between 13% to 16%).

Yet for academia, the refusals are notably troubling as numerous funded PhD students, interns and delegates are being routinely blocked by the Home Office. Organisations hoping to fill their conferences with talented individuals from all over the globe to share their expertise are only finding empty seats and passed up opportunities. As of late, 17 delegates were barred from entry to the European Conference of African Studies, 24 out of 25 researchers were unable to attend the LSE Africa Summit and Save the Children centennial celebrations while a further 7 were unable to attend the World Community Development Conference in Dundee – all because they were denied a visit visa. The latter incident prompted Dundee West MP, Chris Law, to write to Immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes, to urge her to intervene in the crisis, claiming 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”.

De-facto “travel ban” on academics

Refusals are now so common that critics believe the UK is operating a de-facto “travel ban” on academics, businesses, church and NGO leaders, musicians, artists and performers from Middle Eastern and African countries.

During a £1.5 million flagship preparedness programme hosted by the Wellcome Trust to tackle the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, only 6 were able to attend. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned last year that the UK’s immigration system is closing the door on international academic cooperation after yet another bout of rejections occurred in which several scholars were unable to attend a conference in Liverpool.

Rousing suspicion that the Home Office is operating with racial bias, the most common ground for refusal across these cases is that the Government believes the applicant will stay in the UK illegally and not return to their home country – to which Law criticised as a “ludicrous” suggestion since these professionals “are [not] going to abandon their life’s work, their jobs and their families”.

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Exacerbating the situation is the fact that visitor visas have no right to appeal, unless on human rights grounds which is usually where the applicant is seeking to visit close family.

Being refused with little other reason to be found other than the applicant is from Africa

One credited and well-sought-after social anthropologist hoping to attend the Ebola workshop was refused by the Home Office who said, “on the balance of probabilities we don’t believe you a researcher”, despite providing letters from his university to evidence the contrary. Others such as Brenda Ireo, a social worker from Uganda, was criticised for not having any children in her home country to return to. Another professor who had been invited to a conference in recognition of his contribution was also denied a visa because he had not “previously been sent on similar training in the UK” while one senior researcher in Uganda working with LSE was told there was “no evidence” he would “benefit” from his trip.

Evidently, even applicants who submit the normal amounts of evidence required are still being refused with little other reason to be found other than the applicant is from Africa. As far back as 2014, the Immigration Inspector found numerous refusal notices were “not balanced and failed to show that consideration had been given to both positive and negative evidence”.

Critics are accusing the Government of being ‘institutionally racist’

Following the spate of rejected African academics, critics are accusing the Government of being ‘institutionally racist’ and that Home Office caseworkers are upholding discriminatory attitudes towards African nationals, or at the very least are undermining the contribution and research made by African academics.

The outcome of this is that the UK will suffer reputational damage on the global stage and will lose out on the exchange of expertise and talent. One professor from the Glasgow Centre for International Development conducted a study made of 29 examples in which 11 visas were denied due to the Home Office suspecting that they would not return to their home country. The report found that there is a “deep-seated concern for the ability of UK research institutions to be globally relevant.” Professor Dan Haydon said that ‘some of the highest calibre students and researchers’ and frequently refused which not only humiliates the applicants but damages relationships between researchers and organisations. Another professor, Alison Phipps, said she can now “predict” that her fellow researchers from overseas will have their visa refused, remarking “the process seems to have tightened up hugely in the last two years”.

The UK will miss out from multiple cross-collaborative and cutting-edge projects

Inevitably, should this pattern continue, the UK will miss out from multiple cross-collaborative and cutting-edge projects. In a letter urging the Government to relax its hostile stance, 70 senior leaders and academics warn projects that will be missed by the UK include “climate breakdown, poverty, disease outbreaks and conflicts”. The letter states: “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.”

Yet the damage has already been done: LSE have already moved their conferences to Belgium as a result of the hostile attitudes while African academics allegedly automatically refuse all invites from the UK to avoid the humiliating and debilitating process of being refused a visa and living with a ‘dark spot’ on their passport and travel history.

Unless the Home Office stop finding the smallest of discrepancies to tarnish an applicant’s claim, this problem will only accelerate once EU nationals are subjected to the immigration rules after Brexit too. Without radical reform to the way migrants and visitors are handled, it’s possible Westminster will embark on yet another immigration scandal to add to their portfolio of injustices.

Olivia Bridge is a specialist content writer and political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service and leading Immigration Lawyers UK.

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