One of the most persistent points made by government officials, business people and others we have met on our parliamentary delegations to Kurdistan in the last six years has been the British visa system.
We have heard constant complaints from people who had to travel to Amman or Baghdad for up to two weeks, deposit their passports and visa applications in a British Embassy office and twiddle their thumbs in a hotel for up to two weeks, at their own expense, before being told if they could go to the UK.
I happened to be in the British Prime Minister’s offices in Downing Street some years back and persuaded a senior official to make a call to Amman which got the go ahead for the visa just as the man was leaving the hotel for either Kurdistan or London. He came to Britain where he addressed an important gathering which helped deepen links between Kurdistan and the UK.
Other people have not been so lucky and this has impacted negatively on the relationship between our two countries, not least as it seems easier to secure a Schengen Visa allowing travel to most countries in the European Union.
Our fear has long been that Britain’s commercial advantage in Kurdistan – the widespread use of the English language, affection for our values and standards and gratitude for our role in liberating Kurdistan and Iraq – could be eroded. The all-party group made improving visa issuing facilities one of its main priorities.
At first, a limited number of people were allowed to have their applications processed in country and without having to leave Kurdistan. Last September, Lord Marland for the British Government opened a Visa Application Centre in the Sheraton in Erbil. People no longer have to leave Kurdistan in order to secure a visa.
The centre is open three days a week and processes 150 visas a week. There is a case for increasing the capacity. It takes time to make an appointment to have fingerprints recorded on the biometric machine and then takes maybe three weeks for the application to be processed in Amman.
The applicants’ passports cannot be used in this time which sometimes means that businessmen and others are stuck in Kurdistan, even if they have other business trips to undertake. This makes it very difficult and recently three government officials and four senior business people were unable to take part in an important investment delegation to the UK.
Furthermore, as the British Foreign Office Minister conceded in the recent Commons debate on UK relations with the Kurdistan Region, there is a question over the cost, although it is still cheaper than having to stay in Baghdad or Amman.
The forms are in English with, so far, explanatory notes in Arabic. I hope that notes in Kurdish will follow. People have difficulties filling in the forms correctly and supplying the necessary information. My guess is that the vast majority of refusals are because the forms have been completed incorrectly.
I am not an expert but people should understand that the forms are designed to flush out falsehoods and trap those who intend to overstay illegally or who may present a security threat.
It is fair enough for any country to control immigration and those who carry out such tasks must apply the rules fairly and impartially without fear or favour. And the majority of applications are accepted.
My experience, however, is that some people who, in my view, have a very good case for coming to the UK, are refused. Over the years too many people, with much to contribute to the commercial and cultural links between Kurdistan and the UK, have fallen foul of the system.
There has to be a balance between the security interests of the UK and its commercial and political links.
The all-party group will be seeking a meeting with the Home Office (Interior) Minister in the UK to argue that needless obstructions should be overcome to maximise the mutually beneficial impact of visits to the UK.
All visa systems have their inconveniences and it has vastly improved over the years but more change is needed. I feel sure that the efforts of those who want to deepen our relationships will lead to more positive changes.
* Gary Kent is the administrator of All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity.
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