UK faces backlash over visa fee increases

Key workers and artists may struggle to apply for visas, as 'unequal' application process becomes more expensive

Champions of England's music scene say it is one of the best in the world, while the British government is making entry to the UK harder for African musical talent. AFP
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The UK is facing a backlash against its visa fee increases, which would make it harder for key workers, business people, artists and performers to visit or work in the UK.

The Unite union, which represents junior doctors, general practitioners and hospital consultants, said on Saturday it was “appalled” by the visa increases, adding to the clamour of voices expressing anger and frustration.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Thursday that fees and health surcharges paid towards the UK’s state-funded National Health Service by visa applicants would rise to meet the country’s public sector wage increase.

Work and tourist visas will increase by 15 per cent and others will increase by at least 20 per cent. The immigration health surcharge will increase from £624 to £1,035 a year.

The fee increases are expected to generate £1 billion in revenue, which will go towards a 6 per cent increase in pay rises for junior doctors and hospital consultants, and 6.5 per cent increase for teachers.

Britain has been gripped by strikes for well over a year, with junior doctors launching the longest walkout in NHS history on Thursday as they try to win a pay rise of 35 per cent.

But critics of the visa price increase say it will deepen inequalities in the application process.

Applicants from Africa were more likely to be rejected, according an analysis of Home Office data from March 2022 to 2023 by the Lago Collective, a London-based platform for creatives, innovators and policymakers.

The countries with the three highest rejection rates were Algeria, Nigeria and Ghana.

“When it comes to doing business, shopping at Harrods, coming for a holiday, there appears to be a bias against the African economies that are also an important trading partner with the UK,” said Marta Foresti, founder and chief executive of the Lago Collective and a visiting fellow at the Overseas Development Institute.

Nigerians had a roughly 40 per cent chance of rejection, which was significantly higher than applicants from China (about 10 per cent) and Turkey (under 20 per cent).

“China, Turkey and Nigeria have a similar amount of applications for visitor’s visas, for business, tourism and leisure, and yet a Nigerian is four times as likely to have their application rejected than a Chinese applicant,” said Ms Foresti.

The rise in visa fees will further these inequalities, she said.

“If it's already four times as hard for Nigerians to get visas to the UK [compared to Chinese applicants], then by definition, it will be four times as expensive,” she said.

“If your likelihood to obtain a visa is not the same as other nationals, then the cost that you incur, and the money you're going to need is also going to go up.”

Ms Foresti said that this would have a negative impact on the UK's ability to attract talent, workers and even tourists from Africa's emerging economies.

“These are missed opportunities for the UK. These people are not going to shop in our shops; the artists are not going to play in our concert halls and investors will not invest in key businesses,” she said.

One area of loss would be Afrobeat singers, a West African and diaspora music genre with sold-out shows in the UK.

Analysis by Statista estimated Nigeria’s music industry revenue to reach $44 million in 2023. Yet a March investigation by The Voice newspaper found that “at least 20" Afrobeat artists have had their visas applications rejected by the Home Office.

This comes as London’s music venues were found to have “supercharged the city’s economy, according to research by the Music Venue Trust and City Hall. More than a million people attended 22 concerts in London in the past week, with ticket sales mounting up to £320 million.

These included performances by Blur and Lana Del Ray at BST Hyde Park festival, and Bruce Springsteen at Wembley Stadium.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who attended the Springsteen concert with his wife, hailed the capital as the “undisputed world leader in live music”.

This month, The National spoke to a playwright who was left scrambling to save her theatre production for London's Shubbak Festival hours before its premiere after two Tunisian actors were unable to travel to the UK.

“England is known worldwide for its arts and theatre, but we will lose that reputation if we don’t make it possible for international collaborations to happen,” said Hannah Khalil.

The increase in charges will also affect sectors suffering from chronic workforce shortages, such as health care – where more than a quarter of doctors (26.3 per cent) were born in the Middle East and Asia, and almost a tenth in Africa (8.5 per cent), according to census data from the Office of National Statistics.

Most employees in the UK have National Insurance contributions deducted at source on their salaries, which pays for, among other things, the National Health Service (NHS).

“Just like other workers, migrants contribute to NHS funding through general taxation. Doubling the NHS surcharge to over £1,200 ($1,570) per year is an unjust additional penalty,” Doctors in Unite said.

“Migrants are effectively 'taxed twice' to access the same service,” it added, calling the move “immoral and divisive”.

This prompted British academic Gill Malin to describe the decision as “another bad move”.

“Aside from critical NHS, care and farm workers, some of these 'migrants' will be talented postgraduates coming to UK to do PhD research with potential to benefit the UK and other countries. Many unable to pay the higher visa and NHS charges,” Mr Malin wrote on Twitter.

This was echoed by recent doctoral graduate Ramzi Merabet, now a lecturer at the University of Leeds, who wrote that the current fees for work or spouse visas often exceeded a worker's net monthly salary.

“Right now immigrants on a work or spouse visa pay a minimum of £2,608 to ‘be’ in the UK. This only covers 30 months … These numbers are more than one’s net monthly salary in most cases,” he said on Twitter.

“I am glad workers are getting a pay increase, but I am equally saddened to know that we are heading towards a more unequal society,” he added.

The risk also extends to the patient travelling for private care to the UK, in which some revenue from private patient units go back into the NHS.

In June, The National spoke to Syrian patient Bakri Hamza, who has been travelling to the UK for more than 10 years to treat a traumatic eye injury.

At the time, Mr Hamza was applying every six months for a visa, at a cost of £95, to attend monthly appointments with his specialist.

“The main issue I struggle with is getting a visa. When I came to the UK from Jordan for treatment, it took a long time to get the visa,” he said in June.

He added that he had struggled to obtain a visa for a family member accompany him as a caregiver.

Those costs for Mr Hamza, and others, are now going to increase.

Updated: July 15, 2023, 7:47 PM