Britain's reputation being damaged point by point

The UK's attempt to control visitors is creating painful injustices, repels applicants and seems to be unaccountable.

In today's Financial Times, David Turner reports that the director-general of science and research at the Department of Business, Adrian Smith,  has "accused the Home Office's visa system of preventing 'high-calibre' overseas students from coming to study at British universities". While Prime Minister told the FT that education "will be perhaps our biggest export in 20 years' time" (because they are paying us to be educated here) one of the most senior officials concerned has slammed the Points Based Immigration System (PBIS) introduced in February 2008.

It was designed to simplify visa application processes, while strengthening the fight against ‘bogus’ applicants. But there is a lot at stake when someone enters the visa application process: important documents are handed over and individual lives are in the balance. On such a serious matter, one would expect a high standard of service. Two years after the new immigration system went live, however, concern is growing over the system’s lack of accountability.

Applicants have ended up in a Kafkaesque nightmare, struggling to find their way through the maze created by UK border officials. It does not just impact on artists where there have been some relatively high profile campaigns including the Manifesto Club which I work with. Thousands of regular international students come to the UK to study every year, yet many are finding their studies delayed or cancelled because of UK visa processes. I’ll discuss a couple, but we can be sure they point to injustices and humiliations and sheer waste that are repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times, without counting the negative impact on those who do succeed in entirely legitimate applications.

In his new book Ill Fares the Land Tony Judt asks whether we should not recognise humiliation as a cost on society, “What if we decided to ‘quantify’ the harm done when people are shamed…” (p 169). His is an angry, rhetorical response to the marketisation of everything. But the point is a profound one. As a society we need at the very least to acknowledge the pain we cause, not outsource responsibility for it.

There were fourteen thousands would-be students stranded in Pakistan when term started in September last year because of a gigantic processing backlog. Adnan Madani, a respected Pakistani artist, experienced first hand the arbitrariness of the system. Having done his undergraduate at Goldsmiths, he wanted to come back for a MA. However, his visa application got rejected on the basis that he had forged bank documents, when his legitimate paperwork did not fit the models provided in the guidelines of processing staff. So he appealed, hired lawyers, to no avail. His repeated calls to the High Commission in Abu Dhabi only resulted in automated responses. Consequently, he lost his scholarship and saw himself banned from entering the UK for ten years because of 'forgery'. He owes the overturning of his case to the media attention it received in Pakistan, and its mention in an interview with David Miliband. Not to a review or appeal system. 

In another case, Roham Nasrollahy Shiraz, an Iranian who completed a BA in the UK, was refused a visa on three accounts. The first refusal was motivated by a 'lack of proof' of completion of his BA, though the certificate was attached. Unable to resolve the mistake from Iran, he travelled to the regional processing centre in Abu Dhabi. He was once more rejected on grounds of insufficient proof of education, and lack of funds, the same banking documents having posed no problem in his original attempt. By this point, Rohan could not afford the additional costs of travel and accommodation in the UAE. Given the length of the appeal procedure, a minimum of 28 days, he reapplied from Teheran. This time his application was deemed to be fine, but a further document from the university was needed because of new regulations. He told me: “Who knows what happens this time. Apply again... fail again… fail better! The amount of money we have spent until now is totally unaffordable for a student: visa application fees, tickets, hostel in UAE just to speed up an absurd process, etc. not withstanding the fact that international students pay the highest fees for a course in UK”. 

These examples show the severe consequences that 'minor' mistakes can have under the PBIS, and the difficulties experienced by applicants in having them rectified. Clerical errors lead to legal proceedings, damaging to an individual's life, as in the case of Adnan. Enormous amounts of stress are generated by a system which often appears to be nothing more than a 'lucky draw', as in Rohan's case. Not to mention the sums paid in cash.

UKCISA, the UK Council for International Student Affairs, estimates that there was a 100% increase in visa refusals for international students. This situation may partly be due to the lack of training and experience of the staff dealing with applications. However, it is also due to the outsourcing of part of the visa process to commercial partners. Companies such as Gerry's, VFS Global, and WorldBridge Service that have been licensed to run visa application centres. In some parts of the world this has meant applicants must go to regional centres, just as in Rohan's case, located in a different country instead of being able to apply, submit their biometrical details, or follow their applications in any British consulate or High Commission, for example: Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Chad, Tanzania, Madagascar.

Most important of all, with so many bodies are involved - the UK Borders Agency, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, and commercial - it is unclear which authority actually holds responsibility for the UK visa system. Who can be held accountable for a mistake and how can it be solved? Expensive helplines are available, but they rarely provide any concrete help. Many people have received confused or contradictory answers. A Mexican student in London complained to me, “They never face you. You don't know whom you're dealing with.”

The outsourcing of part of the visa process poses serious questions. What used to be a clearly identified state function has been partially commercialised, given over to a logic utterly different from that of public services, namely one of numbers and profit. No assurance can be offered as to whether the commercial partners of the UKBA understand accountability in the same way as the Home Office does, or whether they are contractually bound in the same way. The appeal system, which used to be external, is now internal, run by UKBA officials themselves and takes a minimum of 28 days. One wonders just how effective this system might be.

The PBIS has not only proven to be prone to mistakes of all kinds that can be hugely costly to bona fide applicants, it also appears to operate in a vacuum of responsibility. This cannot be allowed to continue, because while the Prime Minister may be mainly interested in their money we owe respect to those who genuinely desire to come here to better their lives. 

Noting that one applicant was rejected because his nationality was entered as "Nigeria" rather than "Nigerian",  the FT quotes Adrian Smith's Report as saying, "There is a risk that this [maladministration] will damage the reputation of the UK." Judging by the irate articles in the Pakistani press, the PBIS could not be more damaging to the UK’s international reputation. The way the UK is treating our international visitors could do irreparable harm to an already damaged reputation for fairness.

About the author

Valérie Hartwich is a London-based French/German researcher and convenor (Visiting artists and academics campaign) with the Manifesto club, as well as a freelance journalist and writer.

She is also a translator for academia, the arts and several cultural magazines in the UK and France (Social Sciences and the Arts).