01:26, July 06 50 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-06 01:26:07
Lawyer blames visitor visa refusals on ‘deep underlying racism’

The Home Office has been accused of regularly refusing visitor visas to those wishing to come to the UK for a short period for trivial and inaccurate reasons, with one leading immigration lawyer claiming the policy stemmed from “deep underlying racism”.

The Home Office has denied the claims, calling them “incorrect and misleading” but another specialist lawyer said it “regularly deploys scare tactics” when applicants complained about the refusal and tried to persuade them to drop their case.

The Guardian has learnt of at least a dozen recent cases where applicants from African countries, the Indian sub-continent, Cuba, Vietnam, Fiji and Thailand have been refused visitor visas for apparently frivolous or inaccurate reasons.

A third lawyer and barrister, Adrian Berry, chair of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said that the Home Office could be forced to pay substantial damages if it could be proven to be acting unlawfully.

With the renewed attention on Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policies in the wake of the Windrush scandal, immigration lawyers, campaigners and MPs have raised concerns about the treatment of those applying for short-term visas.

In one recent case, a Bangladeshi father seeking to travel to the UK to take part in care proceedings involving his British children had his visitor visa refused over what his lawyer said was a minor issue. He reapplied but, by the time he arrived in the UK, the final hearing – which is currently ongoing – had already started.

Other cases included four siblings from Nigeria who were refused permission to come to the UK to celebrate their sister’s wedding; two young women from Cameroon who were denied visas to visit the Edinburgh festival for two weeks in August; and the African fiancee of a British citizen, both of whom live together in Africa, who was denied a visa to visit his fiancee’s family in the UK.

In all these cases, applicants met immigration rules and the reasons given by the Home Office for its refusals were unfounded, according to their lawyers, such as stating the applicant did not have the funds to pay for their visit when they had submitted evidence from sponsors committed to meeting all their costs.

The Home Office also refused visas by saying it was not confident the applicant would leave the country at the end of their visit despite applicants clearly visiting for a specific purpose, such as a weddin; submitting evidence that they had booked and already paid for hotel accommodation ending on a certain date; presenting letters from employers, that stated they had been granted a specific period off work for the holiday; or running their own, successful business back home.

“The refusal reasons in the most recent case I am dealing with are unlawful, spurious and plainly wrong,” said Jan Doerfel, a barrister who runs his own specialist immigration chambers He said he believed there was a “general refusal culture, both within the Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration at entry clearance posts [and] there appears to be a deep underlying racism (whether direct or indirect) in the way many applicants are treated – meaning they may actually meet all the immigration rules, such as maintenance and accommodation, but unlawful reasons are found to refuse them that they will never be able to supercede and that are purely motivated by racism, coupled with a desire to keep numbers low.

“This means that – even when the immigration rules have been met and an applicant has applied to come for one specific purpose - the underlying view by the decision-makers are: ‘you are poor, you don’t earn much compared to us, so all you would want to do is get into the UK illegally’.

“It effectively devalues and denigrates not only applicants as individuals but also denigrates their heritage and culture as somewhat being worthless and not worth returning to.”

Syed Naqvi, the head of the immigration department at ITN solicitors, said: “The Home Office’s decision-making in visitor visa applications from African and the Indian sub-continent leaves a lot to be desired. It has become progressively worse since appeal rights were withdrawn in visitor visa cases a few years ago.

“I have also come across numerous cases where visitors – predominately from African and Indian sub-continent countries – have returned to their countries before the expiry of their visitor visa due to some compelling factors. Further visit visa applications from such clients are regularly refused simply on the basis that they did not adhere to their original travel itinerary.”

Home Office data shows that the average rate of refusal for visitor visas was 13% in the first quarter of 2017, the latest date for which figures are available, while applicants from north Africa had a 28% chance of being refused.

Before May announced her “hostile environment” stance on immigration, the figures were far closer: in 2010, the average refusal rate for visitor visas was 16%, with applicants from north Africa having a 14% of refusal.

After May’s announcement, however, the figures quickly began to diverge: by the end of 2011, they were 14% and 18% respectively. By the end of 2012, it was 16% and 21%. At the end of 2016, it was 16% and 29%.

Applicants refused a visitor visa have no right to an appeal or even to an administrative review of the decision, where the Home Office conducts a basic check of the way they considered the application.

Instead, applicants who want to challenge the decision must initiate a judicial review, which can cost more than £30,000 and take more than 10 months.

Scottish National party MP Alison Thewliss said: “It’s clear to me that the government’s hostile environment policy is being applied across all areas of immigration and I am entirely unsurprised to see people being refused visitor visas for highly dubious reasons.

“Indeed, I have met a number of my own constituents who have had problems applying for these types of short-term visas. The vast majority have abided by the rules and have made available the necessary information to demonstrate the purpose and duration of any visit, yet they have still been refused.

Q&A

Timeline of the 'hostile environment' policy

2012: Home secretary Theresa May: 'The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.'

2012: Hostile environment working group established, involving many government ministers.

2013: Sarah Teather MP raises concerns about the working group and its stated aims.

2013: Government introduces bill which became the Immigration Act 2014, and introduces key measures of the hostile environment.

2014: Chasing Status warns of a 'virtually invisible and rarely acknowledged group who can’t easily prove their legal status'. Home Office responds: 'It is up to anyone who does not have an established immigration status to regularise their position – however long they have been here'.

2014: Civil society organisations brief parliament during the passage of the 2014 Immigration Act that 'individuals often do not have any identity documentation or confirmed status but have a right to remain in the UK'.

2014: Impact assessments of a Right to Rent scheme warn: 'Some non-UK born older people may have additional difficulties in providing original documentation.' Officials respond that work had been done to ensure checks 'do not have an adverse impact on any age group'.

2016: A letter from immigration minister James Brokenshire reveals he knew of a Windrush victim having extreme difficulty proving he had arrived in the UK before 1971, and knew repeated legal action had been mounted to persuade the Home Office to recognise the rights of a man who had lived here for 49 years.

2018: A Liberty and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants dossier sets out many warnings received by the government regarding the impacts of its policies. 

“These decisions are callous and completely unnecessary. They are keeping families apart and, in extreme circumstances, are denying people the chance to visit ill relatives and attend funerals.

“These issues surrounding visitor visas are the latest in a long line of inhumane policies being pursued by the Home Office. The culture of hostility that exists in the Home Office must be tackled and I will continue to urge the home secretary to take meaningful action.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “All applications are considered on their individual merits and in line with the immigration rules. The statutory immigration rules clearly sets out the framework by which applications for visas are considered. This includes information that customers can send in support of their application, but provides no guarantees such information will result in the issue of a visa.

“Caseworkers are required to assess all applications in the round, making an objective assessment on the intentions of the individual on a balance of probabilities. The onus is on the applicant to demonstrate that they satisfy the immigration rules.”

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