Our learned foreign friends no longer seem to be welcome here

Our new immigration rules will have to be revised if we do not want to endanger our collaborative research culture, warns Mathias Brust

March 26, 2009

Owing to a couple of early childhood experiences of travelling from one side of the divided Germany to the other, I must have developed an intuitive knack for border crossings. This may explain why I lied the last time a British immigration official wanted to know my reason for coming to the UK. Rather than admitting that I was a professor of chemistry at the University of Liverpool and owned a house in this country, I said I was coming here to visit friends of mine.

That there was wisdom behind my spontaneous lapse I learnt last Sunday evening when I received a phone call from Immigration at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. They had detained a "female" and wanted to know if her claim that I had invited her to conduct ad honorem research in my laboratory was correct.

The "female" was a Croatian national who had previously worked with me for six months at Liverpool as a visiting student while being enrolled on a PhD programme at an Italian university. This had resulted in a joint publication in a good journal, and I wanted to persuade her to come back for a postdoctoral appointment. Now that she had finished her PhD, we agreed that she would come for a short visit to discuss the project and conduct some preliminary research on a voluntary basis until all formalities would be in place for her to leave again and apply for a work permit. Note carefully that Croatians do not need a visa to visit the UK, but they do need a work permit if they wish to take up employment. They share this status with most North and South Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and many other nationals of non-EU countries.

My hope that my appearance in person at the airport would be sufficient to clarify this most unfortunate and embarrassing misunderstanding was quickly replaced by the fear that my visitor would be evicted and thereby severely jeopardise her prospects of ever holding a UK work permit.

After four hours of interrogation and waiting she was released, in tears. My attempts to inquire what they had done to upset her were shrugged off without comments by the officials who accompanied her. It was 1am when I could finally take her to her friends' house where she intended to stay during her visit. I wish she had given this as her reason for coming to the UK. She was granted two days' temporary admission with the obligation to return to the airport for a further interview.

In the meantime I studied the new immigration rules and found that we were indeed in breach of them. Since 1 January 2009, non-student visitors from outside the EU who do not have a work permit are not allowed to do research, even if they do not need a visa to visit. At best, a "sponsored researcher" in the "visitor" category can come to the UK to exchange knowledge, carry out limited private research and observe research being conducted by others.

In practice, the new regulations imply that any short-term visitor from outside the EU, for example on a Royal Society joint project grant, will either need a work permit or will not be allowed actively to engage in research. Issuing work permits may now be quicker, but permits require significant administrative groundwork by the host institution in addition to proof that the applicant has taken a recognised English test such as International English Language Testing or Test of English as a Foreign Language for visitors from non-English-speaking countries.

For most short-term visiting researchers this is totally impracticable and makes no sense at all. I strongly believe that these new immigration rules will have to be carefully revised if we do not want to endanger our internationally collaborative research culture in the way it happened in the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 events.

After producing a letter from my head of department explicitly stating that she was not permitted to conduct research, my visitor eventually was granted admission to the country, as an act of goodwill and for having been the first to be caught at Liverpool airport under the new rules. No doubt, internally, immigration officials will flag up her case as a success story, and somebody there may even get a promotion out of it.

But in practice it has done damage to our reputation as being welcoming to foreign academic visitors, it nearly prevented me from employing the best possible research associate for the position available, it cost a great deal of extra work and, most unfortunately, it caused my visitor significant personal harassment. I am expecting more visitors, this time from Argentina. At the moment I do not know how to advise them. Should they just say they are visiting friends?

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