The UK’s ‘hostile environment’ policy towards those seeking to come to the country is beginning to make it look like a cultural pariah, and its historical ‘special relationship’ with an inward-looking, Trump-damaged US isn’t helping. The recent visa debacle at the Edinburgh International Book Festival is, says its director Nick Barley, a clear indication that there’s something rotten at the heart of the system – and that the UK’s arts community needs to pull together and do something about it.
Barley’s comments come after 12 writers from the Middle East and Africa were initially refused entry to attend the festival. All have since secured their visas, although the last to do so, Palestinian writer Nayrouz Qarmout, was granted entry too late to appear at her scheduled event. (A new, later appearance is being specially organized by the festival). The writers’s visa refusals were only overturned after interventions from officials at the British Council, Scottish government and the Home Office itself – a convoluted process that is clearly unsustainable, as Barley explains: ‘If that’s what it takes to get visa refusals overturned then we are wasting a lot of good people’s time and we’ve got to find a different way of doing it […] We’ve got to act, we’ve got to change the system now, otherwise we’ll damage Britain’s future cultural offering immeasurably.’
There is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed when writers, illustrators and musicians invited to appear at a long-established, internationally recognized annual festival are being treated with such disdain. Says Barley: ‘What we are seeing now is a systemic problem arising, in that there appears to be an instruction to find whatever reason you can to refuse the visa. Over the last two years we’ve seen a really significant increase in the number of rejections we’re getting.’
Other recent high-profile examples of the UK government’s anti-immigration agenda impacting on international cultural exchange include July’s Womad (World of Music, Art and Dance) festival, which this year saw musicians from Tunisia, Mozambique and Niger prevented from coming to the country. Indian sisters Hashmat Sultana were eventually granted visas but were delayed to such an extent that they arrived 24 hours after they were scheduled to perform. More recently, three Egyptian curators have fallen foul of the system after applying for visas to attend the International Council of Museums’s annual conference on Egyptology at the Egypt Centre in Swansea in September. One of them, Abdelrahman Othman, a curator at Cairo’s National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, said of the refusal: ‘I didn’t see a reason to refuse it. I have a family in Egypt, I’m a PhD candidate and a government employee, and I have a good travel history.’
Occasional visa refusals are nothing new and have been something many in the arts have had to deal with routinely in the past. But Barley and others sense a shifting agenda and a Kafkaesque slipperiness when it comes to applicants providing the ‘correct’ information to satisfy the UK Visas and Immigration department. And while an organization like the Edinburgh International Book Festival has the profile and contacts to eventually get refusals overturned, such an outcome can’t be taken for granted. As has been demonstrated by Womad, even an established event founded more than 35 years ago by internationally-renowned British music star Peter Gabriel and billed as ‘The world’s festival’ is not immune from the desire to say ‘No’. What chance then for much smaller arts organisations – an artist-led gallery for example – if they find that invited overseas artists are unable to get a visa?
This growing sense of the UK shutting its doors to the wider cultural world is not just impacting on the arts organizations doing the inviting. It’s also sending a message to those being invited that the country would rather they stayed at home; that this island nation is developing a closed mentality at odds with a rich and international cultural scene. And by making the application process so time-consuming and the likelihood of a refusal much higher, the clear danger is that those invited will simply start saying ‘No’ themselves – rather than, as Barley puts it, ‘be humiliated’ by the system. The narrative that the UK is a difficult place to come to has already taken hold among many international writers, says Barley. Gabriel too has stated that, for the first time, artists have declined invitations to perform at Womad this year, a development he has linked to the tougher visa application process.
The looming reality of a no-deal Brexit and the increasing ‘us and them’ political agenda in relation to the UK and the rest of Europe, suggests that new challenges for arts organizations and artists lie ahead, too. A recent House of Lords committee report has stressed the importance of freedom of movement to the cultural sector and proposed a reciprocal short-term ‘touring visa’ for UK-EU arts workers. Yet are calls from the cultural sector even being listened to amid the noise and confusion that surround the ongoing Brexit negotiations? Barley, understandably, worries about what the worst-case scenario could mean for the country’s cultural life: ‘If European artists, authors, musicians, and performers are going to need visas in the same way as people from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, then Brexit will further damage this country’s reputation as a place which used to be open – but no longer feels that way.’
Main image: Hashmat Sultana at Womad, 2018. Courtesy: Womad