UKBA’s ma­lign mood mu­sic kills artis­tic ex­change, says Michael Ed­wards

The UK Bor­der Agency’s treat­ment of non-EU mu­si­cians is un­der­min­ing vi­tal cul­tural ex­change, says Michael Ed­wards

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Michael Ed­wards is pro­fes­sor of elec­tronic com­po­si­tion at the Folk­wang Univer­sity of the Arts, Ger­many.

Ayear ago, when I was still work­ing at the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh, a col­league and I trav­elled to Canada to work with a sax­o­phone quar­tet and give a per­for­mance. At Mon­treal’s pass­port con­trol, we stated our rea­son for travel and, as usual, were al­lowed to pass with­out so much as a re­hearsed ques­tion de­signed to trick us into ad­mit­ting to crim­i­nal in­tent.

A cou­ple of months later, I in­vited a Cana­dian to Ed­in­burgh to de­liver a short talk for a small fee. En­ter the be­he­moth of a gate­keeper that the UK Bor­der Agency has be­come.

I’m told that the rules to get into the UK for a lit­tle paid work have been con­sid­er­ably re­laxed over the past cou­ple of years. How­ever, to ob­tain per­mis­sion to give a one-hour talk, our col­league was faced with a po­ten­tial re­quire­ment to present a “per­mit­ted paid en­gage­ment visa”, cost­ing £87, tak­ing three weeks to process and re­quir­ing “proof that you can sup­port your­self”, “de­tails of where you in­tend to stay”, “proof that the paid en­gage­ment re­lates to your ex­per­tise” and “a cer­ti­fied trans­la­tion of any doc­u­ments that aren’t in English or Welsh”. Artists and sports­peo­ple must also pro­vide “ex­tra doc­u­ments… e.g. pub­li­ca­tions, pub­lic­ity ma­te­rial, proof of awards, me­dia cov­er­age and re­views, proof of re­cent per­for­mances”.

Plac­ing the bur­den of proof on the ap­pli­cant in this way is like ask­ing the de­fen­dant to prove their in­no­cence in court, rather than re­quir­ing the state to prove their guilt. Faced with this bu­reau­cratic mine­field, our North Amer­i­can col­league aban­doned his plans, and I can hardly blame him.

This is not an iso­lated ex­am­ple. Col­leagues re­count sim­i­lar sto­ries, and I have a few more of my own. A few years ago, I in­vited a US-based Turk­ish pi­anist over to play a con­cert. To her credit, she went through the rig­ma­role of trav­el­ling for hours to the near­est bio­met­ric screen­ing sta­tion. But af­ter wait­ing eight weeks for the ver­dict, she can­celled her ap­pli­ca­tion be­cause she could no longer be with­out her pass­port; she was told that it could take up to 12 weeks to get it back.

How are in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­tive artists sup­posed to func­tion within such a sys­tem? Some sim­ply refuse. An­other as­tound­ing mu­si­cian who was will­ing to give the peo­ple of Ed­in­burgh the ben­e­fit of his huge tal­ents for a pal­try fee didn’t even start the process: he had nei­ther the time nor the in­cli­na­tion to jump through the barbed hoops.

Of course, ex­change does still hap­pen, but it’s much harder than it used to be or needs to be. And this is one rea­son why I moved to an aca­demic job in Ger­many last year. I can hon­estly say that the grass is gen­uinely greener. Not only is there no re­quire­ment to spy on stu­dents for the bor­der agency, there is also no med­dling in my cur­ric­ula or re­search: Ger­many has aca­demic free­dom writ­ten into the con­sti­tu­tion.

My ex­pe­ri­ence has been marred only by in­tense em­bar­rass­ment over the UKBA’s re­jec­tion of the ap­pli­ca­tion of one of our stu­dents for a visa to make a short trip to Lon­don. Mis­agh Az­imi, an Ira­nian who has been work­ing and study­ing in Ger­many for six years, was in­vited by the Univer­sity of Green­wich to at­tend a col­lo­quium and present his au­dio­vi­sual works. De­spite hav­ing a re­turn ticket and ac­com­mo­da­tion al­ready demon­stra­bly paid for, his ap­pli­ca­tion was re­jected be­cause the UKBA was nei­ther sat­is­fied with his in­ten­tions for trav­el­ling nor con­vinced that he would be able to cover his needs while in the UK – which would amount to some fish and chips for din­ner, per­haps.

The re­ac­tion of my Ger­man col­leagues was as­ton­ish­ment and out­rage. I asked around, and no one had ever en­coun­tered such prob­lems. Joachim Heintz, who teaches com­po­si­tion in Hanover, ac­knowl­edges that over the 15 years he has been work­ing in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ira­nian artists, it has be­come more dif­fi­cult to ob­tain ap­point­ments at the Ger­man em­bassy in Tehran, but he has never ex­pe­ri­enced an Ira­nian artist be­ing re­fused en­try. In fact, the em­bassy’s cul­ture depart­ment helps to ex­pe­dite the process.

Flo­rian Wal­ter, who or­gan­ises fes­ti­vals in Essen and Bel­gium, also re­ports no dif­fi­cul­ties when invit­ing artists from a va­ri­ety of non-EU coun­tries, as long as they are able to pro­vide some tax in­for­ma­tion. And Merja Dwor­czak, from the Phil­har­monie Essen, in­forms me that the only coun­try whose na­tion­als en­counter some prob­lems is Rus­sia, but even there it is pos­si­ble, with some in­ge­nu­ity, to find a so­lu­tion.

The UK used to treat its po­ten­tial guests bet­ter. To my great sad­ness and shame, my coun­try is quickly be­com­ing more and more closed, para­noid and dis­mis­sive in its of­fi­cial in­ter­ac­tions with cit­i­zens from non-EU coun­tries. It will be the UK’s loss if it con­tin­ues on this path of in­su­lar­ity. To put it in a man­ner politi­cians should un­der­stand, so­ci­eties that en­gage in aca­demic and cul­tural ex­change ben­e­fit ma­te­ri­ally from the ex­per­tise of their neigh­bours. To think and act oth­er­wise is to cut off vi­tal links to spite the cul­tural and eco­nomic spark of the na­tion.

It is also to tram­ple on the dig­nity of visa ap­pli­cants and to shat­ter their il­lu­sions about the moral su­pe­ri­or­ity of the Bri­tish state. Six weeks af­ter his visa re­fusal, Az­imi told me that it still haunted him. “It’s not about be­ing able to go to Lon­don or not,” he said. “It’s about chal­leng­ing my in­di­vid­ual rights as a hu­man be­ing… [I now re­alise] I don’t have the chance to change minds and use my voice to make a dif­fer­ence just be­cause I was born in the wrong coun­try… The whole dis­cus­sion about hu­man rights and how peo­ple are treated in my coun­try is fine, but then do­ing this to an artist who wants to ex­change his thoughts? Well, that is the very def­i­ni­tion of hypocrisy.”

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