A couple of weeks ago a couple of academics from Birmingham and Liverpool organised a workshop at Oxford on “Strategies of Imperial Control in Arid and Semi-Arid Environments: The Steppe and the Sahara”. They invited as their keynote speaker Sidi-Ahmed Kerbazi, the ex-director of the Bardo Museum in Algiers and an expert on the topic. So far, so inoffensive, you might think — except that Kerbazi, who is 81 years old, had his visa refused on the grounds that there was insufficient proof that he was not planning to stay in Britain: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/28/overseas-academics-refused-uk-visas
What all British academics who work with colleagues outside the EU know is that Sidi-Ahmed Kerbazi’s case is only the tip of the iceberg. Many of us have colleagues who have been refused visas to come to academic events and seminars on similar grounds, or whose applications have been delayed so long that they missed the event. I lost several thousand pounds from a research project budget last year on wasted airfares and accommodation costs after all but one of the Tunisian colleagues who work directly with me on an joint British-Tunisian excavation, an official collaboration between Oxford University and the Tunisian Institut National du Patrimoine, were unable to navigate the complexities of obtaining visas to attend a joint seminar on our Tunisian site. The event went ahead, but with almost entirely European participation, which was not conducive to productive discussion of the practicalities of the project such as the conservation of the site.
The more insidious effect of the current policy is the way in which foreign academics are increasingly refusing invitations to British events rather than put themselves through a time-consuming and humiliating application process with a very uncertain outcome.
In order to get a visa to come to Britain, our foreign colleagues have to “show” that they intend to visit the UK for no more than 6 months; that they intend to leave the UK at the end of their visit; that they have enough money to support and accommodate themselves without working or help from public funds; that they receive their salary from abroad; that they will not be replacing someone in the UK; that they can meet the cost of their return or onward journey; and that they do not intend to take employment in the UK, produce goods or provide services, or take a course of study; that they do not intend to marry or register a civil partnership — in addition to paying a fee – for Tunisians 220 dinars (£84) – which naturally is not refunded if the application is refused.
You will note that they are not asked not to “promise” or “swear” to these conditions, but to demonstrate that these things will not happen. Obviously this is a logical impossibility, but in effect it means that potential academic visitors to British universities have to produce in addition to a letter of invitation a great deal of documentation on their finances and employment. The suggested dossier includes: full bank statements for the last six months with explanations of any unusual deposits; a letter from their bank confirming the balance and the date the account was opened; documentation of the origin of any money paid into the account; payslips for the last six months; recent tax returns; and evidence of income from any property or land, including property deeds, mortgage statements, tenancy agreements, land registration documents and crop receipts. They also have to supply information on their visit, including travel tickets, accommodation bookings, and email correspondence about any planned trips or outings. As ‘business visitors’ they have to provide “evidence of previous dealings with the UK company they are visiting” – invoices, evidence of business meetings, email correspondence. (‘General visitors’ are invited to submit documentation of the finances and immigration status of the person they are visiting.) All this, for a visit of perhaps 48 hours.
By contrast, when I am invited to meetings in Tunisia and Morocco, I don’t need a visa at all. In Turkey and Lebanon I can buy a visa in the arrivals hall in 5 minutes. Trips to Algeria and (in the past) Libya have required a visa, but one that I have been able to acquire quickly and with minimal bureaucracy. And when I applied for a Syrian visa three years ago, and sent the wrong fee by mistake, I received the visa very promptly in the post with a handwritten note from the person who had processed it explaining that I had underpaid by £2 but that she had made up the difference herself; I was welcome to send her the money but should in no way feel obliged. It isn’t hard to see why our foreign colleagues feel hard done by.