Kiran, my wife of four years, didn’t visit my family over the August bank holiday. She also missed my best friend’s wedding the following weekend. Her lack of appearance wasn’t due to any social animosity.
She hadn’t once dated the groom. Nor was her refusal to meet my family caused by apprehension over bank holiday traffic. She didn’t attend these events because she couldn’t. My wife is Pakistani.
Kiran applied for a UK visa on July 13 having returned from a trip to Thailand. It has now been more than two months that the UK government has had my wife’s passport. There is still no passport or visa in sight. She missed the bank holiday and the wedding. While undoubtedly frustrating, it was only a holiday. We’ll get over it. But Kiran isn’t the only one.
Several thousand Pakistani students are now facing delays of three months or more for their visas. With the start of their courses fast approaching, and no visa or passport in hand, they are facing serious financial dilemmas. Should they pay their course fees due at the start of term? Do they put down the rental deposit on their flats? More worryingly, having already been granted extensions by the university authorities, many are now in danger of losing their places altogether. Aliya’s story is typical (not her real name as she doesn’t want to jeopardise the ongoing process). A graduate from Boston University, Aliya applied for a Master’s at St Andrew’s. She received an offer on July 15. Before applying for the visa, she was required to obtain a TB test.
However, only the approved test centre could perform the TB test. There were seven numbers for Aliya to dial to make an appointment. From July she started calling, but the line was constantly engaged. Being resourceful, she found out the address of the TB test centre and went to the office, only to be informed that she had to make an appointment over the phone. She tried calling for a further 10 days, often on three phones at a time, until eventually getting through. Her TB test appointment was scheduled for August 22. Once that was completed, only then could she apply for the visa. Now facing a three-month wait for her visa and passport, she regrets applying to the UK for her Master’s.
Two years ago the UK decided to merge the Border and Immigration Agency, Customs and UK Visas into a single body called the UK Border Agency (UKBA). The integration of these various functions into a single body has been a bureaucratic fiasco and a PR disaster for the UK. Previously, regional centres (Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi etc) would process and stamp your passport in a quick, efficient manner (usually within a week for a tourist visa). Now all Pakistani visas are processed in Abu Dhabi. However, all passports remain in Pakistan and are sent to Islamabad for the physical stamping of the visa. It is estimated that there is a backlog of up to 40,000 visas yet to be processed.
But it isn’t the undue delays that irk Pakistanis. Nor the arrogance of holding onto someone’s passport for more than three months and the fact that is virtually impossible to retrieve it once submitted. Not even the fact that the extortionate visa fee (more than £220 for a two-year multiple entry tourist visa) is non-refundable. What is most galling for Pakistanis is the complete failure of UKBA to respond to queries. It is impossible to speak to anyone with any authority. If you call up the British embassy in Abu Dhabi and you mention you have applied for a visa they promptly hang up on you. Nice. If you call their visa hotline the number no longer exists. If you email either Abu Dhabi embassy or Islamabad, you receive generic ‘Dear Sir/Madam‘ emails. The only people you can speak to are the courier service that submits the visa application on your behalf. But UKBA is hiding behind the courier service, which in turn is having to deal, unfairly, with the public anger.
The irony is that the Foreign Office is increasingly sensitive of Britain’s perception in Pakistan and has been on a full PR drive of late. In July, David Miliband was in Lahore taking part in a radio discussion with Pakistani students. There was much talk of shared histories; educational opportunities in the UK; and helping Pakistan’s youth reach their full potential. It was quite a jolly affair. One earnest student asked the foreign secretary what the main challenges had been for his generation. ‘The main challenges of my generation was to avoid some terrible fashion … those very large flared trousers; a truly contagious disease back then!’ was Miliband’s reply, drawing much laughter from the assembled group.
Well, Pakistani students are no longer laughing. They are absolutely fuming at the British government, with many vowing never to apply for study in the UK again. Unlike the foreign secretary, appalling sartorial wear is not the main challenge for this generation of Pakistanis. It’s obtaining a visa and an education.—Courtesy Guardian.com.uk