Minister must act to end foreign student visa ‘disaster’

International student officers are to call for urgent ministerial intervention to end problems with visas for hundreds of foreign students in South Africa, due to government incompetence. Students who have tried to comply with visa rules have been criminalised and many arrested. The crisis threatens to decimate postgraduate student numbers and is trampling on human rights enshrined in the constitution, the 19th annual conference of the International Education Association of South Africa, or IEASA, heard on Friday.

The international officers will also seek support in lobbying government leaders from the vice-chancellors' association, Universities South Africa.

In a session on migration on Friday, angry international office staff spoke of having things thrown at them by frustrated international students who shifted the blame for visa woes onto them, and of having to spend great chunks of time trying to sort out visa problems caused by “chronic” ineptitude in the Department of Home Affairs.

Promises of improved service and processing of visas that have been pending for months are repeatedly made – and repeatedly broken.

The IEASA conference was held in Port Elizabeth from 19-21 August, hosted by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and was attended by around 160 academics and professionals working in international offices from South Africa and around the world.

Scale of the problem

South Africa’s higher education sector is experiencing a sharp drop in international student numbers, said Orla Quinlan, one of the session presenters and director of the international office at Rhodes University.

“We have feedback from one university that international student numbers have dropped by 600 this year due to these issues. At another, rural-based university there has been a decline of 25% in international student numbers. Visiting scholars, postdocs, international staff and university guests are also affected.”

IEASA asked institutions to send in numbers of students with pending visas. Among 10 universities that responded were 854 pending visa cases, said IEASA staff member and fellow presenter Divinia Pillay.

The worst hit were the University of Pretoria with 348 cases, and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and Tshwane University of Technology, each with more than 90 students with pending visas.

There were 226 students in the 10 universities with pending visa appeal cases.

Six months into the academic year, Quinlan said, one university had 607 international students registered on the basis of acknowledgement of receipt of a visa application. At the end of April, the point at which the concession expired, the students had not received their visas. Another university had 278 students in the same predicament.

During and after the session, international office staff from two universities spoke of students being arrested because they could not provide visas to the police. One of the commentators was Jenny Lambinon, international and postgraduate specialist consultant at the University of Pretoria – she also described staff having objects hurled at them by frustrated students.

“We have also had cases of extreme behaviour, with students resorting to seeking asylum status while in the country, which is a distortion of that system,” Orla Quinlan added.

Some people had blamed the international offices for not being able to unstick visas, but in reality the problems were entirely out of their hands. “We can shout and lobby and have meetings, as we have done with the Department of Home Affairs. But unless somebody gets serious about this issue inside Home Affairs, it is out of our hands."

Personal suffering

Serious delays in issuing visas regularly result in students enrolled for degrees being unable to return in time to continue their studies, legal students being rendered illegal, students unable to leave the country without being declared undesirable, and lack of freedom of movement within the country.

Divinia Pillay of IEASA spoke of being asked late last year by a deputy director of corporate accounts at Home Affairs to send through lists of students with pending visa applications. She sent through an initial list of 330 students from 10 institutions.

“Six cases were resolved from that initial list.” In March this year Home Affairs asked for an updated list, and one was sent through. “We were promised that these cases would be resolved by 30 April. We are still waiting.”

Further, said Pillay, at the beginning of February, a new directive had come into effect stating that all applications had to be made through visa facilitation services, or VFS, offices, with regional offices no longer accepting visa application documents. But there is serious lack of capacity in the new VFS offices.

Other problems include lack of understanding of new visa regulations among staff in South African embassies around the world, and no consistency of staff handling visa queries. There is also no system regarding handling the backlog of visas, and lack of communication regarding visa issues.

Students with visa problems “are very restricted and feel very insecure”, said Quinlan. A lot of their bank accounts are automatically linked to the date of visa expiry, and if there is a delay in a visa extension a student’s bank account might be frozen.

“Now we have students in vulnerable situations where they no longer have access to resources. There is the potential for them to be destitute."

Quinlan said her office had dealt with some people with unusual visa dates – for instance, the visa would expire in March, which is early in the academic year. With an efficient visa system this would not have been a problem.

“But no, it didn’t happen and the students were mid-stream with their studies, rendered illegal in the country and in an extremely difficult situation. This has an impact on the ability of students to focus on studying, they live in fear and insecurity and they lack resources.”

For two students, Quinlan provided money for food and accommodation for six months before their visas – with much effort on the part of her office – were issued.

Visa botch-ups have separated families. There have been situations, for instance, when a visiting lecturer would come to South Africa with a child, but the child would get a one-month visa and the lecturer a three-month visa. “They are travelling together. This happens at the port of entry. But how can it happen?” Quinlan wondered.

Some international students were missing out on opportunities, being offered jobs on completing their studies but unable to accept them because they are living in a no-visa “twilight zone”.

Threat to internationalisation

The combined effect of the visa problems posed a “serious threat to the internationalisation of higher education”, said Quinlan.

“There is growing reluctance to include South African universities in international networks and programmes because people are beginning to realise that there are now big visa issues. It is making us unattractive to work with and do collaborative research with,” said Quinlan.

“Also, a lot of people are experiencing this as intentional and it is feeding into the idea of South Africa being xenophobic. There is no level at which this is helping South Africa or the higher education system.”

Cornelius Hagenmeier, a law lecturer and director of international relations at the University of Venda, described fertile grounds for legal challenges to the visa mess – to be found in South Africa’s progressive constitution, in laws and in numerous international conventions.

However, IEASA had concerns that such action could rebound and clog up the visa processing system further.

Instead, the decision had been made to continue working with Home Affairs to resolve problems and to call for ministerial intervention and the support of vice-chancellors to resolve the visa crisis.