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10 May, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

Britain Is Closing Down

Will the UK be the least hospitable host of the Olympics in the recent time?

Will Britain be the most unwelcoming country ever to host the Olympic Games in modern times? A combination of heightened fears over security, a restrictive policy on issuing visas and administrative chaos in the agency guarding Britain's borders have made entry to Britain nowadays a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of visitors. And a growing row over two-hour queues to get through passport control at Heathrow, London's main airport, has led to accusations that Britain is ill-prepared for the influx of Olympic visitors.

In recent weeks, several things have combined to create a crisis over entry into Britain - a crisis that has caused a big row in Parliament and demands for the resignation of the minister responsible for immigration and border control.

The first factor is the growing worry about security and the threat of a terrorist attack during the Olympics, now less than 100 days away. British security officials have given warnings that the Games will be a prime target for terrorists from not only Muslim countries but extremists of all variety. They have already begun visible preparations. Fighter jets have been stationed at a little-used air force base near London for the first time since the Second World War. Security services are to station missiles in a tower that is part of a housing complex near the Olympic site. And intelligence officials say they expect to uncover more plots and preparations to disrupt the Games. One worrying factor was the ease with which a demonstrator swimming in the river sabotaged the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race on the Thames last month: if he was able to do so without difficulty, how can the routes of events such as the marathon be kept safe from demonstrators or terrorists?

The Government's response has been to tighten passport controls at all airport entry points, especially at Heathrow. But this comes after the UK Border Agency has had its staff sharply cut, because of the budget cuts across government services. The result has been that huge queues have built up at Heathrow, as fewer staff have to inspect each passport more carefully, instead of waving through most European Union and British passports as has happened until recently.

The empty passport desks and long queues have infuriated passengers and airlines alike, prompting furious complaints. Members of Parliament accuse the Government of incompetence, of trying to enforce security with too few people and of ruining Britain's reputation. Government officials have been ordered to explain how they will cope with the Olympic influx. And although more staff will be drafted in just before the Games, angry passengers have demanded immediate action to clear the queues that quickly build up when several planes arrive together.

All this has come on top of new restrictions that make it harder for people outside the EU to obtain visas to visit Britain. India, Turkey and Russia, among other nations, have all repeatedly complained that obtaining a British visa is now so time-consuming, costly and fraught with bureaucratic obstacles that potential investors are discouraged from doing business in Britain. Foreign businessmen say that a British visa is now more difficult to get than a Schengen visa, which allows them to travel freely in most of continental Europe, and is often harder to obtain than one for the United States.

In Britain, employers and researchers say they are being hit by blocks and delays on visas for key workers recruited overseas, while universities and colleges fear they are losing out to competitors abroad in attracting high-paying overseas students. Shows, exhibitions and musical events across the country have had to be cancelled at short notice because key performers were unable to obtain permission to visit Britain in time.

The British Council has called for an "urgent review" of Britain's visa policy, saying that the new restrictions are causing huge damage to British higher education and driving away foreign students. The Council says that Britain now has "the toughest immigration regime compared to its competitors". A recent comparison with Australia and America found that both had relaxed stricter visa criteria after suffering falls in overseas student applications.

Aggravating the growing frustration of employers and colleges has been the new rule forbidding any British diplomats from intervening to help ask for a visa refusal to be reconsidered by entry clearance officers. Responsibility has been transferred soley to the UK Border Agency. Agency officials have little local knowledge of key emerging markets. Diplomats say the change has made it impossible for British embassies to support visa applications by those whose visits are diplomatically important.

"It's been a disaster," one retired British ambassador said. "As diplomats we're not allowed to do anything now to sort out difficulties on the spot. Ten years ago I could say that most applicants could be assured of a visa within a day. Now the queues are growing again. People can wait for days".

British officials say the new restrictions are necessary because many visitors attempt to remain in Britain illegally. The National Audit Office estimates that 50,000 non-EU migrants came to Britain in 2009 while claiming to be studying. It says that almost 160,000 overseas people, including students, are in the country illegally and should be removed. 

Diplomats admit that the restrictions are causing resentment and ill-will, but say they are powerless to intervene. Exacerbating the resentment is the outsourcing since 2007 of visa processing to private companies, as happens now in 48 countries, including India and Russia where there are large numbers applying to visit Britain.

The Government says this cuts costs and the number of British consular staff needed overseas. But private, locally-engaged companies have no leeway, simply collecting the fee and forwarding the information to the UK Border Agency. Applicants can no longer argue their case in person to a consular official. They say exceptional cases are routinely refused if they do not fit the visa processing company's guidelines.
The cutbacks have also hurt applicants from countries where embassies no longer deal with visas. Iraqis have to go to Jordan or Istanbul (more than 700 miles away) to apply for British visas, and in some African countries applicants have to travel hundreds of miles to visit in person the nearest British embassy empowered to deal with visas, often in another country.

As a result, artists, musicians, academics and those invited to conferences in Britain often miss their performances or are unable to keep engagements. The British Council has lobbied hard for flexibility, but with little success. "We had at least 50 students turned down last year," said the head of the academic council. "Surely there ought to be a better method of screening so that bona fide students are not prevented from coming here". 
The Council has also said the extremely high cost of student visas - running into hundreds of pounds, as Britain insists on recouping as much of the processing costs as possible - is forcing students to consider studying in America or other countries where visa costs are lower. British education exports were worth 14.1 billion in 2008-09. More than 40 per cent of international students in British higher education came via sub-degree courses - the level targeted by government curbs on visas to prevent bogus student applications.

The Government has admitted problems with the operation of the visa regime, and has promised to improve the system. But in some case, denying visas is part of a sanctions regime - in countries such as Syria or Zimbabwe. And in one key market, Russia, this has led to a mutual standoff that is hurting bilateral trade and tourism. Visa restrictions on Russians were increased five years ago in the wake of the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, an exile poisoned in London. Russian government officials have been refused entry to Britain or given visas that end as soon as their official business is over.

The effect of these visa restrictions, the delays at airports and the worries about security are deeply worrying to those hoping that the Olympic Games will be a showcase for Britain. How many potential visitors will be discouraged? Will the Games be remembered instead for the large sign that appears to have been put up at the doorways to Britain reading simply "Keep Out"?

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