The “Women Leaders in Global Health” conference, held recently at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, aimed to “advance a collective new vision for global health leadership and build opportunities for women to progress in all forms of leadership”.
As the astute reader will no doubt be able to work out for themselves, many of the delegates to the conference came from outside the UK.
However, according to media reports, at least 17 overseas delegates’ visitor visa applications were refused, and so of course they could not attend. These unfortunate applicants all came from Africa and Asia.
African countries with just a few exceptions are “visa national” countries (countries of which the citizens require visas to visit the UK) as are a lot of Asian countries (including most of those in the Indian sub-continent). If you cannot get the visa you cannot get to the UK – in fact you should not even be able to get on to the airliner.
The reported reasons for refusing the visas were that the applicants did not show they had sufficient funds to support the visit, and that their academic backgrounds were not sufficiently relevant to the conference.
The first reason sounds a potentially good reason to refuse a visit visa application, but we note that delegates to the conference were apparently going to have all their expenses paid by the conference organisers in any case – probably we need more facts about this.
The second reason is more intriguing, and the human story speaks loudly. One delegate, who studies at the Ahfad University for Women in Sudan, was told that her studies in medicine were not considered sufficiently relevant to the conference topic. As she put it “The conference is called Women Leaders in Global Health. I’m a medical student. It’s a health conference. This is a bit confusing.”
Whatever the facts in individual cases, some have identified an unfavourable trend in decision-making in this respect by the UK immigration authorities. Professor Peter Piot, the Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says that they will have to consider holding such events outside the UK in future, and he has written to the Home Secretary to complain about it.
As he and others have pointed out, the UK is considered an important world centre for medicine and science, but this status is jeopardised by visa rules and practices that sometimes prevent international academics and delegates from getting here in the first place.
Does the threat to hold such events elsewhere have any teeth? Would it really be easier in other countries? We think probably Yes. Of course every country has immigration controls, but our experience is that UK visitor visas are a difficult subject. The application process is long and complicated, and sometimes the decision-making is poor. Some decisions are – to use a legal expression – irrational and, in many cases, the decision-maker does not look properly (or sometimes apparently even at all) at all the relevant evidence.
The UK visitor visa compares unfavourably with the Schengen visa. Despite the fact that the Schengen visa enables entry to some 26 countries in Europe, not just one country, the application is much simpler, and our experience is that the decision-making is on the average better.
Can or will the (newish) Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, do anything about it? He seems to be gaining a reputation as a reformer. But, on the other hand, most Home Secretaries seem to make claims in that direction, and it is not a great deal clear how much they have achieved over the years.
The UK immigration system of law, rules, policies and practices is like some huge blob, scarcely movable, and it seems to acquire more and more layers as time goes by. There are certainly good arguments to be made that the visitor visa scheme and processes could be made more efficient and fairer.
But at the moment things are as they are, and if you are going to apply for a UK visitor visa you would be well advised to instruct a good UK lawyer. They should at least be able to help you avoid potential problem areas and give you the best chance of success.