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UKBA responds to criticism of visa mess

26 July 2012


NEW guidelines on what information is required to support visa applications by church workers from developing countries are expected to be in place by the end of this year (News, 20 July).

There is concern among church groups that genuine overseas visitors are being refused entry to the UK on economic grounds that pay little or no regard to the prevailing conditions in the visitors' home countries. They include two newly appointed bishops, who, earlier this year, were refused permission to travel from Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone to attend courses on their duties at Canterbury Cathedral.

In a House of Lords debate on the UK Border Agency (UKBA) last week, the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Martin Wharton, described the application process as "a system which is at best muddled and confused, and at worst misleading.

"Either it is the case that the UKBA is not applying the rules sensibly, or that the rules themselves are unable to cope with the actual situations of a number of those applying for short-term entry into the UK for valid reasons, such as to further mutually enriching relationships between dioceses here and overseas."

On the day of the debate, a church delegation, led by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Nigel Stock, met UKBA officials to discuss the problem.

He said that the UKBA had agreed to work with them to fashion guidance to dioceses "to enable people applying for visas to know how to supply the sort of evidence that would give them a better chance of getting a visa. We have got to get together to thrash out the details, but I would hope the guidelines will be in place later this year."

He said that the UKBA was prepared to offer advice in advance to church organisations that were inviting people from overseas to UK events. It also suggested that dioceses register themselves with the Home Office as sponsors for government-authorised exchange programmes, known as Tier 5.

"In the mean time," Bishop Stock said, "people need to supply as much documentary evidence as possible that they have a firm reason to return to their country of origin. Any evidence that shows that that is the case will help their application: children, family, fixed work. If you have a low salary, provide a letter explaining why it is low.

"It is quite a mountain for a person to climb, and there is very little guidance at the point of application, which can be a High Commission hundreds of miles away from your home. They didn't have any answer as to how people get good advice at the initial point of application.

"I came away from the meeting hopeful that we can help people make good cases for [getting] a visa, but still daunted at the thought of how much they have to do to prove that they are people of good standing."

The two prelates who were refused visas were Bishop Emmanuel Tucker, of Bo, in Sierra Leone, and Bishop Greg Shantha, of Kurunegala, in Sri Lanka. "It is deeply embarrassing for our country," the Director of Education at Canterbury Cathedral, Canon Edward Condry, said. "These people regard the Anglican Communion with such importance that they want to come here to affirm their identity as Anglicans, and then the embassy says 'No, you can't'. It is deeply embarrassing that we as a nation are doing this to people. They are important local leaders.

"The bishops were hugely disappointed, distressed, and perplexed."

The UKBA was criticised this week in a report by the Commons Home Affairs Committee, which found that it has a backlog of more than 275,000 cases of missing foreign criminals, failed asylum-seekers, illegal immigrants, and others refusing to leave the country. The number is equivalent to the population of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Describing the figures as "unacceptable", the committee's chairman, Keith Vaz, said that the UKBA seemed to have "acquired its own Bermuda Triangle. It's easy to get in, but near impossible to keep track of anyone, let alone get them out".

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