Home Office accused of racism over academic visa refusals

The Home Office in the United Kingdom has been accused of institutional racism and undermining UK research projects over arbitrary and “insulting” decisions to refuse visas to African academics.

The issue has been highlighted by Professor Melissa Leach, director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at Sussex University, in an interview with The Observer and an open letter sent to the same publication, signed by Leach and 69 other leading academics and civil society representatives, mostly in the field of international development.

Leach told The Observer that in April a team of six Ebola researchers from Sierra Leone were blocked from attending important training in the UK funded by the Wellcome Trust under a £1.5 million (US$1.9 million) pandemic preparedness programme.

In another example, 24 out of 25 researchers due to attend a blog training workshop at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in April were prevented from participating. They were all African nationals who had been trying to attend the LSE Africa Summit on 30-31 March but had not received their visas from the Home Office.

Leach said: “The UK has just committed to investing heavily in the Ebola outbreak in the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo]. Here at IDS we are leading a major collaborative research programme to look at efforts to avoid big pandemics.”

‘Deeply insulting’

“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.”

Leach was a leading signatory among 70 academics and civil society representatives, mostly in the field of international development, but also human rights and tropical medicine, who sent an open letter to The Observer, published on 9 June, complaining that the UK’s “biased immigration policy” is undermining Britain’s “global reputation” and efforts to tackle challenges, “including climate breakdown, poverty, disease outbreaks and conflicts”.

They said: “As leaders of organisations, institutions and programmes that are striving to strengthen the UK’s position as a science, research and development world leader, we continue to be extremely concerned that growing numbers of African partners are being refused entry to the UK.”

In their letter the academics pointed out that the UK government’s International Research and Innovation Strategy states that “the importance of global co-operation to find a solution and to drive our long-term prosperity has never been greater”.

They say this co-operation must extend to all countries and regions.

“It is vital to delivering life-saving work, such as helping to bring an end to the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to ensuring that taxpayers’ money makes a tangible difference and to promoting the UK as a venue for cutting-edge global debates.

“We must have a fair and equitable system that promotes and protects the essential collaborations that mean we can tackle today’s global challenges and unknown challenges of the future,” they said.

The signatories included Professor Melissa Leach, director of the Institute of Development Studies; Professor Ash Amin, foreign secretary and vice-president, the British Academy; Professor David Lalloo, director and professor of tropical medicine, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine; Andrew Norton, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development; and Professor Charles Tripp, vice-president (British International Research Institutes) at the British Academy. Many others were heads of university international development studies departments.

Twice as many refusals for African visitors

An all-party parliamentary inquiry into UK visa refusals for African visitors earlier this year found that UK visa refusals are issued at twice the rate for African visitors than for those from anywhere else in the world.

Some of refusals result from practical and logistical barriers. Applicants have to attend one of 27 visa application centres in Africa, which necessitates long-distance travel across borders for many applicants. Because the decisions are made a long way from many applicants’ location, they are usually made away from local expertise, context and insight, unlike previously when decisions were made at High Commissions.

A ‘genuine visitor test’ allows the political, economic and security situation of the country of application, or the nationality, to be considered, and-or statistics on immigration compliance from those in the same region.

According to one key speaker at the inquiry, Iain Halliday of McGill & Co Solicitors, this test allows prejudice and assumptions to come into consideration in place of the facts pertaining to the actual applicant.

Commenting on the inquiry’s findings, the Royal African Society said: “It comes down to the fact that the Home Office are less inclined to believe people from some parts of the world will leave the UK at the end of their visit.” The evidence suggests there is a “culture of disbelief” within UK Visas and Immigration and small discrepancies in evidence are being used to support the conclusion that the applicant is not genuine.

‘Racial prejudice’

In some cases visa officers failed to grasp professional contexts and misread information in a manner that “might be mistaken for racial prejudice”.

An example given was the case of a highly regarded full professor who had been invited to a conference in recognition of his contribution to ongoing debates but was denied a conference visa because he had not demonstrated that he had “previously been sent on similar training in the UK” – an assumption that an African academic would only visit the UK to be ‘trained’.

Compounding the problem, there is no right of repeal against a refusal of a visit visa application.

Esther Yei-Mokuwa, a health researcher and one of the organisers of the LSE Africa Summit blog training workshop, said: “The discrimination against the African continent must stop.”