Head of Edinburgh International Book Festival Nick Barley has warned of the “irretrievable damage to Britain” by the current visa system, following publishers’ concerns for the free travel of writers.
Barley spoke to The Bookseller about how the visa system must change, as Comma Press, Saqi Books and Tiny Owl raised concerns of increasing difficulty for authors to travel globally for literary festivals.
The festival chief renewed his call for an overhaul of the visa system, following an open letter signed with other arts festivals directors, last summer. Twelve invited participants struggled to attend the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2018 because of visa hurdles, including the festival's own artist in residence Ehsan Abdollahi - the second time in two years he had experienced this issue.
Six months on, Barley said there had been no change, and believes a mobility scheme must become law to ensure Britain’s cultural standing does not suffer.
“Since the visa problems we had last summer we have had a number of conversations with civil servants and politicians and nothing has changed, it will be no different next year," he said. "It will mean lots of artists and writers will feel it is not worth bothering [to apply for visas].
“I am incredibly disappointed the immigration white paper [published last December] did not give any more detail for people, like writers, travelling for short-term visas. We need a mobility scheme created for quick and story stay visas for these sorts of visits. It should be part of government legislation.
“I know that lords and politicians have been thinking this could work and it should be possible to put this in place...The statistics around this won’t show the reputational damage that Britain is receiving through this. It is doing irretrievable damage to Britain standing and that is the main reason why the system must change.”
Freedom of speech activist Robert Sharp, formerly of English Pen, told The Bookseller: “Here, I’ve noticed that the issue with visa refusals is not just the culture of ‘suspicion’ which leads to some authors and writers, usually young and usually from countries that are poor or which have security or human rights issues, being refused. The visa application system itself is too complex and it’s too easy to make a mistake or to provide incomplete information, which can also lead to a refusal. And the Home Office never provides any opportunity for the applicant to clarify or amend an application."
He added: "The system is a combination of hostility and complexity that turns people off as well as turns people away. That this is a case is absolutely a political choice - yet another way in which antipathy towards immigration hurts British culture.”
A Home Office spokesperson told The Bookseller: “We welcome authors and other artists coming to the UK to perform, and appreciate the important contribution they make to our creative sector.
“We have launched a year-long engagement process with businesses and stakeholders on our future skills-based immigration system and we want to hear from the creative sector as part of that.
“In the meantime, there is a wide range of routes which can be used by authors coming to the UK – the visitors’ route, which includes those performing at permit free festivals; the Permitted Paid Engagement route for those coming for a short period; and the temporary work route for those coming for longer.”
The Immigration Rules set out the requirements to visit the UK, usually for up to six months.