Visa Challenges for Authors and Artists Roil the UK Festival Community

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In the UK, literary festivals report that invited authors from the Middle East and Africa are increasingly seeing their visa applications denied.

A scene from the Edinburgh International Festival production on August 3 of Scottish composer Anna Meredith’s ‘Five Telegrams,’ reflecting on the centenary of the Great War. The performance, set outside Usher Hall, was staged by 59 Productions. Image: Aberdeen Standard Investments video

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘This Is So Serious’
Reports are spreading in the UK press that visas have been denied for as many as a dozen authors expected to appear at the Edinburgh International Festival, which opens Saturday (August 11) to run through August 27.

The fear is that this problem reflects developing geo-political realities, which may well be exacerbated following Brexit. As of Wednesday (August 8), however, a statement made to The Herald’s Phil Miller in Scotland by a Home Office spokesperson sought to put a welcoming and stable cast on the question.

“We welcome artists and musicians coming to the UK from non-EEA [European Economic Area] countries to perform,” Miller quotes the statement saying. “In the year ending December 2017, 99% of non-settlement visa applications were processed within 15 days and the average processing time in 2017 was just under eight days.”

An additional comment from London reads, “Each case is assessed on its individual merits against the published immigration rules.”

Lead press on the matter is The Guardian, where Sian Cain is reporting festival chief Nick Barley complaining of a “humiliating” application process that can deter artists who might otherwise visit the UK.

In that Wednesday report, Cain writes that while the festival draws authors and illustrators from as many as 55 countries, “It has reported a jump in refusals over the last few years.” Barley tells Miller that Middle East- and African-based invitees—along with one from Belarus—had their applications refused at least once.

“We’ve had so many problems with visas,” Barley told Miller, that “we’ve realized it’s systematic. This is so serious. We want to talk about it and resolve it, not just for [this festival], but for cultural organizations UK-wide. The amount of energy, money and time that has gone into this is problematic. There needs to be a fix.”

At The Bookseller, Heloise Wood‘s Thursday (August 9) reports that English PEN is describing the matter as being of “increasing concern” and moves the story forward with information about Iranian illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi of the publisher Tiny Owl is unsure at this point whether he can get into the country to serve as the festival’s artist in residence.

The company has its own article about the situation at its site here.

‘A Very Real Barrier to Freedom of Expression’

Ironically, last year, Abjollahi had a complex struggle with his visa. A campaign on his behalf led to an overturn of the refusal, but Tiny Owl co-founding publisher Delaram Ghanimifard says this is the fourth year of such challenges.

“The stringent visa system presents a very real barrier to freedom of expression, and also harms the economy.”Antonia Byatt, English PEN

Another Tiny Owl illustrator, Marjan Vafaeian, is to appear near the end of the festival like Abjollahi, and is also in limbo on the matter, Wood reports. She quotes Ghanimaifard saying, “They applied on 18th July and are still waiting.

“Marjan was told she needed an interview about her bank statement and then both were told that their cases were not straightforward and that they’d have to wait, and that they shouldn’t arrange anything to do with their trip,”

That case gets at the nature of some of the controversy, as Barley has described it. In comments quoted by The Bookseller, he mentions personal financial statements and other revelations being required for temporary entry to participate in festival activities.

“We want to work with arts organizations across the UK, and the UK government,” Barley says, “to ensure that international artists, performers, musicians and authors who are invited to visit the UK by a known arts organization are able to come to perform and talk about their work without the humiliation of having to provide the level of personal and financial detail currently required.”

English PEN director Antonia Byatt tells Wook, in part, “We have heard many stories from publishers and festival curators that echo the problems recently highlighted by Womad and Edinburgh International Book Festival, and have directly experienced these problems ourselves, when applying for visas on behalf of writers. … The stringent visa system presents a very real barrier to freedom of expression, and also harms the economy.”

Her reference to Womad has to do with three acts from Tunisia, Mozambique, and Niger that were denied entry to the UK in this year’s music festival, as reported by Kate Hutchinson at The Guardian.

Organizer Chris Smith has said that an increasing number of performers are now declining invitations to the event because of the Home Office’s process.

And Womad co-founder Peter Gabriel released a statement asking, “Do we really want a white-breaded, Brexited flatland? A country that is losing the will to welcome the world?”


Below is the Aberdeen Standard Investments video of the August 3 opening performance of composer Anna Meredith’s ‘Five Telegrams.’

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.

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