African and Asian artists condemn ‘humiliating’ UK and EU visa refusals

<span>Emma Nzioka, who performs as DJ Coco Em, said applying for UK and EU visas was complicated, costly and unequal. </span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of Coco Em</span>
Emma Nzioka, who performs as DJ Coco Em, said applying for UK and EU visas was complicated, costly and unequal. Photograph: Courtesy of Coco Em

Musicians, authors, producers and festival managers have hit out at “humiliating” and costly visa-rejection rates for African and Asian artists visiting Britain and European Union countries, saying it is having a chilling impact on cultural diversity.

Analysis shows the UK last year raised £44m in fees for visa applications that were then rejected, mainly coming from low- and middle-income countries. The EU made €130m (£110m).

Total costs are likely to increase in 2024, since the standard short stay visitor visa application fee in the UK rose in October 2023 from £100 to £115, while in the EU the cost of visas rose from €80 to €90 in June this year.

Lesley Lokko, a Ghanaian-Scottish author and architect, described the non-refundable fees as “outrageous”, noting that they were mainly paid by those who could least afford them.

African visitors were disproportionately affected, with visa-rejection rates as high as 40-70%, according to analysis from arts and migration research group the Lago Collective.

Lemn Sissay, a British poet and broadcaster, said that disproportionate UK and EU visa rejections for African and Asian visitors were part of a campaign of “delegitimising or shaming” people of colour.

Sissay, who curated Ethiopia’s first pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, said that while none of his Ethiopian team had visa problems, he came across other Africans who did.

“The idea is that you are not welcome,” said Sissay. “It has become a serious problem.”

Rejection rates for EU visas from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal are as high as 40-47%, the analysis shows. In Britain, Algeria has the highest visa-rejection rate at 71%, followed by Bangladesh at 53%, while Ghana, Pakistan and Nigeria had rejection rates of between 30% and 46%.

In the year up to March 2024, UK rejection rates were 21% across all nationalities applying, according to Home Office figures.

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In March, the UK Home Office denied visas to 47 members of the Portugal-based Afghan Youth Orchestra, days before their tour of England was due to start with a concert at London’s Southbank Centre. An outcry forced a U-turn and visas were later granted to the Afghan musicians, aged between 14 and 22.

The orchestra’s director, Ahmad Sarmast, said the rejections had been a “shock”.

“It showed how shortsighted people in the Home Office are,” said Sarmast. “They underestimate the role of artists and musicians in promoting cultural diplomacy and understanding between ethnicities. We provided them with a copy of residency cards, study documentation, everything.”

The musicians, who had gained residency rights in Portugal after fleeing the Taliban, had previously performed in Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany.

The “world is open” for Europeans, but “those from Africa, the Middle East and Asia are second-class citizens”, said Sarmast.

Marta Foresti, founder of the Lago Collective and a visiting fellow at the Overseas Development Institute thinktank, said: “Visa inequality has very tangible consequences and the world’s poorest pay the price.”

Foresti, who is Italian and has successfully applied many times for African visas for professional reasons, said: “But if I was born in Nigeria, there would be a 40% chance I could be rejected” for a European visa. “The lack of reciprocity leads to frustration and humiliation.”

In 2020, the Home Office scrapped a controversial decision-making algorithm for UK visa applicants, after a legal challenge by migrant rights campaigners who claimed it created “speedy boarding for white people”. It now uses a “complexity routing tool”, which identifies the likely complexity of applications based on an applicant’s declared attributes.

Lokko, who is also an author and founder of the African Futures Institute in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, said of the money from rejected visas: “Is this a significant revenue? Absolutely.

“There’s a kind of global apartheid,” she added. “We all know what the favoured countries are. They are penalising the people who can afford it least. The cost of this is outrageous.”

Last year, when Lokko curated the Architecture Biennale in Venice, which focused on Africa, four of her Ghanaian team of nine were denied EU visas.

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“Part of my team – who were curators, photographers and researchers – were questioned by the Italian authorities as if they were going to run off and pack tomatoes,” said Lokko. Those who returned to Ghana were called by the embassy, to check they had returned.

Emma Nzioka, a producer and DJ from Nairobi known as Coco Em, who is due to play at Glastonbury next week, said applying for a UK or EU visa was so complicated, costly and unequal that she felt ready to quit touring.

The Kenyan missed a show in Poland because she could not get a Schengen visa appointment in time and only made it to her gig at Barcelona’s Sónar festival last weekend with an hour to spare, after being granted a last-minute EU visa.

“It costs $2,000 [£1,600] in flights and for a UK visa. I paid $290 in health insurance. I get paid $150 per show. It’s not worth it,” said Nzioka.

In 2022, she did not get her passport back from the British embassy in Nairobi in time to play her first gig at London’s Fabric nightclub. “DJs from the UK can come to Kenya, but the UK visa system is really restricting our voices,” she said.

Related: ‘Embrace the unexpected’: African art boosts its presence at Venice Biennale

Donald Shaw, director of Celtic Connections, a Scottish music festival, said it was getting “harder and harder” to persuade world musicians to come to the UK. Last year, Shaw invited Trio Da Kali, a group of griot musicians from Mali, to perform with Gaelic singers in Scotland. Despite having help with applications, only two of the trio, including the singer Hawa Kasse Mady Diabaté, were given visas.

“As a festival director, it’s a real challenge to persuade artists to come back, because I know the pain of getting a visa,” Shaw said.

“Part of the renaissance in folk and traditional music over the past 30 years in Scotland has been the opportunity to enjoy music of west Africa, India and Pakistan,” he added. “But it is getting harder and harder.”

Deborah Annetts, of the Independent Society of Musicians, said: “International and non-EEA musicians are too often booked to work in the UK, with audiences eager to see them perform, only for the musicians to be denied visas.”

The system damaged the UK’s music scene and needed to change, she said.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “All visa applications are carefully considered on their individual merits in accordance with the immigration rules.”

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