Locking artists out of the UK
The restrictions on foreign artists entering Britain is choking the arts scene.
In response to the UK’s draconian points-based immigration system, which was making it very difficult and sometimes impossible for overseas artists to enter the country, the Manifesto Club launched its Visiting Artists Campaign. Eighteen months on, the campaign’s convenor, Manick Govinda, explains the state of play.
Since 2009, we at the Manifesto Club have campaigned against the UK government’s points-based immigration system, which was preventing non-EU artists and academics from visiting the UK. Under the system, visiting artists had to submit to fingerprinting and give details of personal bank accounts. Meanwhile, their UK hosts had to register for a licence and become a ‘licensed sponsor’, one of the conditions of which was that they must monitor the everyday whereabouts of their overseas guests.
The UK arts scene was in disarray, with cancelled concerts from the great Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, who refused to submit to Home Office biometric fingerprinting, and from legendary Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami, who, humiliated by the dehumanising process of applying for a UK visa, pulled out of directing Cosi fan tutte for the English National Opera. Canadian singer Allison Crowe was deported on arrival.
Hundreds of professional and grassroots artists, photographers, musicians and writers were either refused visas or immediately deported. The embarrassment to the UK’s reputation on the international arts scene was huge. Along with groups such as English PEN and ArtsAdmin, the Manifesto Club petitioned government to change the law, garnering over 11,000 signatures. The campaign achieved a significant concession from the Home Office, as it lifted some of the restrictions on non-EU artists and academics.
A new visa route called Permitted Paid Engagement was introduced, allowing non-EU artists and academics to take up paid invitations for shows, performances and lectures for up to one month, without having to submit to the points-based system. That was good news and an important victory for personal freedom. But, 18 months later, is it working?
Campaign supporter and cross-bench peer in the UK House of Lords, Nicholas Trench, asked a parliamentary question to find out how many non-EU artists and academics entered the UK under the new route. He found that between 6 April 2012 and 30 August 2013, 688 artists and academics were able to visit the UK under the new route for short-term paid engagements. However, we were unable to get further information regarding whether these artists and academics were visa or non-visa nationals.
Unfortunately, for artists who do require visas, things look worse. Cases of unreasonable visa refusals continue apace. Two individuals from Algeria, a highly regarded academic and a young emerging artist, were recently refused visas. Eighty-one-year-old historian Sid-Ahmed Kerzabi was invited to be a keynote speaker at a workshop at All Souls College, Oxford. But he was refused a visa, and the reason why: Tthere was insufficient proof that he was not planning to settle in Britain.’ A few days later, Rose Fenton, director of the Free Word Centre, called me to ask what could be done about the visa refusal of the young Algerian artist Sofiane Belaskri, who was invited to attend an exhibition in which he was participating. He only intended to stay for four days, yet UKBA officials refused him a visa on account of his student status and for not being financially independent. This, of course, raises the question: how many UK students and emerging artists can demonstrate financial independence through their art? A study in 2010 found that the national median wage for fine artists in the UK was only £10,000 per annum. Imagine how much artists earn in poorer countries, where there is little arts infrastructure.
Clearly, our work is not yet over. Artists coming from countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America are routinely refused visas on account of their financial status or because of the hyper-suspicion of nationals from what are secretly perceived as ‘high-risk’ countries.
Cultural and intellectual dialogue and exchange knows no borders. Visitors who have been invited to the UK should not be subjected to these dehumanising and bureaucratic procedures, and arts organisations should not have to submit to the UKBA in order to invite non-EU artists to give a talk or a show.
The new visa route offers some improvement, but problems continue, for arts organisations and their visitors. So long as this is the case, the Manifesto Club Visiting Artists Campaign will continue.
Manick Govinda is covenor of the Manifesto Club’s Visiting Artists and Academics Campaign.