UK border rules are harsher for Africans

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A political activist from Zimbabwe seeks humanitarian protection. A Sudanese girl stranded in Greece dreams of joining her refugee brother in Birmingham.

Every year, just like these people I have represented, thousands from African countries try to enter the UK for a multitude of reasons.

Almost all face an impenetrable bureaucracy, exorbitant fees and “Entry Clearance Officers” – now centralised in a single Pretoria “Decision-Making Centre” – itching to cast doubt on the applicant’s intent.

Those that make it still encounter sceptical Immigration Officers at the border and a hostile environment designed to make stays as short as possible.

Unfair treatment of Africans

Those applying from countries in Africa already know this, of course. And it is reflected in the Home Office’s own statistics: 34% of visit visa applications (business and tourism) from Nigeria were refused in the year up to June 2020, 43% from Ghana failed, and 42% from Algeria.

Compare that to the refusal percentage for Russians (2%), Saudi Arabians (0%) and Colombians (4%). The African anomaly? South Africa, from which only 3% of applications were refused (there is no breakdown in the figures for race).

The numbers for “family visit” applications are strikingly similar. Only in the limited work visa category – for those with existing job offers and UK sponsors – does the Africa refusal rate dip below 10%.

As the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group for Africa concluded in July 2019: “Home Office data on visa refusals shows that African applicants are over twice as likely to be refused a UK visa than applicants from any other part of the world. The UK has good relations with most African countries, but it needs to be recognised that no single issue does more potential damage to the image or influence of the UK in Africa than this visa question. The fact that refusals for applicants from Africa in 2018 were running at more than double the global average suggests that something is amiss.”

Refusals reflect a culture of disbelief among Home Office decision-makers: a “visitor” from Africa is considered at high risk of “overstaying”.

Evidence from the continent (bank statements, visa centre interviews, third-party letters of support) is routinely dismissed as “not credible”.

Nationality and Borders Bill

The UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, whose parents migrated to the UK from Kampala in the 1960s, is now trying to make life even harder. The new Nationality and Borders Bill, which is likely to become law later this year, contains a swathe of measures that narrow paths of entry and rights on arrival.

It even includes a provision that makes explicit something that has long been suspected: if you have the misfortune to apply from a country on the wrong side of UK policy, you may well suffer for the alleged sins of your government.

Buried in Clause 59 is a seemingly anodyne provision entitled “Processing of visa applications from nationals of certain countries”.

It will enable the Home Office to “suspend or delay”, treat as invalid or impose “additional financial requirements” on applications from countries when “in the opinion of the Secretary of State … the government of that country does not co-operate with the United Kingdom government in relation to the removal from the United Kingdom of nationals of that country who require leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom but do not have it.”

In other words, Patel is threatening to disadvantage applicants, not for anything that is or is not in their individual applications but simply due to the failure of “their” governments to accept deportations from the UK.

That Ghanaian businessperson, then, regardless of merit, could be refused entry because other Ghana nationals have overstayed in the UK years before and Accra has failed to confirm they will accept them back.

The UK appears to be following the example of the United States under Donald Trump, who implemented similar “visa sanctions” in 2017 against Eritrea, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

The reluctance of some African capitals to issue so-called “Emergency Travel Documents” to facilitate the return of their nationals has many sources: disputes over identity, administrative uncertainty and inefficiency (on both sides), diplomatic wrangling.

The countries long deemed most “uncooperative” by the Home Office include Algeria, Morocco, Gambia, DRC and Zimbabwe. They are now on notice that a punishment will be meted out.

It remains to be seen whether Clause 59 will be put into effect. Unfortunately, some of the more regressive changes to the immigration system are already now in force, not least since the UK’s formal exit from the EU at the end of 2020.

Effect of Brexit

Free movement rights within the EU had been a legitimate, alternative path to the UK since 1973, especially as the country’s own “immigration rules” became harsher.

To take just three examples: a DRC national who naturalises as a Belgian citizen then became automatically entitled to live and work in Britain too. A Gabonese falls in love and marries a French woman – he was able to enter the UK as a direct family member of the French spouse without himself being an EU citizen. He would retain a right of residence even if they separated. A paperless Nigerian with a British child in the UK could successfully remain on the basis that he or she was the primary carer of an EU citizen.

All those EU-derived rights are now gone. Africans instead find themselves thrust solely into the UK’s domestic regime and, in extremis, reliance on human rights applications. Moreover, making in-country applications to vary or regularise stays once in the UK is increasingly fraught, unpredictable and expensive.

Brexit has also led to the UK’s departure from the “Dublin Regulations”, a framework for shared responsibility for asylum-seekers in Europe.

This has seriously undermined the ability of refugees from Africa to make it to Britain through legal means. Under Dublin, an asylum-seeker who ended up in France, Greece or any other signatory state could apply for their application to be transferred if they had a family member in the UK or could show other compelling humanitarian considerations. That route has now been removed.

Even worse, if the asylum-seeker enters the UK clandestinely, by boat, lorry or plane, Patel’s proposals will both criminalise them for “unlawful entry” and label the asylum claim “inadmissible” on the basis that the individual should have applied in the first “safe country” through which they travelled.

There was much handwringing in Parliament, on the right and the left, over the government’s decision to cut the international aid budget by £4.5bn in 2021. But there has been little debate about how the UK’s immigration policy prejudices Africa’s economic potential and limits the prospects for partnership and mutual advantage; nor how the UK’s relationship with the continent remains stuck in old mentalities.

There was a brief, illusory period during the Brexit referendum when its advocates floated the possibility of a reformed migration system that favoured Britain’s “historic” links to former colonies, including in Africa.

Starting with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, rights of entry for citizens of Commonwealth countries and the colonies were completely eroded over a decade. And nothing in the post-Brexit immigration system puts Africa in any better position. When negotiating its trade deal with the UK this year, India pushed hard for a better deal for its students and workers wishing to enter Britain, winning some limited concessions. There will be less leverage for individual African countries.

Bottom line

The position is set to deteriorate further. In a new landscape of biopolitics defined by coronavirus variants and vaccine passports as a further condition of entry, the UK is likely to continue to bolt its doors. Africans will go elsewhere – and it will be Britain’s loss.

Taimour Lay is a barrister specialising in refugee and immigration law at Garden Court Chambers in London. He is a former special correspondent for The Africa Report.

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