As refusal rates for Visit Visas continue to climb amongst ethnic minorities, the Home Office has been met with allegations of institutional racism as thousands are denied access to the UK for what have been described as haphazard and insulting reasons.
Theresa May's 'hostile environment' policy is feared to have influenced the substantial climb in refusal rates amongst minorities, which doubled from 14% to 28% for African citizens between 2010 and 2017. A parliamentary report conducted in February stated that 'visa officers misread information in a manner that suggests a failure to grasp significant professional contexts and work, which might be mistaken for racial prejudice'. The African community have been hit the hardest by the recent spike in refusal rates, with the most common reasons for refusal being administered due to fears that applicants will not return to their native country after their visa has expired, or that they possess insufficient or undocumented income, even when they have supplied supporting evidence to suggest otherwise.
For the world of academia these findings are particularly troubling. Every year, thousands of delegates, PhD students and interns plan to visit the UK for conferences, summits and to conduct research and exchange expertise. However, with many struggling to get past the visa application process, academics from across the world are being excluded from such opportunities. As a result, the UK risks diminishing its position as a reputable and tolerant environment for global diversity as many foreign academics continue to choose not to enter the country, purely to avoid the humiliation and stress of refusal from the Home Office.
Only last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) expressed its concern that the UK's immigration system is 'closing the door' on the exchange and cooperation of academia on an international level. Despite the ramifications of such exclusion being detrimental to not only the reputation of the UK, but the lives and educations of thousands of foreign nationals, it would appear that such warnings continue to fall on deaf ears. At the LSE Africa Summit and Save the Children centennial celebrations in April, 24 out of 25 researchers were unable to attend due to being refused a visitor visa. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, a professor of migration and refugee studies at the University College London, recently spoke of her frustration at the fact that most visas for academics were refused at the Mobilising Global Voices 2019: Perspectives from the Global South conference which was sponsored by the House of Commons international development committee.
The Unesco chair in refugee integration, Alison Phipps, has also expressed her despair at the Home Offices visa system, saying she will refuse to host further conferences in the UK due to their 'embarrassing' and 'discriminatory' scheme. Ultimately, she suggests that the government's prejudice towards African academics and those from Middle-Eastern countries mimics a de-facto 'travel ban'. Heidi Larson, the director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) also expressed her 'growing concern for UK academics' at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, where 16 researchers from African countries and 3 from Asia were prevented from attending. She publicly stated that the UK's visa system is 'not good for science' as thwarting the exchange of ideas and skill-sets could impede the development of research into infectious diseases as well as other branches of scientific study.
In July 2018, the bio-medical research charity the Wellcome Trust conducted a survey of over 2,500 scientists which explored the connection between science and movement. One of the key findings from this study was that a direct correlation existed between the two, and that the political landscape of countries can hinder the progression of scientific study. The discrimination of African academics and the rise in refusal rates amongst ethnic minorities is likely to aggravate this issue further.
Refusals for Visit Visas will not only prove damaging to the landscape and diversity of UK multi-culturalism and academia, but it will prove a financial burden to those fighting their way through the application process too. The cost for a Visit Visa currently stands at £95 for six months, a cost which is non-refundable if the visa is refused. To make things worse for what is already a taxing application process, the right to appeal a refusal was abolished in 2013 by Immigration Minister Mark Harper, unless the appeal is made on human rights grounds, which typically only applies when an individual is entering the UK to visit family members.
Exacerbating matters is the 'skills-based' immigration plan for 2021 in which all EU entrants will also be subjected to the same rules. Fortunately, Europeans currently resident in the UK can apply for Settled Status, which paves the way towards British Citizenship further down the line. However, after 2021, all EU academics will similarly be inclined to apply for a Visit Visa to attend conferences or a Work Visa for permanent employment.
In an era where racial diversity and tolerance are celebrated and encouraged, it seems that the UK's visa system has taken a step in the wrong direction, and doesn't bode well for the UK's future plans. Racial exclusion and discrimination have no place in the modern world, yet it seems that the very systems that should be encouraging diversity are working actively to prevent it. The visitor visa scandal is a prime example of this and without radical reform, the Home Office will continue to isolate and disadvantage academics from all over the world which will prove calamitous to the lives and opportunities of thousands, if not millions, of people.