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Dear Prime Minister: three ways to improve the UK’s visa system for African visitors

Written by Arkebe Oqubay


At last month’s UK‒Africa Investment Summit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged that the United Kingdom will introduce a fairer immigration system built on “treating people the same wherever they come from, by putting people before passports.”

Does the UK discriminate against African visitors? According to a study by the Royal African Society (RAS), “African applicants are over twice as likely to be refused a UK visa than applicants from any other part of the world”. The study concludes that “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 perception is that the objective of the policy and practice is to increase barriers and “deliberately decrease the number of applicants” from Africa.

British MPs have also warned that UK-African relations are being severely damaged by what they refer to as a “broken” UK visitor visa system. The system not only denies legitimate African visitors access to the UK, but prevents the UK from benefitting from the talents and skills being harnessed in Africa.

Problems facing African applicants for UK visas

The bias against African visitors is multi-faceted, and not just limited to visa refusals. The visa process is lengthy and bureaucratic. Almost all visa applications from African countries are processed in Pretoria, South Africa, often taking up to three to four weeks. In most cases, visas granted are valid for 30 days only, even for ministers and government officials. Applicants are often charged a much higher fee than British visitors pay for visas to enter African countries.

Comparison with other developed countries’ visa systems shows that it is less costly and time consuming for Africans to travel to the United States, the European Union, and China than to the UK. Visa applications to the US and the EU, which often grant two-year multiple entry visas, are usually completed within a week. Some countries, such as Singapore, offer a visa service on arrival for African visitors.

Three practical measures to implement in 2020

With the 2020s potentially being the decade of Africa’s economic transformation and the continent having one of the fastest growing markets and populations – and thus human capital – the scant attention this issue has received is disconcerting.

This perceived discrimination runs counter to the British government’s ideals and values, is damaging to the country’s long-standing historical ties with Africa, and risks weakening the overall relationship between the UK and Africa at a time when the UK needs to strengthen links with old friends outside the EU.

African governments have themselves been working to improve visa systems. More than 20 African countries grant E-visas for international visitors, including UK citizens. Last month, South Africa and Ethiopia signed a visa waiver for government officials and diplomatic passport holders. It would be easy for the UK to take the following three practical measures to eliminate the apparent bias against African visitors to the UK in 2020.

  1. Visas should be easily accessible for legitimate African visitors to the UK and the fees should be reduced from their current levels. The minimum validity period should be comparable to those of the EU Schengen visa and the US visa, which is 24 months. Applicants requiring visas for health care or business purposes should be encouraged and the duration of the visa process shortened.
  2. Student visas are instrumental to the strategy of developing long-term and deeper relationships with African countries. Students educated in the UK will be the next generation of business leaders, government officials and community representatives. Student visas should be the simplest and most accessible, enabling African students to benefit from the UK’s excellent higher education system and allowing African universities to work closely and exchange academic staff and students with UK universities.
  3. The UK should sign bilateral reciprocal agreements with the governments of individual African countries waiving visa requirements for diplomatic passport holders.

In addition to these, a comprehensive review of the current system should be undertaken, with particular attention to the findings of a cross-party study, which identified areas urgently requiring improvement. Issues highlighted include:

  • practical and logistical barriers;
  • inconsistent and/or careless decision-making;
  • perceived lack of procedural fairness;
  • financial discrimination in decision-making;
  • perceived gender or racial bias; and
  • lack of accountability or a right of appeal.

Addressing these problems will be seen by all Africans and African governments as a symbolic demonstration of the UK Government’s commitment to its partnership with Africa. Actions speak louder than words.

As the UK leaves the EU, it will be seeking to further strengthen its diplomatic relations with other countries and increase its engagement in Africa. A new UK-Africa Prosperity Commission, for example, will provide opportunities for the UK to deepen its links to the African continent.

In a landscape where many international powers are competing for stronger ties with and influence in Africa, an easing of the visa process and increased goodwill towards African visa applicants could be of considerable mutual benefit to African countries and the UK.

Thus, without prejudice to the UK’s right as a sovereign state to determine its own immigration policy and visa system for visitors to the UK, I call on the UK Government to give urgent attention to improving the current system, especially as it applies to applicants from the African continent.

Note: This is an amended version of an article originally published in the Financial Times.