Letter: Safeguard against bias in visa system

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The Independent Online
Sir: Kenneth Clarke proposes to remove the right to appeal of persons refused visitors' visas to enter Britain. This must raise questions concerning the reliability, fairness and objectivity of the initial visa screening process.

In cases of which I have knowledge, visa clearance interviews are based on dubious methodology. Applications for visits often relate to family matters, and it is not at all clear that the (at times quite junior) officials undertaking the interviews have much systematic knowledge of the cultures, social organisation and kinship systems of the countries where they are required to operate.

I asked one British official in West Africa about emergency visa clearance for close relatives separated (as a quirk of colonial history) by differences of nationality. He said he would take a sympathetic view in a case involving a parent and child, but not for a brother and sister (the case in point). When I explained that siblingship was the axis of family life in the culture in question, his answer was that cases were judged on British kinship values (the way he put it - mockingly - was that the appellants should hope the UK assessor of their appeal was a member of their own 'tribe').

In other cases, the purpose of the long and embarrassingly personal interview seems to be to establish whether or not a potential visitor should be denied a visa by reason of poverty. One transcript I have examined asked detailed questions about the applicant's kitchen arrangements (did she cook over gas or firewood, did she use an outside toilet, did she draw her water from a well?) Visa clearance was refused, apparently on the grounds that the applicant was too poor to be other than an economic refugee.

But in her home town, everyone (whether rich or poor) cooks over firewood (there is no gas, the electricity is unreliable) and draws water from wells (the piped water supply has not worked for 27 years). When I asked the interviewing officer whether he had ever visited the town in question his answer was that 'he didn't have much call to go there'.

Cumbersome though it is, the current appeals procedure is a vital safeguard against bias, ignorance and inexactitude of this sort. If the appeals procedure is removed, how will the British government defend itself from the charge of hypocrisy when it exhorts Third World political elites to respect freedom of association (and other human rights) and international free trade in commodities and ideas?

Yours faithfully,

PAUL RICHARDS

Department of Anthropology

University College

London, WC1

26 October

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