A dozen authors who were planning to attend the Edinburgh International Book Festival have reportedly been refused visas with the festival's own artist in residence Ehsan Abdollahi still awaiting a final decision.
Festival director Nick Barley told the Guardian that the “humiliating” application process would discourage artists from visiting the UK while Abdollahi, the Tiny Owl illustrator who last year battled successfully to attend the festival, is unsure if he can visit. Tiny Owl’s co-founder and publisher Delaram Ghanimifard told The Bookseller the experience felt like a “race you are not fit to run” while English PEN described the issue as of "increasing concern".
The Bookseller revealed Abdollahi’s plight last summer when his visa was initially denied, leading to a campaign which saw the decision overruled. This year he was appointed artist in residence at the three-week-festival but he is still in Iran, waiting to hear if his trip on 24th August will take place.
The three-week long festival kicks off on Saturday (11th August) and is the “largest public celebration of the written word in the world” featuring around 1,000 writers “and thinkers”.
Abdollahi and fellow Tiny Owl illustrator Marjan Vafaeian are waiting to see if their visas will come through, according to Ghanimifard.
“They applied on 18th July and are still waiting. Marjan was told she needed an interview about her bank statement and then both were told that their cases were not straight-forward and that they’d have to wait, and that they shouldn’t arrange anything to do with their trip,” she told The Bookseller.
The pair are due to fly in the next few weeks.
Ghanimifard described the experience as “very frustrating” and revealed it is the fourth year running that Tiny Owl has experienced these problems.
“It impacts on us [as a publisher] a lot. This is one of the only chances our illustrators will have to come and show their faces and art and work with these children. When we don’t have these opportunities it is like our hands are tied… as though we’re running a race we’re not fit for. I hope their visas come through”
Ghanimifard also believes that the problem is growing worse.
Barley told The Bookseller: “We are obviously concerned that the challenges of obtaining a UK visa will have a knock-on effect on the international reputation of not only Edinburgh’s Festivals but arts and cultural organisations across the UK...We want to work with arts organisations across the UK, and the UK Government, to ensure that international artists, performers, musicians and authors who are invited to visit the UK by a known arts organisation are able to come to perform and talk about their work without the humiliation of having to provide the level of personal and financial detail currently required."
He added: "We are of course looking forward to a vibrant and exciting Book Festival over the next two weeks, with speakers from around the world and I’m sure freedom of movement and freedom of speech will be high on the agenda.”
Meanwhile Barley told the Guardian that around 12 individuals had gone through an extremely difficult process to obtain a visa. They were from Middle East and African countries, with one author from Belarus, and had had their applications refused at least once, he said.
“We’ve had to draw on the help of MPs, MSPs, ambassadors and senior people in the British Council and Home Office to overturn visa decisions that looked set to be rejected,” Barley said. “We’ve had so many problems with visas, we’ve realised it is systematic. This is so serious. We want to talk about it and resolve it, not just for [this festival], but for cultural organisations UK-wide. The amount of energy, money and time that has gone into this is problematic. There needs to be a fix.”
Antonia Byatt, director of English PEN, told The Bookseller: "English PEN is watching this situation with increasing concern. We have heard many stories from publishers and festival curators that echo the problems recently highlighted by WOMAD and Edinburgh International Book Festival, and have directly experienced these problems ourselves, when applying for visas on behalf of writers.
"The process is complex and humiliating and presents the UK as a place that has closed its doors to international culture.
"Publishing and the performing are a crucial part of our creative industries and make a significant contribution to GDP. Authors should be free to travel to festivals and literary events, where they can meet readers and discuss their work with new audiences, and sell more books."
She added: "The stringent visa system presents a very real barrier to freedom of expression, and also harms the economy."
A Home Office spokesperson told The Bookseller: “We welcome artists and musicians coming to the UK from non-EEA countries to perform.
“In the year ending December 2017, 99% of non-settlement visa applications were processed within 15 days and the average processing time in 2017 was just under eight days.
“Guidance on visa and entry clearance requirements is publicly available on gov.uk. Each case is assessed on its individual merits against the published Immigration Rules.”
The Edinburgh International Book Festival runs from Saturday 11 August to Monday 27 August. Visit edbookfest.co.uk.
For information about Tiny Owl, visit tinyowl.co.uk.