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British competitiveness at risk from visa system that rejects conference delegates, warn scientists

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k4779 (Published 09 November 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k4779
  1. Nigel Hawkes
  1. London, UK

Medical conferences may have to be moved abroad unless the Home Office changes policy over the issuing of visas, the head of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has warned.

Peter Piot said that 17 would-be delegates were prevented from attending the Women Leaders in Global Health conference, held at the school on 8-9 November, because they were denied visas by the Home Office. He called for an urgent review of the rejected applications and wrote to the home secretary, Sajid Javid, warning that British competitiveness was being affected.

His complaints have been backed by the president of the Royal Society, Venti Ramakrishnan, and the director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar. Writing in the Times, Farrar said that Britain’s place in world science cannot be maintained without a proper immigration system.1

There have been many examples in recent years of UK visas being denied. Perhaps the most egregious case was that of Sid-Ahmed Kerzabi, an eminent 81 year old historian from Algeria, who was denied a visa to attend a conference in Oxford in 2013 at which he was to give a keynote speech.

Among those denied a visa to attend the women’s health conference was Abrar Alalim, a medical student from a university in Sudan. She told the Times: “I was so disappointed. I worked hard on a speech to deliver there. The organisers of the conference paid for our tickets, hotel, meals, transportation. This is a lot of money spent on nothing.”

Another conference, the Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Liverpool, held in October 2018, was short of at least 10 of its 2000 registered delegates as a result of visa denials. One of them was Sabu Kochupurackal Ulahannan, who works in tribal communities in Kerala, south-west India. In a blog post he described the process of applying for a UK visa as discriminatory.

The Home Office says that in considering visa applications, it takes into account the financial circumstances of the applicant independent of any support provided by the host organisation, and their professional background.

It is charged with controlling immigration into the UK, and visitors overstaying their visas is the largest channel of irregular immigration. While would-be immigrants who are uncovered in the back of a lorry make the headlines, they are outnumbered by those who overstay and whose disappearance is seldom reported.

No official statistics exist, but the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford quotes a figure of between 417 000 and 863 000 (central estimate 618 000) of those with irregular immigration status in 2007. About two thirds live in London.

This is higher than other EU countries (France 178 000 to 400 000, Germany 196 000 to 457 000). The difficulty of detecting such migrants and expelling them is such that the Home Office focuses instead on trying to prevent those it deems a risk from entering the UK in the first place.

If British conferences are to be held abroad, organisers may find they have not escaped the visa problem. There were complaints from several academics who wished to attend the 2014 Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, which was held in Vancouver, over the cost and complexity of obtaining a visa.

And any conference held in the EU would require registrants to obtain a Schengen visa, which requires the production of an employment contract, a bank statement covering the previous six months, and an income tax return, conditions not all can meet.

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