Scotland Malawi Partnership loses confidence in UK visa handling

30 June 2016

SMP statement on visas for Malawians visiting the UK.

We are sorry to report that the Scotland Malawi Partnership has lost confidence in the handling of UK visa applications by the UK Government for those invited to Scotland from Malawi.

Since 2007, when visa handling moved from Lilongwe to Pretoria in South Africa, our members have faced an increasing number of challenges. These issues became more acute as online and "cashless" systems were introduced - systems which are practically unworkable in Malawi.

In recent weeks we have seen a new low, with repeated embarrassing errors being made by those handling visa applications, resulting in more and more cancelled visits. We have seen a leading Malawian musician sent a letter by the UK Government saying 'we refuse your visa application because insert reason here' and we have had a Deputy Director of the Government of Malawi sent a letter rejecting his UK visa application (for the second time) because he had not included his wage slips as evidence - yet he had included these wage slips, and these were returned in the same envelope as the rejection letter.

It is now quite normal to see visas issued on the actual day of travel, hundreds of miles from the applicant and the city of departure, and each week we see more and more visits to Scotland cancelled as a result.

Through all of this our friends in Malawi are being treated appallingly. Malawians have to prove their affluence to be allowed into the UK: it is assumed that if they are not wealthy, they have no reason to return to Malawi. In our eyes, this is to conflate poverty with criminality; and this we find unacceptable.

Malawians have to send their passport, bank statements, family birth certificates, marriage certificates, letters from employers, and all manner of other evidence to another country across the continent for many weeks, with no certainty as to the outcome, or hope of a refund if rejected. They have to pay online, in a foreign currency, using an international bank card: something that is impossible for more than 99% of the population. These are Malawians invited into the UK by Scots; visits paid for by Scots; visits integral to the people-to-people friendship between our two nations. In many cases these are in fact visits funded by one arm of government and undermined by another.

We fear the ineffective handling of UK visa applications has the potential to undermine the dignified partnership we are so proud to enjoy with Malawi. We have had the issue debated repeatedly in the House of Commons, the House of Lords and, earlier this month, in Westminster Hall. We have met with the UK Immigration Minister and we have submitted written briefings on the repeated and systemic failings our members see. And yet we are not confident that change is likely. The system continues to worsen.

Over our 11 years of existence, the Scotland Malawi Partnership does not know of any Malawian invited to Scotland by one of its members who has ever absconded. We have asked the UK Government repeatedly for evidence that such well-supported visits have resulted in absconders but none has been forthcoming. We fear the system is not evidence-led; that it is not designed to counter a specific or credible threat. Rather, we fear, it seems to be predicated on the hope that placing ever more unreasonable hurdles to apply, outsourcing to ever more private companies, and shifting decision-making to regional hubs, will reduce the number of applications that can ever be made. We are embarrassed and feel let down by these systems.

We therefore call on the UK Government to launch an independent inquiry into UK visa issuing systems in Africa, such that the voices of our friends in Malawi can be heard. We hope that the UK Government urgently considers returning visa handling to Lilongwe where the British High Commission is well equipped and well positioned to make informed decisions in a timely and practical manner.

The Scotland Malawi Partnership is grateful for the support it has had from the Scotland Office in recent years. The Secretary of State for Scotland, who visited Malawi for the second time earlier this year, is a kind supporter and we hope the Scotland Office can play a leading role in addressing the concerns of SMP members and our friends in Malawi on this issue.

Until serious improvements to the visa handling systems are introduced, we recommend members apply for UK visas many months before intended travel, ensuring visas have been secured before flights are purchased. We hope this at least reduces the quantity of Scottish community, charitable, and tax payers’ money that is wasted each month on cancelled visits.

Visa application