British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced plans to change immigration rules to make the United Kingdom “even more open, even more welcoming, for scientists around the world”. His characteristically bombastic statement, communicated via Facebook live, made it sound as if the UK has been doing a great job of attracting the best minds and only needs to try a little harder to make the country “the greatest place for science”.
The thousands of researchers who have been struggling to even get a visa to attend a research conference in the UK will be surprised by his assessment of the situation, as will the professors, musicians, investors and innovators whose applications have been rejected over the past few years.
In reality, the visa system actively works to prevent the best minds from around the world from visiting the country. Johnson’s new policy, while welcome, offers far too little and it comes far too late.
It is well known that since 2012 the UK government has worked hard to create “a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”, and that this has gone hand in hand with an increasingly unwelcoming visa process. What is less well known is that no continent has suffered more under this system than Africa.
In 2018, the former prime minister, Theresa May, travelled to the continent in the midst of the Brexit debacle to speak about the importance of building new partnerships to foster “innovation and creativity”. But these words had little connection to reality. The very same year, African visitors to the UK faced incompetence and discrimination.
Behind all the bold talk that Britain will emerge from Brexit stronger by reinvesting in its global relationships, lies a visa process that has angered Africa’s leading thinkers and embarrassed their British friends and colleagues.
The hostile environment
According to a recently released parliamentary report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Africa, the UK visa system is systematically failing African applicants. There are two key components to this. First, the system is underfunded and overly centralised, so that some people have to travel hundreds of kilometres just to make an application. At the same time, poor quality control and oversight means that many erroneous decisions are made, some of which are often highly offensive.
Second, the system heavily discriminates against Africans. According to the APPG report, “Home Office data on visa refusals shows that African applicants are more than twice as likely to be refused a UK visa than applicants from any other part of the world. The UK has good relations with most African countries, but it needs to be recognised that no single issue does more damage to the image or influence of the UK in Africa than this visa question.”
The consequences of this hostile system are very real. Cutting-edge researchers cannot attend conferences or build partnerships with UK universities. Musicians cannot perform at British festivals. Up and coming entrepreneurs cannot meet potential business partners. Brilliant minds pushing the boundaries of science and technology are unable to meet British innovators. In all of these cases, the UK loses far more than the person who is denied entry.
The main defence behind which the Home Office might seek to hide is that applications from Africa are more likely to be rejected because they are not correctly filled out, or are from people who are more likely to represent a risk to the security of the UK. It is therefore significant that the data tells a very different story. Instead of failing to fulfil the official requirements, the report finds that many African applicants were asked to provide additional documentation over and above that specified by the guidelines — and some received arbitrary and illogical decisions even when this was provided.
This lack of procedural fairness has gone hand in hand with widespread financial discrimination. In many cases, applications were rejected on the basis that the individual had little money, even though a respected third party institution — such as a major British university — had guaranteed to cover the costs.
All of this might have had less of a negative effect on the UK’s ties with Africa if it was easy to overturn obvious errors. But in many cases there is no right of appeal. This means that even when applications are clearly turned down incorrectly, those affected have to go through the costly and time-consuming process of applying again to put the mistake right.
The number of mistakes that are made and the type of applications involved suggests that the system may be institutionally racist. Random errors can be excused as administrative hiccups. Mistakes that systematically affect a particular type of applicant may not necessarily imply that the system is rotten — but only if quick and effective efforts are made to improve the situation once these errors have been pointed out. Neither of these excuses can be made for the UK’s visa system.
Despite the flaws in the process observed by universities, employers and commentators for many years, nothing has been done. And rather than being an aberration, the treatment of African visa applicants is symptomatic of a wider problem.
Last year saw the Windrush scandal, in which many people who had come to Britain from the West Indies between 1948 and 1971 were wrongly detained and — in at least 83 cases — wrongly deported. As a result of a law change in 2012 that was designed to stop people overstaying in the UK, they were asked to prove they had a right to be in the country. This was impossible for many, who had arrived on their parent’s passports and never applied for travel documents. One reason that their status could not be verified was that the original landing cards that verified their arrival had been destroyed in 2010 — by the Home Office.
As with the treatment of African visa applicants, the Windrush affair cannot be excused away as an administrative error, or a “quirk of the system”. The scandal broke in 2017. The Home Office received the first warnings that the system had gone badly wrong in 2013.
Closed for business
British efforts to strengthen its position in the world are being undermined by its visa system. As the UK hurtles towards a no-deal Brexit at an alarming pace, it is alienating precisely those people it needs to engage to make success of life outside of the European Union.
If the government wants to prove it means what it says, and that its processes are not discriminatory, then far more needs to be done than welcoming a few more scientists. The entire system must be overhauled. Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and the chair of the APPG, puts it well: “At a time when the UK needs to be ‘open for business’, the broken visas system is doing severe damage to UK-Africa relations. It is embarrassing, patronising and insulting to African applicants and leaves the slogan of ‘Global Britain’ empty and meaningless.”
As someone who has a vested interest in the UK’s future, the self-defeating nature of our visa system is infuriating. As someone whose career has depended on the ability to travel easily to African countries — and on the kindness of African people and researchers — it is a personal as well as a national embarrassment.
Nic Cheeseman is professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham.