Short-sighted visa refusals are harming global research collaboration

The trend in visa refusals for academics is a cause for concern warns Roscoe Hastings. Without a significant change in approach, there is a risk of perpetuating bias towards western research.
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The Observer has highlighted the disturbing trend in visa refusals for academics, particularly those from Africa, and how this is impacting upon global collaboration.

The report included a letter from 70 senior leaders from universities and research institutes warning that this is “undermining ‘Global Britain’s’ reputation as well as efforts to tackle global challenges.” This should be compared with the relative ease by which many of us can travel the other way. In my capacity as the School Manager for the School of Population Health & Environmental Sciences, I visited Sierra Leone in December last year to visit the King’s Sierra Leone Partnership – where we have a team embedded in the main tertiary hospital (Connaught) – and my visa was approved and issued almost immediately.

Statistics show that UK visa refusals are issued at twice the rate for African visitors than for those from any other part of the world. For the countries that King’s Global Health Partnerships are located within, the refusal rate in 2018 was:

  • Sierra Leone 43.04 per cent,
  • Somalia (Somaliland not a recognised State) 34.46 per cent,
  • Democratic Republic of Congo 50.86per cent, and
  • Zambia 14.34 per cent.

This compares to a far lower overall refusal rate across all countries in 2018 of 9.67 per cent.

The “hostile environment” at play

At King’s, we have had several experiences of colleagues from our partner organisations having been refused, or having faced significant difficulty in obtaining, visas to visit the UK. Moreover, our experience shows that the policy is applied regardless of seniority:

  • One of our national staff members in Sierra Leone – Sorie Samura – has written about his experience of having achieved sponsorship to attend a conference on being a future leader in global health and being denied a visa.
  • Another of our national staff members – Ibby, who is a keen runner – was denied a visa to fundraise for the Sierra Leone Partnership at the London Marathon. This was despite having his place confirmed by King’s College London and having a staffing contract.
  • Four medical elective students from the College of Medicine and Health Sciences in Sierra Leone who were due to come to the UK last year were denied visas.
  • Significant delays meant having to push back visits by two senior nursing colleagues to our King’s Health Partner Trusts – the visas simply took so long to arrive. Most recently, an academic co-investigator on a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) global health grant, which is looking to improve outcomes for stroke patients in Sierra Leone, was unable to attend a key Senior Investigators Group meeting in March because he was unable to secure a visa – while he was finally able to attend an NIHR meeting, this was not until May.

It is really not clear why this is the case. But it shows the impact of the ever present “hostile (“compliant”) environment policy” in the UK’s immigration system, and yet again highlights the significant grip that the Home Office has at the expense of other Government policy drivers. For example, there is significant work underway in the Department for International Development (DFID) through the Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) programme to support higher education transformation in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Additionally, there has been an encouraging move by the Research Councils and funders to encourage more international collaborative research that includes academic partners from the global south – for example AHRC work on mobilising global voices; global challenges research funding to grow research capability and NIHR global health research programmes. This approach to immigration will only serve to jeopardise the long-term success of these vital research initiatives.

What can be done?

In January 2019, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Africa (in collaboration with the APPGs for Diaspora, Development and Migration, and Malawi) launched an inquiry into UK visa refusals for African visitors. There is a good summary of their work so far, as well as the factors contributing to the situation, available here. I look forward to seeing the Group’s final report and sincerely hope we receive an adequate response from the Government. But is there anything, more locally, that institutions could be doing in the meantime? Perhaps we should all be considering:

  • how our institutions can co-develop research partnerships, and how we can help to dismantle the barriers (linguistic, cultural and financial) that inhibit global cooperation in research and education;
  • ways to engage with academic colleagues in our own institutions who are working and researching in the global south to find out our own institution’s experiences;
  • more actively supporting collaborators and researchers from the global south through institutional letters of support and sponsorship with visa applications; and
  • deploying the usual lobbying tactics of writing to our local MPs, or contacting peers associated with our institution asking them to advocate on our behalf with the Home Office and to raise the profile of the issue more generally.

We urgently need to see a joined-up approach across Government. At present, the messages are mixed and contradictory. We hear that “Britain is open for business” and willing to work to tackle global challenges, yet at the same time send messages of closed borders. The direct consequence of this is the frustration of relationships that we have been building over long periods of time. Without significant change in our approach to research collaboration with the global south, we risk continuing to perpetuate the academic inequality and bias towards western research.

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