What is the Impact of the UK Government’s Increasing Reluctance to Issue Visas to Visiting African Academics?

Despite the UK advocating a position of global cooperation in international research and academic collaboration, there is an increasingly worrying rise in visit visa rejections for academics, particularly from African countries.

Despite the UK advocating a position of global cooperation in international research and academic collaboration, there is an increasingly worrying rise in visit visa rejections for academics, particularly from African countries. This has resulted in respected academics from African nations being made to feel personally insulted and professionally restricted as they are unable to attend key conferences of global importance or participate in joint projects on UK soil.

The disproportionate rejection of visa applications from African academics who wish to visit the UK for professional reasons has led to the Home Office being accused of prejudice and racial bias by critics. Why is the UK government growing increasingly reluctant to allow African academics to enter the UK and how is this impacting the UK’s reputation on the world stage?

Reasons for visa refusal

The refusal rate for visa applications from African academics rose sharply from 14% in 2010 to 28% in 2017, despite overall refusals sitting between 13% to 16%. The most common reasons for rejection stem from the caseworker disbelieving the application will return to their home country after visiting the UK due to an alleged lack of sufficient evidence supplied by the applicant. Letters of sponsorship from both the UK institution and the applicant’s own academic institution are also being routinely rejected, often without a clear reason.

The UK government’s hard-line stance came under fire from Alison Phipps, the Unesco chair in refugee integration, who asserted that the Home Office’s approach was “discriminatory” and that it was effectively imposing a “secret travel ban” on African academics. Widespread concern over this issue was discussed by a parliamentary committee, which concluded that there was a high degree of ‘prejudice’ and ‘assumption’ in the decision making process, as well as ‘inconsistency’ in determining whether an applicant is a ‘genuine’ visitor to the UK.

The impact on international collaboration

As well as being humiliating and frustrating for the applicants who are refused visas, this alarming tendency also has a detrimental effect on the UK-based projects and conferences they are denied access to. For example, six African academic researchers were denied UK visas to attend the Wellcome Trust’s 1.5 million  flagship  programme to tackle the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of whom was informed that he had not supplied sufficient proof that he was even a researcher, despite providing extensive supporting evidence that he was an established Social Anthropologist. A similar situation occurred for a Nigerian academic who was refused entry to the European Conference on African Studies in Edinburgh, again despite supplying substantial evidence that she had a job, a family and a home in her own country and had no intention of remaining in the UK. Such a harsh approach to visa applications from African scholars also regularly results in conferences having a lot of empty chairs and missed opportunities for collaboration, such as at the LSE Africa Summit, where out of the 25 African delegates who were invited, only one was permitted to attend, and at the World Health Organisation event in Liverpool last year that a number of African scholars were unable to attend due to not being able to obtain a visa.

Damage to the UK’s reputation

Repeated visa refusals and the inability to share knowledge with African colleagues at key events is understandably having a negative impact on the UK’s international reputation in the fields of science and academia. Many African scholars are now reluctant to even attempt to gain entry to the UK for professional purposes and many organisations are looking elsewhere for more accessible locations for hosting events. This is the case with the LSE, who now host their conferences in Belgium, which does not have such a strict stance on entry regulations for African academics.

The Wellcome Trust has warned that if the UK government’s stance on visit visas for foreign academics does not soften, they will run the risk of permanently damaging the UK’s reputation in the field of science, which relies on global cooperation, collaborative research and international travel. Beth  Thompson, who is the head of the Wellcome Trust’s UK and EU Policy, said, “the international movement of researchers is a key foundation of how science works – it thrives on people and ideas moving.”

Refusal to allow African academics to attend crucial scholarly events in the UK is preventing the exchange of essential expertise and mitigating against international academic collaboration. It is clear that if the UK government continues to deny a significant proportion of African academics access to the UK, the negative effect will be felt on both a national and international level. The government’s current reluctance towards issuing visit visas to African scholars needs to change dramatically in order to prevent further distress to rejected applicants and further damage to the UK’s global reputation

This article has been written by Joanne Starkie who is a writer and correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of leading immigration lawyers based in London.