The UK’s ridiculous, self-harming scandal of visa rejections for visiting academics

May 21, 2019

     By Duncan Green     


We had a blog training workshop at the LSE last month where only one person out of 25 expected showed up. No, it wasn’t because they’d heard how boring I am, it was because they were Africans trying to attend the LSE’s Africa Summit and various other events, but they couldn’t get visas. So we (Esther Yei-Mokuwa from Sierra Leone, who had no problem because she has a Dutch passport, Carolin Dieterle from Germany, and Elizabeth Storer from the UK) did the training and then wrote the obvious post – about the damage caused by the UK’s visa mess.


Esther Yei-Mokuwa (a health researcher attending various Ebola-related seminars)

We all need protection from infectious diseases – even Britain. Knowing how to prevent their spread is a challenge for science, so scientists need to come together to pool their information. That requires international travel, but Britain is frustrating this work by not granting visas to scientists, especially those from Africa.

Last month an international team of researchers was due to meet in the UK to discuss their data and to plan preparedness for future pandemics. But African Researchers involved in two projects on epidemics were denied visas. At the time of writing, every single African citizen who requested a visa has been denied, according to the organizers and funders. These applicants paid initial visa fees but then were denied, despite extensive documentations from their institutions.

UK visa refusals have begun to ring alarm bells in the British Parliament.  Earlier this year the All Party Parliamentary Group for Africa organized meetings to hear evidence on UK visa refusals affecting African visitors.  It turns out that African visitors are twice as likely to be refused visas than visitors from other part of the world. The shocked parliamentarians are now calling for an investigation into the visa process.

The committee reported a number of failings.  Application procedures are very unclear.  Applicants are often refused based on alleged lack of information. But this information is at times not relevant or not even requested in the application guidance.  Examples include demands for evidence of previous travel, where the applicant may not be able to locate an old passport, unreasonable requests for financial guarantees, and arbitrary rejection of letters of support from sponsoring organizations.  In addition, there is lack of guidance of how to apply and what is required for a successful application.   There is no right of appeal against refusal of UK visas and no refund of fees.  The whole visa issue is opaque and unfair.  Some are questioning whether the denial of visas to UK events could be tied to Brexit, perhaps motivated by strong anti-immigrant feelings.

Carolin Dieterle (a PhD Student at the LSE Department of International Development)

As a German frequent traveller, I have never been denied a visa. Neither has any of my German family, friends, or acquaintances. I recently went to the Sierra Leone High Commission in London to request a six-months multiple entry visa for upcoming fieldwork. The immigration officer briefly glanced at my documents, asked me to confirm my nationality, and then told me to come back the next day. I got my visa in less than 24 hours.

Around the same time that I got my visa for Sierra Leone in under 24 hours, numerous Sierra Leonean academics invited to various conferences at the LSE were denied a visa and could not participate. After waiting for weeks or months, they were not even given an explanation for this refusal.

Passing worry-free through airport controls, I am often unaware of the privilege that comes with my passport. But this small worn-out 3×5 inch booklet carries enormous weight and reflects my country’s geopolitical status. As a German national, I am granted visa-free access or easily receive a visa upon arrival in 167 countries in the world, according to the Global Passport Index. This is similar to passports from Luxembourg, Finland, and Spain, and only surpassed by the United Arab Emirates passport, which enjoys visa-free (or visa-upon-arrival) access to 169 countries. Most African passports fall far below this, with visa-free access to no more than 40 to 50 countries worldwide. The high costs of many visa applications means that my travels are not only easier, but also much cheaper than theirs.

Elizabeth Storer  (a PhD Student at the LSE Department of International Development)

Eventually, many of those who applied for the visa received them, but only after the Africa Summit that they had wanted to attend. Many missed their original flights. This is yet another example where African scholars are consistently refused – or face bureaucratic delays that make it difficult to share their research and participate in conversations about their home countries. Conversations about development thus lack important perspectives and insights; European scholars evade important critique from citizens of the countries they study.

In 2016, the organisers of the biannual African Studies Association conference publicly recognised this problem. The ASA committee called for a wider commitment to gather evidence of this nature. The ASA committee recognised that the problem in part results from logistical and practical issues. There are only 3 hubs for processing UK visas in the continent – one in Pretoria (which serves southern, central and Eastern Africa), and two in Nigeria (Lagos and Abuja). 3 hubs thus serve a continent of 54 countries and 1.3 billion. Moreover, since visa processing occurs outside of many national contexts – on what expertise are decisions made? There is a lack of transparency around who is presented with a UK visa, and who is refused. This raises deep questions about accountability of visa processing decisions at these hubs.

Back to Esther for the conclusion:

My message to the UK? Get your act together to stop discrimination against the African continent. Britain and Africa have come far in history together, including in the battle against infectious diseases.   Let us remove the “infection” of racism from the visa process so we can continue to work together on the challenge of pandemic preparedness.

Afterthought: Lots of similar examples coming up on twitter – please add them here in the comments section, so we can start to build the evidence base for the impact of all this

May 21, 2019
Duncan Green