The writer: Harriet Grant
Date first published: 8 June 2019
The Home Office is being accused of institutional racism and damaging British research projects through increasingly arbitrary and “insulting” visa refusals for academics.
In April, a team of six Ebola researchers from Sierra Leone were unable to attend vital training in the UK, funded by the Wellcome Trust as part of a £1.5m flagship pandemic preparedness programme. At the LSE Africa summit, also in April, 24 out of 25 researchers were missing from a single workshop. Shortly afterwards, the Save the Children centenary events were marred by multiple visa refusals of key guests.
There are echoes of the wider hostile environment across the Home Office, with MPs on a parliamentary inquiry into visa refusals hearing evidence that there is “an element of systemic prejudice against applicants”. In a letter in today’s Observer 70 senior leaders from universities and research institutes across the UK warn that “visa refusals for African cultural, development and academic leaders … [are] undermining ‘Global Britain’s’ reputation as well as efforts to tackle global challenges”.
The system is so difficult to predict or navigate that meetings, including conferences funded with British government money, are now being held in other countries. Melissa Leach is director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. She told the Observer that the constant suspicion faced by applicants from Africa is undermining global collaboration.
“The UK has just committed to investing heavily in the Ebola outbreak in DRC [the Democratic Republic of the Congo]. Here at IDS we are leading a major collaborative research programme to look at efforts to avoid big pandemics.
“At our inception meeting in April all six of the Africa researchers were either refused a visa or it arrived too late. One individual was refused because they said ‘on the balance of probabilities we don’t believe you are a researcher’. This is deeply insulting.
“Across the board I think this adds up to evidence of institutional racism in the Home Office. It’s so arbitrary. Our colleagues here at Sussex and at other institutions now routinely meet in other countries, Dubai for example.”
Social anthropologist Foday Karama was refused a visa to come to the Ebola workshop. He said he couldn’t understand the Home Office decision. “I was amazed when they said I had not proved I was a researcher, I had provided so many letters from my own university and from the people who were inviting me to the UK.” Senior figures say the language used in visa refusals is damaging relationships and putting future collaborations at risk.
Tim Allen is director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa. He said that the visa situation is the worst he has ever seen. In April, 25 researchers were invited to attend a series of events, including the LSE Africa Summit and the Save the Children centennial celebrations.
“Only one person out of that 25 made it to the summit. All the flight costs and visa applications were paid by the UK research councils so this is very unjoined-up government.
“[One of our researchers] who was refused is very senior, he has been made to feel like a criminal. People feel demeaned and abused, they experience it as racism.”LSE conferences are now held in Belgium. Allen said that, even for conferences funded by the Depatment for International Development, “if we have colleagues from the Central African Republic or DRC then it’s easier to go to Ghent. Most of the people we invite refuse to come to London.
Robert Okeny is a senior researcher in Uganda, working with the LSE to look at how children recover from conflict. He was told there was “no evidence he would benefit from the trip”. He said that this is damaging to his professional standing.
“I had planned to meet other people and make contacts that could have helped me in my career [but] the worst part is that I now have a dark spot on my passport. That is the damage that the UK Home office has meted on me.”
The all-party parliamentary groups on Africa and on Malawi are currently collecting evidence on visa refusals from a wide range of people in several sectors, from business to the arts. Some submissions have claimed there is “a culture of disbelief and … systemic prejudice” within the Home Office. MP Chi Onwurah, who is leading the investigation, said the problem is so deep that a “huge campaign” is needed to change Home Office policy.
“We need a campaign but I fear that given cuts and Brexit turmoil, we are not going to get change unless there is some sense of public outrage.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “All immigration applications are considered on their individual merits and on the basis of the evidence available, in line with the immigration rules.
“We welcome international academics and recognise their contribution to the UK’s world-leading education sector.”
“I’m trying to learn how to improve the lives of war victims through interviews and research into their lives. LSE invited me to their Africa conference because sometimes you need to meet your colleagues.
“I had to travel 350km to apply for the visa, it’s seven hours travel so you can’t get there and back in one day. You have to sleep there then travel back the next day.
They said I didn’t give enough evidence. You feel the reason is not very nice. They said I didn’t provide enough evidence and they said I might go to the UK and never come back. But I am an LSE researcher, it shows I have a nine-month contract, it’s ridiculous of them to suggest I won’t come back.”
“I work with communities in the oil and mining region explaining land rights and the law. I was coming for a conference looking at open contracting for health.
“I got a rejection letter and the reasons were ridiculous. First they said I don’t have any dependants so might not return to Uganda, even though I’m only 30, why should I have children? They said my earnings were not reflected in my bank account.
“I provided everything – tenant agreements, bank statements, they asked for so many things but they were not convinced I would return, it’s insulting. They are being too strict, the workshop was funded by Dfid! It’s so hard to get to the UK if you are from Africa.”