Why does the process of visiting other developed countries have to be so frustrating?
A news article published in The Guardian on August 8 reported that a dozen authors invited to this year’s Edinburgh book festival had their visa applications turned down by UK authorities.
The individuals who later managed to obtain a visa but tasted the humiliating rejection anyway, once at least, are from African and Middle East countries, including one from Belarus.
Nick Barley, the festival director, called the situation “Kafkaesque.” Barley said: “We want to talk about it and resolve it, not just for [this festival], but for cultural organizations UK-wide. The amount of energy, money, and time that has gone into this is problematic. There needs to be a fix.”
Deidre Brock, MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, brought the issue in parliament: “My fear is that many will simply choose not to try any more, and we’ll all be poorer for it. Edinburgh’s festivals will be damaged by London’s ‘hostile environment’ attitude to visas.”
Last year, having received a fellowship on writing at the University of East Anglia, I placed my visa application at VFS in Dhaka. Three weeks after their decision arrived in a sealed envelope, all I got was a refusal of entry clearance.
The reason? My failure to submit a tuberculosis certificate along with the application.
Well, the period of my fellowship was exactly six months. The UK Home Office’s website says: “You’ll need to have a tuberculosis (TB) test if you’re coming to the UK for more than six months.” So, technically, I don’t need one. To minimize risk, before placing my application, I contacted two other past fellows and asked whether they had submitted a TB report with their visa application.
They had not.
Eventually, one pleasant day in September last year, I headed to Gulshan to submit my application. It would be my second visit to Britain. The thought of booking a flight struck me during the three-week visa processing time. Booking an air ticket early can save me some money, I assumed. My wife deterred me. “Wait,” she said, “get your visa first.”
Instead of obtaining a visa, after a three-week wait, I received a three-page rejection letter. In the letter, the entry clearance officer clearly focused on one silly fact in one simple paragraph.
What a joke.
It’s a date that caused all the trouble. Adding up days of my intended date of travel with the six-month fellowship period, the officer stated in the letter, my total stay in the UK is in excess of six months. Therefore, I am required to provide a TB certificate.
Many of you may know that when you fill up a visa application form online, you have to put a probable date of travel. Which I did. The date was six days prior to my start date mentioned in the letter of sponsorship. Since my fellowship start date was the 18th, I put the 12th as my intended date of travel.
Upon receiving a late afternoon phone call on the 9th, I collected my passport from the VFS office the next day accompanied by a surreal refusal letter. Why surreal? Why not? What do they think of the citizens of countries such as Bangladesh? That, as soon as we get our passport back from the embassy, with a stick-in entry clearance vignette, we run to the airport to catch a flight to London?
Look, things do not work like that. Even assuming that I was issued a visa, I couldn’t have left on the date I had mentioned in the application form. I needed to purchase my air ticket, pack my stuff, buy some British pounds, say goodbye to my kith and kin, and so forth.
Now, having been refused a visa, I had to start over. Pay the application fee once again. The worst thing is, now I am subject to answer an embarrassing question: “Have you ever been refused a visa for any country, including the UK?” Every time in the future, whenever I will apply for a UK visa, I have to say “yes,” adding a convincing explanation note for it.
This refusal will stick with me forever. Frustratingly, it’s not only the UK, the same humiliating question will haunt me when I will intend to visit other developed countries.
Yet I did reapply for the UK, with a TB certificate this time, and they granted me a visa. But the desired visa cost me a big chunk of money and a permanent stain on my name.
Scores of such stories have been published criticizing the UK Home Office policy. Earlier this year, one Guardian report even called the Home Office a “money-making machine.” Another report in 2017 wrote that the Home Office is making profits of up to 800% on some visa applications. It also pointed out that many applicants are rejected on technicalities and forced to reapply and pay again.
Recently, there has been an uproar over the Home Office’s hostile environment policy. MPs and campaigners have cried out for immediate action to shrink Home Office fees.
Rahad Abir is a writer. He is the 2017-18 Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia.