Visa tales - Monday, March 19, 2012

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There was a time when people would knock my door and expect me to somehow, as if by magic, to obtain for them a British visa. They were mystified that I had no ‘special contact’ in the UK High Commission who, on a word from me would circumvent the necessarily searching and rigorous set of procedures that eventually leads to the issuing of the coveted document. Some even offered me money. All went away shaking their heads at my general uselessness and ‘lack of cooperation.’

Eventually it stopped, though I noticed as recently as a couple of weeks ago that ‘the visa thing’ can surface even in the course of chance social encounters, popping out of the undergrowth of small-talk about family and children and would-you-like-to-buy-my-old-airconditioner like some naughty goblin.

What never stopped though was the steady stream of grumbles and complaints about how this-or-that family or individual had been badly treated in the course of making their visa application, or their application had been unfairly refused. Ninety-nine percent of the time I listened sympathetically, tut-tutted in all the right places, shook their hands and wished them well in their future endeavours.

Thus far I have only taken up the cudgels once over a visa refusal – a close relative recently married into the family, respectable, above reproach in every way – and refused on the flimsiest of grounds.

The matter was resolved on appeal before a Red Judge in a Manchester court (yes, I travelled to UK for the appeal hearing); my relative got their visa and the person representing the border control agency got some sharply worded remarks from the judge about wasting public time and money by making whimsical and inappropriate decisions.

Years passed. The visa tales stacked up in the mental file registry and I continued to ignore them – until last week.

Two colleagues, both established in the journalism/media world here, had invitations to the UK. Invitations that were job-appropriate and which given their experience they might expect to receive from time to time. One got their visa in a record two days, the other was refused. The one that got their visa is male, married and middle-aged; the refusal was for a female under sixty and single.

The grounds for refusal were that the visa officer who interviewed her for under five minutes on the phone did not believe that she would return to Pakistan from the UK. Her visit was entirely sponsored and paid for, including all travel and accommodation, by the international media agency that had invited her – a fact acknowledged in the refusal. Beyond the hunch of the visa officer there was not a shred of objective evidence that she was likely to disappear over the horizon in England to re-emerge as a frumpy shop-assistant claiming benefits illegally whilst living under an assumed named in Chipping Sodbury.

Whilst I am not so naive as to imagine that there are not fraudulent visa applications – there are thousands every year I am reliably informed – there are equal numbers that are not fraudulent but are subject to the often variable perceptions of individual visa officers who do the interviewing. Riffling through the memory banks, I can recall a clear preponderance of claims of ‘unfair refusal’ by women. Again I am not so silly as to not imagine that some will be made in the expectation of fraudulent marriages – but some will not.

Blanket scepticism is one thing but blatant discrimination another. Considering that the UK promotes itself as a bastion of fairness and equality, it might consider its attitude to female visa applicants a little more...errr...fairly.

The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email:

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