South Africans face increased visa requirements for UK visits

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The Independent Online

Black South Africans are likely to be worse affected than their white fellow-citizens by new British entry requirements which came into force last week, according to the country's authorities.

South Africans who have not visited the UK before must now get a visa, whatever the reason for their journey. Previously the country's citizens had been able to spend up to six months in Britain without prior permission, but by mid-2009 the visa requirement will be extended to all South Africans. Some 420,000 travel to the UK each year.

Although several other countries have also had visa requirements imposed after Britain judged their passport checks to be inadequate, the impact on South Africa is by far the greatest. Up to 2 million of its 40 million people have some family connection to Britain, and many might apply for British passports to avoid the need to get a visa every time they travel to the UK with a South African document.

Siobhan McCarthy, spokesperson for South Africa's home affairs ministry, said the main initial concern was over the additional costs, with a fee of £65 for a six-month visa and over £200 for longer validities of up to 10 years. "The majority of our people cannot afford to travel to the UK," she said. "This will be harder for black South Africans on lower incomes, particularly youngsters, who might only just be able to make the price of flights and accommodation."

Britain said it had acted because large numbers of people had been detected at UK entry points with genuine South African passports to which they were not entitled. Fears have been expressed in recent terrorism cases that the country was being used as an infiltration route by al-Qaida. South Africans featured "prominently" among passengers being refused entry on arrival in the UK, according to the Foreign Office, and there had also been a significant rise in the number of South Africans working illegally or overstaying their leave to remain in the UK. Last year a people-smuggling ring was broken up after bringing more than 6,000 people into Britain on forged or stolen South African passports.

Ms McCarthy said South Africa was struggling with the legacy of apartheid, which left millions of black citizens undocumented, and acknowledged that it had been too easy to pay bribes or give false information to obtain birth certificates, which could then be used to get identity documents and passports. "We are working to make our documents more secure, but our timetable was not the same as the British one," she added.

South African officials have dismissed speculation that the country might impose reciprocal visa rules on more than 500,000 British passport-holders who arrive each year, with the number of visitors likely to be swelled by the Lions rugby tour this year and the football World Cup in 2010.