Columns -Thoughts from London

British visa mess: dump those excuses

By Neville de Silva

Last Sunday this newspaper prominently displayed a news story headlined “The UK visa waiting game.” Many of those who have participated in this “game” would probably have said it was more like waiting for Godot, for it has often been a fruitless exercise.

The High Commission in Colombo is cited as saying that the visa processing operation “has not been as smooth as anticipated.” Had I not known the British penchant for understatement I might have been willing to go along with that explanation and given the operation a little more time to smoothen the obvious ruffles in the present system. But the truth is the crass indifference shown by officials both in Colombo and Chennai, the lack of clarity and the obvious double standards adopted in the granting of visas and the speed at which some are issued that give the lie direct to the diplomatic excuse.
The ‘problems’ are indicative of a much more serious malaise than the simplistic answer trotted out by the High Commission official whoever that might be. The reason given (to be charitable), is that the system that calls for coordination between Colombo and Chennai is not operating as efficaciously as expected. That presumes that the earlier system functioned efficiently. But those who have spent hours and days trying to make some sense out of a system that prevailed before the Chennai move would consider that presumption hardly an approximation of the truth. To be brutally frank corruption and ethnic discrimination as perceived by sections of the public have been factors in the growing anger at and disdain for the consular divisions of several foreign diplomatic missions in Colombo.

In more than 25 years in the media in Colombo I had received several complaints from Sri Lankans seeking visas to various countries and I personally knew of cases where there seemed to be prima facie evidence of double standards for ethnic reasons. Later in my 10 years in Hong Kong media we came across several instances of diplomats from even the most affluent countries selling passports and visas to mainland and Hong Kong Chinese. There were instances when Hong Kong anti-corruption officers raided and nabbed errant diplomats though there were howls of protests over violations of the Vienna Convention.

When British officials try to simplify the visa fiasco as an aberration as it were because of the shift to Chennai, they expose only the tip of the iceberg. Their argument does not answer several of the questions that are raised by potential visitors to Britain who have to pay several thousand rupees even for a short term family visit visa with absolutely no prospect of having the money returned in the event a visa is denied, unlike in the case of visa applications to visit Sri Lanka. It will be claimed that the fee is for administrative purposes. If it so, is it another means of still making money out of Britain’s former colonies having had to surrender, for one reason or another, the exploitation of colonial economies several decades ago.

The British officials in Colombo and Chennai cannot be unaware of the fact that each year several hundred if not a thousand students sit examinations that qualify them to enter British universities. The universities start around the middle of September but often students are required to come a few days earlier for induction classes and familiarisation. Moreover those going to Britain for the first time and are provided with accommodation outside the campuses would want to familiarise themselves with the transport facilities and how to get around.

This is not something that happened only the other day. If the British officials, particularly those in the consular sections, had the basic sense to anticipate a rush for visas they would have been ready for it to happen around this time. Applicants are asked to submit their papers well in advance, at least a month ahead, according to the advice of a High Commission official. But it is not possible with these students. After the Advanced Level results are out they still have to await official letters from the universities to say they have been admitted. Those letters take time, so submitting applications well ahead is not practical or practicable, as without the letter of admission students cannot prove they have gained admission and their applications will not be accepted.

Since I first wrote a story in mid- August about the harassment a mother of a medical student at a UK university was subjected to when she wanted to accompany her daughter back after surgery, I have received a number of emails and telephone calls relating stories of discrimination, delays, harassment and a curious change in conditions that would fill several columns of this newspaper. While I cannot vouch that in some of these cases it was racial discrimination, there is a widely-held view that Sri Lankan Tamils are granted visas faster and with less hassle than Sinhala and Muslim applicants with basically the same qualifications and same or similar reasons for visiting.

One very recent example is that of a Sinhala student from a Colombo international school due to enter a prestigious university to study medicine who submitted her application some 12 days ago and is awaiting her visa at the time of writing. But a Tamil student entering a university here to study economics after passing the same “A Levels” got her visa in five days. If eyebrows do go up it is understandable. Whether those in the visa offices in Colombo and Chennai in Tamil Nadu are deliberately making it difficult, I do not know. That is for the public to judge on available evidence.

A director of a well-known tourism firm told me that his plans to visit UK on a particular date had to be altered because though his visa had been finally issued on the 5th of the month in Chennai, he was kept in the dark about it while the visa was lying in the Colombo office for nine days. In this instance the fault was not in Chennai. I can go on and on with more cases of harassment, ineptitude or what you will, but space constraints do not allow it.

But let this be said. British universities are now heavily dependent on foreign students for their survival. It is not only Sri Lankan parents and students who are now turning elsewhere for educational facilities because of the disregard, inefficiency and actions that suggest discrimination shown particularly by junior staff at the visa issuing offices. It is very often these minor functionaries who elevate themselves into positions of self importance and make it doubly difficult for genuine Sri Lankan travellers.

Ultimately it will be British universities where educational standards are deteriorating anyway, that will suffer as foreign students turn to other tertiary institutions in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Australia where fees are not only less but where parents do not have to suffer the indignities heaped upon them by minor officials “drest in a little brief authority”, as the poet said.

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