An African passport is the most egalitarian of documents, in that if you have one then class, employment status and professional invitations from the country you are visiting all count for nothing. From university professors to unskilled labourers, anyone holding a passport issued by a country in Africa will be treated the same by UK border officers. They will also show no compassion for or recognition of the need for people to be reunited with family or to see friends.
In fact it’s not too far-fetched to say an African passport is a no-travel document. Even countries within Africa are miserly with each other. I am a veteran visa applicant, and I can tell you there is no respite. A European visa is as prohibitively hard to secure as one to a neighbouring African country. My Sudanese passport meant that I had to become an Olympian visa-applier in order to visit, study and settle in the UK. You can’t slouch with a passport from a country on a terror watchlist.
My Sudanese passport meant that I had to become an Olympian visa-applier in order to visit, study and settle in the UK
I can trace the entrenchment of the Home Office’s hostile environment over the past two decades or so via the different processes of applying for almost every UK visa possible – student, extension-of-student, family, holiday. I have known them all. I have measured out my life in visa rejections and appeals. I have applied for visas that don’t even exist any more.
In my experience the policy known as the hostile environment has not only been punitive towards immigrants, but also towards visitors – who, for the most part, are on professional or business trips, or holidays. I like to keep a sense of humour about the wording of rejections. An application by my mother to come to visit me in London was refused on the basis that there was insufficient evidence of our relationship, and therefore no guarantee that she would return to her home country. I quipped: “I will append print-outs of our WhatsApp conversations next time, reams of screenshots of her messaging at ungodly hours saying, ‘Are you still up?’” But the visa officer was less than amused.
A parliamentary inquiry this year presented evidence that African applicants are twice as likely to be refused non-immigrant visas as those from other continents. MPs demanded an investigation. The findings of that investigation were published this week, and they are damning. The UK visa system was pronounced “not fit for purpose” as it was “inaccessible to many Africans”. Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, said that: “At a time when the UK needs to be ‘open for business’, the broken visas system is doing severe damage to UK-Africa relations across a variety of sectors. As well as our relations, it damages our economy and society. It is embarrassing, patronising and insulting to African applicants and leaves the slogan of ‘Global Britain’ empty and meaningless.”
Academics in particular suffer. Among those turned down for visas were people awarded funded positions, and even researchers invited to African-themed summits and conferences. In May, the London School of Economics held a training workshop for African attendees to its Africa summit. One attendee out of 25 signed up for the event; all the rest had been refused visas. In April, Ebola researchers from Sierra Leone were blocked from attending vital training in the UK, funded by the Wellcome Trust as part of a £1.5m pandemic-preparedness programme.
The grounds for rejecting visa applications (and the wording) are often arbitrary and demeaning. One of the Ebola researchers received a letter saying that “on the balance of probabilities we don’t believe you are a researcher”. One of the most commonly cited reasons for rejections is that applicants will simply not return to their home countries in Africa, choosing instead to leave their careers in academia, friends and family behind, skip their visa and then spend a lifetime working illegally in the UK in poorly paid cash-in-hand jobs.
The implication (although the messaging is hardly subtle) is that life in Africa, whatever your circumstances, is one to be fled. If the cost of that is the racial profiling and exclusion of an entire cohort of African professionals and academics, which damages the research networks and indeed credibility of “Global Britain”, then so be it.
Expect more of this, after Brexit, as the UK’s visa system becomes more crudely oriented towards cap-in-hand facilitation for those with means, rather than those who will enhance the country’s science, culture and innovation. There will be more expensive “entrepreneur” visas for wealthy Europeans and those from the Middle East who only summer in London and leave their vast properties uninhabited the rest of the year. More long-term visit visas will be granted to those whose only benefit to the UK is paying for hotel rooms, restaurants and luxury shopping.
The Home Office’s hostile environment is not only a racial profiler, it is a financial one, too. There is little appreciation of what an African researcher or visiting academic can do to benefit the UK. Show us you’re here to rent a suite at the Dorchester for a month, or sling your hook.
As businesses prepare to leave the UK after Brexit, so too are the country’s organisations, thinktanks and academic conferences. The LSE will be holding its next Africa summit not in London but in Belgium due to the ease of securing visas for Africans there, and because so many African invitees now refuse to go through the humiliating British visa application process. It is yet another way in which the UK self-harms. A hard lesson will be learned soon enough after Brexit. Whether it is for trade, academia or just a holiday, other countries are available.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist