Columns -Thoughts from London

Nothing worse than UK visas from Chennai

By Neville de Silva

It seems I am fated to receive replies to my columns from every Dominic that is posted to the British High Commission in Colombo.

The last time was from the previous High Commissioner Dominic Chilcott who seemed peeved at something I had written about him and his new diplomacy. Last week I received a reply from Dominic Williams, the spokesman of the High Commission who has taken umbrage at my column last Sunday about the public disgust at the prevailing visa regime and its operation in the two Cs- Colombo and Chennai. One could have taken Dominic Williams a little more seriously had he made an attempt to respond to some of the specific cases I mentioned or had not been so selective in picking phrases from my column.

Williams writes:…’you state that there are “obvious double standards adopted in the granting of visas” and claim “prima facie evidence of double standards for ethnic reasons”’. Then he dismisses them as “completely unfounded.” I suppose the penchant for prevarication is not restricted to the British Government and Whitehall. It has seeped through to lower layers of the administration. One is left wondering why Williams picked only a couple of phrases and not placed them in the context in which they were stated. It cannot be that he is having a problem with comprehending his own language. If not, there must be another reason.

Let me quote more extensively what I said. “(But) the truth is the crass indifference shown by officials both in Colombo and Chennai and the 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.”

Then again: “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.”

Williams springs in high dudgeon though there is no mention of the British in that second quote. Even if Williams’ claims that it is implied, note that I talk of the time I worked in Colombo. That was up to September 1989. Note that I said “I knew” of cases which suggested discrimination. Williams blithely ignores all that and makes an ex- cathedra denial to cover the years of which he would not have the faintest idea. Since when did he don the mantle of infallibility? Or is this increasingly becoming the trade mark of British diplomats posted to Colombo, even those who tend to live in a haze, if you get what I mean.

Surely Williams cannot in all honesty dismiss what I knew of years ago as completely unfounded when he does not even know what the cases are and whether or not these matters had been mentioned at the time to the British High Commission and other missions Williams also conveniently ignores a comment I made just before referring to my time in Colombo. I wrote: “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.”

So it is not only my personal knowledge of cases. It is also the widespread public perception that such discrimination occurs not only at the British High Commission but also at some other western missions which is at the heart of the problem and no amount of pro forma diplomatic denials is going to change that. One understands, of course, that the British High Commission had no option but to deny racial discrimination. It cannot obviously admit to that publicly.

That does not mean it does not exist. It exists even at the very heart of Britain’s law enforcement agency, the Metropolitan Police which an inquiry found was seeped in institutionalised racism. Right now the seniormost Asian police officer has filed a complaint against the head of the Met Police on grounds of racial discrimination.

Had I but space enough and time I could give numerous cases of visa delays in some instances and very speedy granting of visas in others where the balance of probabilities tend to strengthen the generally held public view. For instance if you have an Indian parent then you are likely to get the visa in double quick time as happened to a girl entering a British university who got it in four days flat. So Chennai has its advantages for some!

On the other hand one girl entering Manchester University got her visa after the university lectures had begun. So did another girl who missed the induction course and the first couple of days of lectures. Maybe Williams should inquire from some of the International schools in Colombo how many of the students have just received or are still awaiting their visas.

Having dismissed the charge of racial discrimination Williams adds portentously that the grant or decline of visas is “according to published Immigration Rules approved by Parliament in the UK.” Is this not the same parliament that voted to go to war against Iraq on a false prospectus and doctored intelligence reports? Is it not also the same parliament that was kept totally in the dark about the CIA’s torture flights euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition” in which the British Government colluded by allowing them to use UK airports? Is it not the same parliament in which the then foreign secretary denied any knowledge of these flights but had eventually to admit to a few? Is it not the same parliament which was lied to by the British Government over the leasing of Diego Garcia to the US and also completely misled the UN over it?

It might be infinitely better if Williams left the sacrosanctity of parliament well alone unless he wants us to provide more evidence of how respectfully parliament has been treated. Williams’ argument is that since parliament passed the rules there cannot be discrimination or corruption or fraud. How naïve could he be! When has parliament legislated on how visa applicants have to be treated by those who deal with them?. Can harassment, delay, aggressiveness towards applicants or condescension be avoided by parliamentary rules? Do Williams or his colleagues sit in the visa office to see whether applicants are treated courteously, that the formalities are adhered to and that there is no favouritism? Surely not. The matter has been outsourced to a private firm. Racial discrimination does not lie purely in the grant or non issue of a visa. It is also the treatment accorded to applicants and no parliament can legislate for that kind of human conduct.

If the British Government and its envoys to Colombo such as Linda Duffield and Stephen Evans did not try to behave like petty potentates and show obvious proclivity towards one ethnic group over others and openly manifest that proclivity, then the public perception about the visa regime might have been somewhat different. But when you have a Duffield and an Evans (then at the Foreign Office in London) who jointly tried to influence the British Government against banning the LTTE, people would surely be suspicious of every action of British authorities in Colombo.

If Stephen Evans had not participated in the opening of the Tamil Rehabilitation Office (TRO) in Trincomalee at a time when TRO was delisted by the UK Charity Commissioner and a senior LTTE figure had not been taken surreptitiously aboard a British vessel anchored off the east coast following the tsunami, the public might have been more sympathetic.

Politically nothing could have been worse than having Sri Lankan visa applications processed in Chennai. Was this meant to be a slap to the face of Sri Lanka or another diplomatic faux pas.

Right of Reply

No double standards in granting visas – UK HC

The Political and Development Section of the British High Commission, Colombo has said that comments made in the article of The Sunday Times of September 14 headlined “British Visa mess: dump those excuses” by Neville de Silva are unfounded.

The comment in question stated that there are “obvious double standards adopted in the granting of visas” and “prima facie evidence of double standards for ethnic reasons.”

Refuting this claim British High Commission Spokesperson Dominic Williams said that the High Commission staff work hard to provide a good service for all Sri Lankans and grant or decline visas according to published Immigration Rules approved by Parliament in Great Britain.

“The ethnicity of Sri Lankan nationals has no impact on the outcome or speed of our decision-making process.

The British High Commission acknowledges that there have been delays in processing visa applications during the past few months, which we very much regret. We are working hard to improve our service to visa customers.”

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