The word “visa” is derived from the Latin “charta visa”, which means a verified paper or a paper that has been seen. Sadly, for many of us, UK visas are documents that are not seen. And as Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of Parliament added her voice on this issue, many Ugandans are up against a visa system that has an element of systematic prejudice against them, a system that is opaque, a system of which decision-makers often misinterpret documents, a visa system whose decisions lack intelligence and compassion, a system whose decision makes lack any accountability for their cruel decisions.
Quite often, many visa applicants see the UK government’s approach to visas as inhumane because it keeps families apart and causes emotional distress, more realise that every part of the visa application system is about charging more and delivering less. From premium visa service fees which do not guarantee what you are paying for, the $500 a year Immigration health surcharge fee that is not only an insurmountable barrier to many Ugandans but has also more than doubled since last year to the exorbitant non-refundable application fees which are set at ten times higher than the actual administrative costs. The UK Government now admits that fees for a visit, work and study visas are its cash cow, that they are profit-making fees that contribute to economic growth. It has little sympathy for the fact that fees keep visa applicants “constantly in debt to friends, family, mosque or church members, and in the worst cases loan sharks”.
UK throws around rhetoric of it being “open for business” however this is not a lived reality as quite often one arm of the UK Government does not know what the other arm is doing. For example, on one hand, it is supporting women’s rights in Uganda on the other hand, through its insulting refusal decisions, it is frustrating women wanting to travel to the UK to build international support for women’s right, thereby undermining civil society links that are crucial to the achievement of UN sustainable development goals. More so, in such situations and many others, disappointments are not only felt by the individual applicant but by sponsoring organisations in UK, churches, diaspora families whose only wish is for a grandmother to travel to London to spend four weeks with her grandchildren.
Pigs will fly if our Netball team that left for Liverpool for the Netball World Cup was not at the receiving end of the endless injustice and unfairness of the UK Government’s visa system. Many are denied because it is thought that when they arrive in the UK on a visit visa they may abscond or refuse to return to the pearl of Africa however, the UK government’s own statistics show that 98% of visit visa holders whose visas expired in 2017/18 actually left the UK on time. Undoubtedly, the 2% chancers never quite made it back, although, frankly, we have all met British people in Uganda that never quite made it back to the UK after the end of their visit visas and have over the years set up businesses, travel lodges, and bars. That is reciprocity there, but on the whole, quite many that visit the UK are there for business, tourism and are at times invited or sponsored by charities and Uganda diaspora community organizations for cultural exchanges, or for speaking.
Visit visa applicants are often told that there is no right of appeal or right to administrative review. While this is true as appeals are possible in cases on grounds of human rights, the UK Government fails to inform visit visa applicants that they can challenge such unreasonable and unfair decisions via judicial review. As an Immigration lawyer, I have helped many Ugandans get such awful decisions overturned through judicial review. Also, statistics show that 52% of appeals are overturned in the year to March 2019 which shows decision making was bad in the first place. When faced with awful visa refusal decisions, Ugandans should not only tweet about them but also legally challenge them.
It is understandable that every State has a right to control its border. No one is asking that for a free ride, however, what makes Ugandans’ blood boil is a visa system that is unfair, decisions that are inconsistent, a visa system that does not hinge on compassion and common sense. The UK Government should understand that they want a system that is fair, one that makes intelligent and consistent decisions. A system that tells people why exactly they have been rejected, one that does not overlook evidence, a system tells them what evidence they should have produced, and a system that does not patronize them nor stigmatise them simply because of where they come from.
Thomas Ddumba is a UK Immigration lawyer.