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Access denied: focus on delegate visa issues

Are openly hostile immigration policies in the UK and US making it harder for delegates from low-income countries to access scientific meetings? James Lancaster reports…

UK

When Heidi Larson stood up to address the opening plenary of the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, in London, she felt compelled to address a ‘growing concern for UK academics’ – the issue of visas restrictions on overseas delegates, especially those from developing countries.

In total, 19 researchers from low-income countries – including sixteen from African countries and three from Asia – were prevented from attending the two-day meeting last November.

Addressing delegates, Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), said the UK’s visa policy was ‘not good for science’.

She read letters from some of those denied access to the meeting, including Abrar M. Alalim, president of Ahfad University for Women Students’ Union in Sudan, who was told by the UK Home Office that her academic background was ‘not clearly related to the topic of the conference’ – despite her being a fifth year medical student with an invitation letter from LSHTM.

Another letter was sent from an Iranian woman who spoke of ‘discrimination’ after she was denied a travel visa despite giving the UK Home Office an ‘abnormal amount’ of information including her ‘bank statement, passport, family specifics, student details, and LSHTM invitation letter’.

LSHTM’s director Peter Piot said visa restrictions compromised the UK’s ability to be a leader in health research and that the school was considering hosting events abroad to make them more accessible. In a letter to the Home Office he wrote: “If the UK wants to establish itself as a hub for health and science, the current visa restrictions represent a significant threat to that goal.”

His colleague Martin Mckee, a professor of European public health at the LSHTM, went one step further, tweeting that it was ‘no longer acceptable for the UK to host international academic events because of ‘disgraceful’ visa restrictions caused by the UK government’s hostile immigration policy’.

 


What is the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ policy?

The policy dates back to 2012 and relates to remarks made by the current Prime Minister Theresa May, then Home Secretary, who said the aim was to create ‘a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’. The result was a set of administrative and legislative measures designed to make staying in the UK as difficult as possible for people without leave to remain. Significantly the policy put greater onus on members of the public – landlords, charity workers, universities etc – to carry out ID checks. Controversial ‘Go Home’ vans were used to encourage voluntary deportation, as well as adverts in newspapers, shops, and charity and faith buildings used by ethnic minorities.


 

Elsewhere organisers of the Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, held in Liverpool, have compiled a dossier of visa problems that are understood to have affected 10 delegates.

One of those affected, Sabu Kochupurackal Ulahannan, researching nutrition and inequality among children in south-west India, was awarded a scholarship to attend the event, in an initiative – partly funded by the UK government – aimed at low- and middle-income countries.

But Kochupurackal Ulahannan, who is studying for a doctorate at Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology, in Kerala, was denied a visa by UK immigration officials on the grounds that he had an ‘insufficient balance’ on his bank account. The refusal came after he was asked to pay 1,600 rupees (£168), half his monthly salary, for the visa application.

VisitBritain, the agency tasked with, amongst other things, bringing international business events to the UK, told AMI magazine the visa denials were a matter for the Home Office. A Home Office spokesman told AMI: “All UK visa applications are considered on their individual merits, on the basis of the evidence available and in line with UK immigration rules.”

USA

The Society for Neuroscience – a Washington, DC-based international association – was moved to issue a stinging rebuke of the US – and UK – governments’ immigration policy after a number of delegates were denied access to its annual conference, which held in San Diego, last November.

One of those delegates, Leila Akbari, an Iranian studying at The University of Newcastle, in Australia, decided to protest the decision by submitting her poster beneath a translucent layer of black. The message was clear. The travel ban was effectively ‘turning the lights out’ on knowledge transfer.

A note next to a photo of the author read: “Unfortunately, due to the travel ban imposed on citizens of Iran and other countries I am unable to be here to present my poster. My supervisor and I therefore decided not to present the poster at all. Science should be about breaking down barriers not creating new ones. I hope to be able to make the next conference in 2019.”

The publicity the case received prompted the SfN president Diane Lipscombe to issue the following statement: “As countries including the US and UK impose additional visa restrictions, it has become more challenging to bring together scientists from around the world to share their research. We are particularly concerned about the chilling effect that this will have on scientific innovations and collaborations that are essential to improve the quality of human life by paving the way to understand, treat and cure devastating neurological and psychiatric disorders.

“We believe strongly that scientists must be able to present and discuss their research at international meetings based on their science and not their country-of-origin. We share the disappointment of our members and colleagues around the world that the travel ban imposed by the U.S. government prevented some neuroscientists from attending this year’s SfN annual conference. This travel ban also disproportionately affects our early career scientists who are the next generation of innovators and economic drivers of the future.”

The US-based Meetings Mean Business Coalition has sought to present a joint front on the travel ban. Speaking at PCMA’s convening Leaders conference recently, Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, MMBC’s founding member, said: “MMBC remains an insurance policy for the meetings industry. The coalition’s work safeguards against potential threats, which we know could include anything from an economic slowdown to a security issue to the weaponization of meetings through a travel ban or boycott.”

 


Trump’s travel ban

On taking office in 2017 one of President Trump’s first steps was to declare a ban on citizens travelling to the US from seven countries with majority-Muslim populations: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. A subsequent executive order modified the original ban with a view to making it more lax, but it still faced legal challenges. In June last year the Supreme Court, upheld the president’s authority to impose such restrictions.


 

Research supports claims of regional bias

In July last year the Wellcome Trust, a London-based bio-medical research charity, carried out a survey of 2,500 scientists, which looked at the relationship between movement and science.

Amongst the key findings were the following observations:

ONE: Science does not take place in a vacuum; it’s affected by the wider environment. Many researchers said that political developments — particularly in the UK and US — impact on both their own travel and on science as a whole. Concerns include attitudes towards international movement under the current US administration, and the impact of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

And TWO: Asian and African researchers appear to be disproportionately affected by visa issues, with one quarter of researchers from these regions having encountered problems for relocation, and more than a third for short-term visits. Asian respondents were four times more likely to have experienced visa issues to short-term international travel, and African researchers three times more likely, than their European and North American peers.