Academics from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries are being refused entry visas to the UK to take up research placements at universities.
At a recent meeting of the British Academy, universities including the London School of Economics and the University of Birmingham said they had experienced problems with visiting academics from Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon being "blocked".
Onora O'Neill, president of the British Academy, told Times Higher Education: "One of the ways for the UK to sustain and rebuild cultural links with Iraq is to support study and research visits by Iraqi academics. It is hard work arranging and funding such visits and deeply frustrating if well-planned and funded visits cannot take place because of difficulties over issuing visas."
According to the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara), even when universities have successfully applied for work permits on the researchers' behalf, academics can be stopped at the entry clearance stage, which is run by Foreign Office employees working at British embassies in Amman and Beirut (embassies in Baghdad and Damascus no longer issue visas).
Cara accused the Government of undermining the right of UK universities to pursue cultural and academic exchange. John Akker, Cara's executive secretary, said: "Cara is deeply concerned about the fate of Iraqi academics who appear to be caught up in a 'cat-and-mouse' game being played out in government entry clearance offices in response to political expediency." There was a "total lack of transparency and consistency in the application of UK entry clearance regulations," he added.
Barbara Pierscionek, professor of optometry at the University of Ulster, said she had been trying to get a former colleague into the UK for a placement for more than a year. "He was here on sabbatical before the war broke out. He's been refused a visa on the basis that he did not have a work permit, even though there's no work involved. Now he does have a permit and we're trying again."
Chris Randall, solicitor at Bates Wells and Braithwaite, said entry officers were able to exercise discretion when deciding visa applications, which meant refusals were "easy to make and hard to attack".
"Sponsored researchers have to show they intend to leave at the end of their stay here, and it's very easy for entry clearance officers to say: 'I don't believe you're going back to Iraq', which is very hard to counteract," Mr Randall said.
A Home Office spokesman said: "All applications for entry clearance are considered on their merits. Applicants must satisfy the entry clearance officer that they meet all the requirements of the immigration rules."