The Home Office is Threatening Britain’s Academic Reputation

Recently, a spate of cases from the Home Office have cropped up involving academics being threatened with deportation or having their or their children’s visas rejected. This has doubtless caused significant emotional and psychological turbulence for these academics, but we might go deeper and ask: Why now, are there so many patently unfair decisions being made? What does this tell us about others trying to get through the UK’s visa system?  And what effect might this have on the UK?

Within our international structure of nation-states, the right a state has to control immigration and movement within and without its borders is arguably accepted by a majority of people. A country having a reliable, predictable and standardized immigration system is not a controversial fact. What is controversial, however, is an immigration system that is unclear and seemingly flippant in its enforcement of rules and decisions.

First of all, it is impossible to ignore the fact that almost all but a few of the cases of academics involve women of colour or their children. Without accusing the Home Office of being heavily biased in their decision-making, one can still question why it seems to be women of a certain ethnicity or nationality that such incidents are happening to.  A common theme seems to be subjecting people of particular ethnicities to heavier scrutiny than other applicants or visa holders. Foxglove, an advocacy group that focuses on protecting people’s legal rights in the technology sector, has challenged the Home Office to publicly reveal its AI immigration streaming system; however, it is public knowledge that the AI system uses nationality to ‘stream’ immigrants as green, yellow or red. Regardless of whether it is AI or not, such a system may risk ignoring that the passport that somebody holds may not accurately reflect their lived experience; this was what happened with Dr Asani, who is being threatened with deportation to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although she grew up and spent most of her life in Nigeria, she holds a Congolese passport but has never been to and has no links with the country (ignoring the fact that the Congo is still seeing violent internal conflict). The Home Office’s move to send her ‘back’ to such a country seems like a terrible accident at best and hostile aggression at worst.

The Home Office’s decision-making processes are not transparent to the public and can risk reducing people to what country their passport is from

What seems to be happening is a form of neo-Orientalism, where brown and black people are all assumed to come from countries that are exactly the same. African and Asian countries are assumed to be no different from each other; Sierra Leone is the same as Liberia as Bangladesh is the same as Pakistan. This is reflected in their statements; telling Dr Asani that having lived in Nigeria, she would be able to easily adjust to life in the DRC. Dr Asani herself pointed out that the language in Nigeria is English while in the DRC it is French, and the UK government has issued multiple times how dangerous the DRC can be in terms of sexual violence against women. In another incident, a Jamaican man O’Neil Wallfall, was sent a refusal letter citing that Iraq was not dangerous – despite the fact that he had never been nor had any links to Iraq. This blurring of different people and countries into an undifferentiated mass may potentially contribute to unfair or even mistaken visa decisions. The Home Office’s decision-making processes are not transparent to the public and can risk reducing people to what country their passport is from. This system also seems to lack nuance; both Dr Murrey and Dr Hassan’s children were rejected visas based on the fact that both their parents had to be in the UK but their husbands were overseas. The fact that both cases involved exceptional circumstances and written consent from both parents were ignored in the original decisions, yet were accepted as reasons in subsequent reversals of their cases.

While some of these academics have fortunately had their decisions overturned, many of them who did so received significant media coverage and support from their universities or lawyers. Yet, what about those who are not as visible in the public eye? The Guardian recently released a report that likens the UK’s immigration system to a “dizzying maze”. Under criticism was a flat-fee law for legal-aid asylum cases and a cut to legal aid that has led to a sharp decrease in affordable and reliable legal representation for immigrants, who are often unable to navigate the complicated legal statues and system by themselves. The immigration system has also been criticized for charging high fees for applications for visas that make it exceptionally difficult for poor migrants to navigate the system or maintain their official immigration status. A strong insistence on ‘official’ hardcopy documentation can also make it difficult to claim asylum status or to process immigration claims for (often low-income) people who may not have access to them, leading to multiple deportations of people who have lived a bulk of their lives in the UK.

if taking back control means a commitment to a confusing and unjust immigration system, we may have to reconsider what that promise means.

Such a complicated immigration system does not just make life difficult and immensely stressful for those caught in the system, but also makes the UK seem exceptionally unwelcome even to hard-working people who just want the opportunity to make a decent life for themselves in our country. Many academics and researchers applying to come to the UK have found it to be expensive and arcanely complicated to apply for visas. Given that a significant part of the UK’s soft power comes from the influence and reputation of its top educational institutions, such a sense of hostility to valuable talent simply on the basis of them ‘not earning a high enough income’ threatens this important reputation. Particularly in the context of a post-Brexit Britain which cannot rely on the EU to amplify its influence and soft power in foreign policy, an unreliable, unfair and seemingly unjust immigration system may be a significant threat to British policymaking going forward. The classic argument for Brexit is to “take back control” from unaccountable, distant elites. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, if taking back control means a commitment to a confusing and unjust immigration system, we may have to reconsider what that promise means.

Image Credit – Jason O’ Halloran