A dramatic increase in Kurds refused visas for the UK has been revealed in a parliamentary answer. Between April and September last year 1,165 of 1,790, or two-thirds of all applications made in Erbil were turned down.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Chairman, Jason McCartney MP had discovered that the rejection rate for applications from April 2014 to March 2015 was 55%. The latest figures obtained by the Northern Ireland MP Danny Kinahan represent a one-fifth increase in rejections.
The issue of visas has been raised with visiting British parliamentarians on every delegation to Kurdistan since 2008. The APPG has teamed up with three major British trade organisations to urge changes to reduce the rejection rate for legitimate visitors.
The joint memo from British Expertise International, the Middle East Association and Pathfinder Trade and Invest is also supported by the KRG High Representation in London. It notes the KRG has designated the UK as its "partner of choice" and quality British goods and services are sought by a government with a deep historic affection for the UK and where English is the unofficial second language. It says visas are vital to building business links, to purchase health treatment or tourism.
The groups acknowledge positive changes such as the Visa Application Centre in Erbil, which means applicants no longer need to travel and stay in Amman or Baghdad while their application is processed.
Applications are processed by independent entry clearance officers (ECOs) who only use the information on the form because there is no interview process. Common reasons for rejection include failing to correctly complete the complex form, and omitting sufficient proof of assets or jobs.
ECOs can choose to disbelieve evidence and some with substantial sums to their name have been refused, as have senior government officials and those who have been invited to the UK on official matters. One Kurd who applied for a visa for a three day conference was even questioned why they wanted to stay a few extra days. People understandably take advantage of a work conference to take a break and do some sight-seeing, which increases tourism revenues too.
The signatories fear Kurds may vote with their feet and go elsewhere. American and other European applications are much easier to complete. The memo cites "very many instances where people who could by any reasonable standard be deemed useful to the British political and commercial interest have been rejected" and argues "it materially jeopardises the export of UK goods and services to the region and undermines bilateral good will."
The groups accept the UK has the right to control and patrol its borders and make sure visitors are genuine and will return but conclude British diplomats and politicians should be able to influence visa decisions in the British national interest.
They also recommend the Government investigates the validity of the reasons for refusing so many applications, which was ruled out in a further answer to Danny Kinahan. They say a checking system prior to acceptance of applications could sift out errors and omissions, and this service could be provided privately, but in close co-operation with the UK authorities. They urge the Government to quantify the cost of staff cover in Erbil for a new post to facilitate interviews, given the importance of building commercial and political links. The forms should also be simplified. The memo to the British government will soon be released alongside the report of the APPG's most recent delegation to Kurdistan in November.
British parliamentarians have also been exercised by changes to the American visa system which stipulate that those who have visited Iraq, Syria and Iran in the last five years are no longer automatically considered for the American visa waiver scheme.
MPs and others who have visited Kurdistan would, unless exempted, have to take time to apply in person for an American visa rather than the online visa waiver system. Members of the Newcastle-Gateshead Medical Volunteers, for instance, have also voluntarily provided vital medical operations.
They may now all have to spend time and money in securing a visa for American holidays. This may discourage business people from seeking contracts in Kurdistan if they intend to visit America afterwards.
There may be case by case exemptions for those who have visited for governments, humanitarian NGOs, and the media as well as business purposes. MPs recently raised the matter with the US Ambassador to the London in the Commons. They accept America has good reason to protect its borders but argue this measure has the unintended consequence of making it harder for those seeking to build relationships with crucial and joint allies such as the KRG, an ideological and military bulwark against Daesh. The MPs hope the rule can be scrapped after the American election in November.