A year ago, when I was still working at the University of Edinburgh, a colleague and I travelled to Canada to work with a saxophone quartet and give a performance. At Montreal’s passport control, we stated our reason for travel and, as usual, were allowed to pass without so much as a rehearsed question designed to trick us into admitting to criminal intent.
A couple of months later, I invited a Canadian to Edinburgh to deliver a short talk for a small fee. Enter the behemoth of a gatekeeper that the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has become.
I’m told that the rules to get into the UK for a little paid work have been considerably relaxed over the past couple of years. However, to obtain permission to give a one-hour talk, our colleague was faced with a potential requirement to present a “permitted paid engagement visa”, costing £87, taking three weeks to process and requiring “proof that you can support yourself”, “details of where you intend to stay”, “proof that the paid engagement relates to your expertise” and “a certified translation of any documents that aren’t in English or Welsh”. Artists and sportspeople must also provide “extra documents…e.g. publications, publicity material, proof of awards, media coverage and reviews, proof of recent performances”.
Placing the burden of proof on the applicant in this way is like asking the defendant to prove their innocence in court, rather than requiring the state to prove their guilt. Faced with this bureaucratic minefield, our North American colleague abandoned his plans, and I can hardly blame him.
This is not an isolated example. Colleagues recount similar stories, and I have a few more of my own. A few years ago, I invited a US-based Turkish pianist over to play a concert. To her credit, she went through the rigmarole of travelling for hours to the nearest biometric screening station. But after waiting eight weeks for the verdict, she cancelled her application because she could no longer be without her passport; she was told that it could take up to 12 weeks to get it back.
How are internationally active artists supposed to function within such a system? Some simply refuse. Another astounding musician who was willing to give the people of Edinburgh the benefit of his huge talents for a paltry fee didn’t even start the process: he had neither the time nor the inclination to jump through the barbed hoops.
Of course, exchange does still happen, but it’s much harder than it used to be or needs to be. And this is one reason why I moved to an academic job in Germany last year. I can honestly say that the grass is genuinely greener. Not only is there no requirement to spy on students for the border agency, there is also no meddling in my curricula or research: Germany has academic freedom written into the constitution.
My experience has been marred only by intense embarrassment over the UKBA’s rejection of the application of one of our students for a visa to make a short trip to London. Misagh Azimi, an Iranian who has been working and studying in Germany for six years, was invited by the University of Greenwich to attend a colloquium and present his audiovisual works. Despite having a return ticket and accommodation already demonstrably paid for, his application was rejected because the UKBA was neither satisfied with his intentions for travelling nor convinced that he would be able to cover his needs while in the UK – which would amount to some fish and chips for dinner, perhaps.
The reaction of my German colleagues was astonishment and outrage. I asked around, and no one had ever encountered such problems. Joachim Heintz, who teaches composition in Hanover, acknowledges that over the 15 years he has been working in close collaboration with Iranian artists, it has become more difficult to obtain appointments at the German embassy in Tehran, but he has never experienced an Iranian artist being refused entry. In fact, the embassy’s culture department helps to expedite the process.
Florian Walter, who organises festivals in Essen and Belgium, also reports no difficulties when inviting artists from a variety of non-EU countries, as long as they are able to provide some tax information. And Merja Dworczak, from the Philharmonie Essen, informs me that the only country whose nationals encounter some problems is Russia, but even there it is possible, with some ingenuity, to find a solution.
The UK used to treat its potential guests better. To my great sadness and shame, my country is quickly becoming more and more closed, paranoid and dismissive in its official interactions with citizens from non-EU countries. It will be the UK’s loss if it continues on this path of insularity. To put it in a manner politicians should understand, societies that engage in academic and cultural exchange benefit materially from the expertise of their neighbours. To think and act otherwise is to cut off vital links to spite the cultural and economic spark of the nation.
It is also to trample on the dignity of visa applicants and to shatter their illusions about the moral superiority of the British state. Six weeks after his visa refusal, Azimi told me that it still haunted him. “It’s not about being able to go to London or not,” he said. “It’s about challenging my individual rights as a human being…[I now realise] I don’t have the chance to change minds and use my voice to make a difference just because I was born in the wrong country…The whole discussion about human rights and how people are treated in my country is fine, but then doing this to an artist who wants to exchange his thoughts? Well, that is the very definition of hypocrisy.”
Michael Edwards is professor of electronic composition at the Folkwang University of the Arts, Germany.