Britain’s visa system: a V-sign to visitors

Published in The Guardian (May 15th, 2012)

So this is the year Britain throws open its arms and welcomes the world to a unique double bill of sporting spectacle and royal pageantry. Which other nation could host the Olympics for a third time, boast of 60 years under one monarch, and showcase such a blend of medieval tradition and modern multiculturalism?

That was the plan, anyway. Instead, there have been anger, jeers and slow handclaps as irate travellers inch through a sclerotic passport system at Heathrow. The mayor, ministers, even the prime minister – terrified of humiliating headlines during the summer’s festivities – have demanded action over the dismal greeting that two-hour queues present.

No doubt they will ensure the passport process is patched up by the time the first starting pistol is fired in July. But what we are seeing is the tip of a nasty iceberg, the most visible sign of a stupid system seemingly designed to deter people from coming to this country.

Few of our immigration policies make sense at this time of economic paralysis. Study after study shows migrants are more entrepreneurial, more innovative and more likely to boost prosperity than natives. Yet we turn away students wanting to spend a fortune and business people wanting to build a fortune. Sadly, this will not change in the current political climate.

But why do we need to be so unwelcoming to those wanting to come for a business meeting, a shopping trip or sightseeing? Few countries make it easy to obtain a visa. But Britain turns it into torture with a system judged the worst in Europe. It is so bad one in four people abandon plans to visit, costing the country an estimated £750m each year.

There was an Iranian scientist invited to a crucial conference whose passport was held for eight weeks, causing him to miss the event and waste £800 on flights. The Indian singer, forced to abandon a major concert after his first visa difficulty in two decades of touring. The West Indies cricket tour stripped of players. Or the Turk charged £545 for his visa. “Should I read a hidden message?” he asked. “Don’t come.”

Visitors are told to apply for visas online, whether they have internet access or not. Supporting documents such as bank statements and employers’ letters must be translated into English. There are over-long forms and interviews can be hundreds of miles away – Russia has five centres, all in one corner of the country, while some Middle East and African countries have none, so applicants must go to a neighbouring nation.

There are hefty fees (they can be twice the average weekly wage), fingerprinting and, possibly, medical tests. Passports must be handed over for perhaps a month – a month with no work for business people or performers. And still there is a one in 10 chance of rejection – and as inspectors have found, mistakes are commonplace and applicants turned down for failing to provide information they were never told they needed.

Alice, a 30-year-old Kenyan, was promoted after six years working for a British charity and invited to an induction course. Despite holding a masters degree and living in a large house, she was told she could not be trusted to return since she was not married. “I was very offended,” she said. “The language was rude and it was racist to assume I’m so poor and desperate I’d give up everything to disappear in your country.”

Perhaps stupidest of all is how we treat the Chinese. As they become wealthier, they are exploring the world: 78 million going abroad this year, up from 58 million two years ago. Whether on business or pleasure, they spend freely – typically spending three times as much as the average foreign visitor, such is their love of our designer goods, and nearly eight times more than Britons on a shopping trip to London’s West End.

But so slow, so self-defeating, is our visa system that a study found nearly one in three Chinese give up and go elsewhere. Extra staff are being sent to China, but it remains cheaper and easier to go to Europe, since under the Schengen agreement one visa covers 25 countries. Little wonder only 250,000 Chinese come here, compared with 2 million going to France.

Australia can complete online visas in just 24 hours. But the bigger question is why we need visas for 108 countries, each negotiated on a bilateral basis. In many cases, we could replace fear with common sense by simply abandoning them. Three years ago we did just this with Taiwan and visitor numbers shot up 40%. So how about creating a genuine Olympic legacy by modernising this dreadful system that costs the country so much in income and goodwill?

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