Author: Sian Cain
Festival director Nick Barley says ‘humiliating’ application process will deter writers and damage cultural life in UK
A dozen authors who were planning to attend this year’s Edinburgh international book festival have had their visas refused, according to the director, Nick Barley, who warned that the “humiliating” application process would deter artists from visiting the UK.
The festival, which starts on Saturday and includes appearances from 900 authors and illustrators from 55 countries, routinely provides assistance for visa applications. It has reported a jump in refusals over the last few years.
This year, about a dozen individuals had gone through an extremely difficult process to obtain a visa, Barley said. They were from Middle East and African countries, with one author from Belarus, and had had their applications refused at least once.
Several applications remained outstanding, despite some authors being due to appear at the festival in less than a week.
“We’ve had to draw on the help of MPs, MSPs, ambassadors and senior people in the British Council and Home Office to overturn visa decisions that looked set to be rejected,” Barley said. “We’ve had so many problems with visas, we’ve realised it is systematic. This is so serious. We want to talk about it and resolve it, not just for [this festival], but for cultural organisations UK-wide. The amount of energy, money and time that has gone into this is problematic. There needs to be a fix.”
Barley’s comments echo that of Peter Gabriel, the Womad festival founder, who last week criticised UK foreign policy when at least three musical acts found they could not perform due to visa complications. “Do we really want a white-breaded Brexited flatland?” Gabriel said. “A country that is losing the will to welcome the world?”
According to Barley, the dozen authors were asked to provide three years’ worth of bank statements to demonstrate financial independence, despite being paid to participate in the Edinburgh book festival, and having publishers and the festival guaranteeing to cover their costs while in the UK. Barley said any deposits that could not be easily explained were used as grounds to deny the authors’ visas; one had to reapply three times due to her bank statements.
“It is Kafkaesque. One was told he had too much money and it looked suspicious for a short trip. Another was told she didn’t have enough, so she transferred £500 into the account – and then was told that £500 looked suspicious. It shouldn’t be the case that thousands of pounds should be spent to fulfil a legitimate visa request. I believe this is happening to many arts organisations around the country, and we need to find a way around it.”
Barley called the situation humiliating, adding: “One author had to give his birth certificate, marriage certificate, his daughter’s birth certificate and then go for biometric testing. He wanted to back out at that point because he couldn’t bear it, but we asked him to continue. Our relationship with authors is being damaged because the system is completely unfit for purpose. They’ve jumped through hoops – to have their applications refused.”
A permit-free festival visitor visa is available to artists appearing at 45 approved cultural events, including Womad and the Edinburgh Fringe, which means they do not require a certificate of sponsorship and only have to show bank balances for three months. However, the book festival is not on the list. Barley said that while the festival could apply to be added to the permit-free list, he hoped other festivals across the UK would come together to campaign for a new system.
“I think this is an honest mistake the UK government has made as a result of their immigration policy, which is making problems for artists, musicians and performers. We need to create a kind of cultural passport that allows people to attend festivals, gigs and shows. If we don’t, we’re putting culture in the UK at risk,” he said. “I am calling on the British government, the Scottish government and cultural institutions like Womad: work with us, let’s try and find a solution.”
Deidre Brock, MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, who has been working on individual cases with international acts for multiple Edinburgh festivals including the book event, has raised the issue in parliament. She said her office had seen growing delays and rejections for artists and organisers, particularly from the Middle East.
“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,” she said. “Home Office bureaucrats say performers won’t go home to their friends, families and jobs after the festival, despite no evidence that this has ever been an issue. You have to ask why they think highly acclaimed artists would throw away their careers and leave their family and friends to live as illegal immigrants. Edinburgh urgently needs the UK government to rethink its visa policies and help make sure its festivals remain a fantastic global showcase of the arts and of Scotland’s international appeal.”
Government data shows refusals for visitor visa applications from the Middle East have shot up in the last 10 years. In 2007, 18% of 5,248 applications by Syrian nationals were refused, but that increased to 68% in 2016 despite applications dropping to 3,695.
Only 15% of 1,891 applications from the Occupied Palestinian Territories were refused, compared to 40% of 3,751 in 2016. More than 8,000 applications were denied to Iranians that same year – 52% of 16,900, compared to 18% of 38,459 in 2007. In 2017, the Edinburgh book festival publicly campaigned on behalf ofthe Iranian illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi, whose application was rejected, with reasons including his divorced status and having too much money. After an outcry that decision was eventually overturned by the British embassy in Tehran.