Key findings from parliamentary meeting on UK Visa refusals for African visitors to the UK

Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Hetty Bailey, Policy & Advocacy Coordinator, Royal African Society
On Tuesday 22nd January the APPG for Africa working in coalition with the APPG for Diaspora, Development and Migration and the APPG for Malawi hosted a meeting in parliament to hear oral evidence on UK visa refusals for African visitors. Two cross-party panels made of six parliamentarians in total (Chi Onwurah MP, Jeremy Lefroy MP, Lord Popat, Lord Steel, Liz McInnes MP, Patrick Grady MP and Stuart McDonald MP) heard evidence from a variety of speakers from the business, legal, cultural, charitable and academic sectors. Key speakers were: Iain Halliday- McGill & Co Solicitors, Albert Tucker- Chairman of the Karma Cola Foundation, Jon Davis- producer at LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre), Dr Insa Nolte at ASA-UK & Matt West- Regional Director for Africa at De La Rue. In addition, coalition received written evidence from 19 individuals and organisations.
Participating organisations and individuals gave numerous accounts of conferences, festivals, collaborations and business and trade partnerships that had been undermined due to legitimate African participants being denied visas. 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. There was frustration amongst all participants that the rhetoric of Britain being “open for business” was not a lived reality. The panel heard how the current visas system was doing commercial damage across sectors by undermining relationships and building barriers with Africa. Evidence strongly demonstrates that the UKVI system lacks consistency, intelligence and any accountability. The key findings from the written and oral evidence received so far are covered briefly below:
Practical and logistical barriers
There are currently three visa processing centres (hubs) making decisions in Africa, one in Pretoria serving Southern, Central, and Eastern Africa’s Visa Applications Centres (spokes), and another two in Nigeria (Lagos and Abuja) serving principally Nigeria. There is a lack of clarity and transparency on how visa applications for African nationals in West Africa and North Africa (except for Nigeria) are handled – although a Home Office document from 2015  suggests all UK visa applications from West Africa’s application centres are processed in the UK. However, more recent anecdotal evidence suggests the Nigeria processing hub is also used for processing UK visa applications from other West African States. See map below: 
The Visa Application Centres in Africa are run on behalf of UKVI by a private company- Teleperformance UK. In September 2018 the Government confirmed in response to a parliamentary questions this contract held by Teleperformance UK Ltd had been extended to 31 March 2021.  
This hub and spoke model means that there are essentially just three (two of which are in Nigeria) decision making hubs and 27 visa application centres ‘spokes’ serving a continent of 1.3 billion across 57 countries covering a land mass of 11.5 million square miles. As such the journey of applying for a UK visitor visa as an African national is littered with practical and logistical barriers.
The cost of a standard visitor visa which is currently £93 (for 6 months) and is non-refundable if the application is refused. This must be paid for online in a foreign currency. The immediate cost, needing to access the internet and to pay in a foreign currency all present initial barriers.
Applicants are then required to attend an appointment in person at a visa application centre (VAC) to provide biometric data and documents. This presents a huge logistical hurdle and often necessitates long-distance travel across country or across borders, which is costly and time consuming. Add the delays in waiting for an appointment and the process can take weeks. Further, the burden of producing official marriage and birth certificates and bank statements, does not always translate well into some African contexts where such documents are not always as readily available. The passport of the applicant is then held for the duration of the application and decisions are subject to long delays without explanation. 
The information available via the helpline is vague and expensive (UKVI levies a charge of £1.37 per minute for telephone calls and a £5.48 email charge for overseas applicants) and whilst the rest of the process is online; online tracking of applications is not made available. 
Other than the practical barriers faced by the applicant, the huge distances between the place of application and where the decisions are made means they are usually made away from local expertise, context and insight that would have previously be held at the High Commissions. 
Inconsistent decision making
The application then has to satisfy five legal requirements within the immigration rules to secure a UK visit visa. First, that the applicant intends to leave the UK at the end of their visit (subjective test known as the “genuine visitor test”). Second, that they won’t be living in the UK through frequent or extended visits. Third, that they are genuinely seeking entry for a purpose permitted by the visit visa rules. Fourth, they are not carrying out any prohibited activities, such as work or study. And fifth, that they have sufficient money to pay for the trip. Iain Halliday suggests that it is the application of these requirements which is inconsistent and affects decision quality. 
The Home Office guidance on the ‘genuine visitor test’ allows the political, economic and security situation of the country of application, or the nationality, to be considered.  And, statistics on immigration compliance from those in the same geographical region.  Iain Halliday explained that this allows all manner of prejudices and assumptions to come into consideration when working out if someone is genuine or not.  It ultimately comes down to the fact that the Home Office are less inclined to believe that people from some parts of the world will leave the UK at the end of their visit.
Under the first ground, where most applications fail, applicants must convince the entry clearance officer that they are a ‘genuine visitor. However, evidence suggests a culture of disbelief exists within UKVI where the application of the scales is weighed in favour of refusal and applicants are guilty until proven innocent. Many cases show small discrepancies in the documentary evidence being used to support the conclusion that the applicant is not ‘genuine’. 
Collectively, the evidence showed that decisions are frequently inconsistent, errors regularly made, and decisions vary drastically in quality depending on the decision maker. The last report on visa services, from the Independent Chief Inspector in 2014 found that over 40% of refusal notices were “not balanced, and failed to show that consideration had been given to both positive and negative evidence”. Case studies from CAFOD and London International Festival for Theatre, demonstrated this where applications that were initially refused were accepted on a second application, despite that no changes were made to the application. 
Further, some case studies demonstrated questionable and sometimes offensive reasons for refusals. For example, the London International Festival for Theatre had some Tier 5 applicants refused who were an internationally renowned choreographer and two dancers from the DRC presenting a performance reflecting on their experience of the civil war. Their visas were refused as the entry clearance officers couldn’t understand why they couldn’t find people from the UK to fill the roles.  
Lack of procedural fairness
The panel heard that applicants are often refused based on a lack of proof or information that was not required or even mentioned under the guidelines for the application. For example, not providing marriage and birth certificates for all children, or third country documentation not being valid for a long period post travel. There is generally a lack of clarity around how to apply and what is required for a successful application. The panel found this approach made the system opaque and unfair. Recognising this issue, in 2012, John Vine, the former Independent Chief Inspector for Immigration, said that applicants should be told what is required to be successful and be able be submit this evidence before the application is rejected. However, evidence suggests this recommendation has not been implemented.  Numerous written submissions suggested there should be an exhaustive list of what evidence is required as there is currently no limit to the number of reasons an application can be rejected.  
Further the grounds for which an application can be rejected are also not clear- ASA-UK reported cases where academics were denied a visa because it was judged that the conference expenses were not commensurate with their financial circumstances. If visa officers reject applications on this basis, it should be stated clearly on UK and local visa websites what percentage of resources/ annual income is considered reasonable expenditure for a trip.
Prejudice and assumption
In addition to issues around procedure and decision making quality, some submissions argued that on top of culture of disbelief, there also exists an element of systemic prejudice against applicants.
The panel heard that most applications were explained as being rejected for financial reasons (including insufficient/ undocumented income, travel expenses judged not commensurate with personal and financial circumstances etc) and small discrepancies. This was regularly the case even when sponsoring agencies and organisations provided proof that costs would be covered. This is problematic in multiple ways, it is considered by many to be an unreasonable, intrusive and a demeaning requirement to see detailed bank statements. Further, it is morally questionable as to why this information is relevant as assumes for which there is no evidence – that poorer people are more likely to abscond. 
When comparing cases where applicants were refused, ASA-UK found that women were too often asked personal and inappropriate questions when men are not. For example women being asked to provide proof of marriage and children when men are not. 
Further, ASA-UK’s data found that in some cases, visa officers misread information in a manner that suggests a failure to grasp significant professional contexts and work, which might be mistaken for racial prejudice. In one instance, a highly regarded full Professor, who had been invited to the conference in recognition of his contribution to ongoing debates, was denied a conference visa because he had not demonstrated that he had ‘previously been sent on similar training in the UK.’ The assumption that an African academic would only visit the UK to be ‘trained’ is incorrect and offensive.
No right of appeal and lack of accountability
Ambreena Manji, President of the ASA-UK says that such a culture has been allowed to grow into a ‘rogue system’ because there has not been sufficient oversight. There is no right of appeal for a refusal of a visit visa application. The only way to overturn a refusal is an expensive and lengthy judicial review. Without a mechanism to challenge decisions, this perpetuates a lack of oversight or accountability as the system cannot learn from its mistakes. 
The only oversight is an occasional report from the Independent Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration who last examined visas in August to December 2014. There’s no external quality control and according to another report of 2012 from the Inspector, internal mechanisms are weak. Consequently, individual decision makers do not learn from their mistakes and are not held accountable for poor quality decisions. 
There was widespread consensus that the independent targets set each day for Entry Clearance Officers on how many cases they must clear and make decisions on is having an impact on decision making quality. This was then compared by many to the previous embassy embedded system prior to the outsourcing to the private company Teleperformance UK. The consensus at the meeting was that the system was now less accountable and more bureaucratic than it was previously. 
The meeting concluded that the current system was not designed but has organically grown into something that is not fit for purpose. Until there is effective accountability, making individuals accountable for the decisions they make, the UKVI will continue to fail to deliver a robust but fair visas systems for the UK. 
Next steps…
This meeting launched this coalition of APPGs’ joint inquiry into the quality of decision making within UKVI when considering applications from African visitors to the UK. The call for written evidence closed on the 28th January but some late submissions are still considered. See terms of reference here.
The oral and written evidence gathered informed the roundtable meeting of parliamentarians with the Immigration Minister on the 13th February to discuss the issues raised. This will be followed by evidence gathering parliamentary meetings with the Africa Director at the FCO and Independent Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration and other key stakeholders before publishing a policy report presenting the evidence, together with policy recommendations.
For a full minute of the meeting on the 22nd January, please see here.
To keep up to date on the work of the APPG for Africa, please follow up on twitter @AfricaAPPG. To support the ongoing independent work of the APPG and for exclusive invites to meetings, please consider joining or supporting the Royal African Society which provides the group’s secretariat. 
Image credit: UK Visas and Immigration, UKVI International Africa: Locations, as at September 2015, 18 May 2016