When a prominent Liberian women’s rights activist, let us call her Mary, was personally invited to Britain by DfID to speak at the 2017 Family Planning Summit, she leapt at the opportunity to give direct testimony to a key meeting. But first she had to travel to Ghana, at her own expense, to apply for the necessary visa, and then despite active support from DfID so much additional information was requested and so many delays took place, that when the visa was finally issued the conference was already over. Mary never travelled and swore never again to even bother to apply for a British visa. It simply wasn’t worth it.
This is not a one-off. Similar, and far worse, stories have been told us over and over again during our enquiry into visitor visas for Africans. Ask any African about Britain and one of the first things they will mention is visas. They love our football, they buy our goods, they admire London and our education system. But all that is undermined by the problem of visas.
No one disputes the need to have visa system to help keep out terrorists and traffickers. But it must be fair and must be efficient. The present system is neither.
On the contrary, it is considered expensive, arbitrary, dysfunctional and discriminatory by the very people in Africa who most want to visit Britain, and that we most want to visit us. It is poisoning relations, damaging Britain itself, and needs to change - now.
The All-Party Parliamentary Groups for Africa; Malawi; and Diaspora, Development and Migration; with support from the Royal African Society and the African diaspora group AFFORD, has prepared a fact-based report bringing together as much hard evidence as possible about how the current system is actually working for African applicants for visitor visas. The findings have been shocking.
Africans are more than twice as likely to be refused a visitor’s visa than people from any other continent, and for certain countries, such as Nigeria, the rejection rate is higher still. To add insult to injury, the reasons given for rejection are often unclear, ill-informed, based on false assumptions, or simply discriminatory.
The most common reason for rejection is financial, but in a modern form of Henry VII’s ‘Morton’s fork’: if an applicant is poor, they must be looking for a job; if they appear rich, there must be something dodgy about their finances. In either case it seems grounds enough for rejection.
The process itself, even when successful, is considered expensive, intrusive, demeaning, and even humiliating. The extent and nature of personal and financial information demanded would never be accepted by most British applicants for a foreign visa, and the default assumption seems to be that every visitor will overstay unless there is a cast-iron guarantee they will depart by the end of their visa.
For Africans, Britain has made itself one of the hardest countries in the world to visit, and this appears to be a result of deliberate policy - effectively extending the ‘hostile environment’ overseas.
It is carrying a growing cost for the British economy and our reputation abroad, which we can ill afford as we approach Brexit. Businesses are losing contracts and staff; meetings are being held in Paris, not London, because it is easier for African business executives to get there; our development organisations and ngos are unable to bring over African advocates, like Mary; our festivals are finding it difficult to attract the best African talent, making our creative industries suffer; and a thousand local groups, from medical charities to the Scotland Malawi Partnership, find it increasingly difficult to build the personal contacts that are the lifeblood of our bilateral relations with many African countries.
The remedies are simple, and are set out in the report. There need to be clearer guidelines, better supervision and more resources for the visa service, and a system that is more accountable both to African users and to British sponsors. We look to the government to accept the proposals and commit to implementing them.
If there is any reality to the slogan ‘Global Britain’, we must show that we are open to people as well as goods, and that we accept a two-way flow, not just one-way traffic. There are signs this penny is dropping. Ministers have begun to listen. This year, the Home Office has recently shown willing to expedite applications and overrule rejections to ensure African artists, academics and activists can attend festivals and conferences in time. But better that the system itself works properly from the start.
Nick Westcott is the Director of the Royal African Society.
Chi Onwurah MP is the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Africa.