The violence and despair of the militarised and exclusionary immigration policies of ‘Fortress Europe’ have been well documented. Institutionalised racism combines with an openly hostile bureaucracy of ‘paper walls’. In the UK Home Office, officials are encouraged to deny in a perk system that awards shopping vouchers to officials who decline the highest number of asylum applicants per month. In Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent, Matthew Carr (2012: 120) describes the immigration-media nexus in the UK as a ‘mutually reinforcing consensus between governments, the media and the public that invariably depicts immigration as an endless crisis [and undocumented migrants as] dangerous and dehumanised invaders massing outside the nation’s borders’ (read Inez von Weitershausen’s review of the book here).
The racism (and often the sexism) in these rejection letters is palpable. In one case, a woman’s family visit visa—financially supported in-full by her family members in the UK—was refused because she had
no personal income, no partner or children in Cameroon and [she had] not previously travelled outside Cameroon.
In this particular case, the woman was coming to help her sister in-law—a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford—with childcare as she finished her studies. The rejection letter reads,
I have read the letter… from your sister-in-law detailing the reason for your visit and her childcare issues but it is open to your sister to make private childcare arrangements in the UK whilst she completes her studies. Relatives can act as temporary childminders in the UK for relatives but I must take into account your personal and financial circumstances.
Of course, the waiting list for day nurseries in Oxford is currently 3 years—or, exactly the amount of time as it takes to complete a Phd. So the official’s speculation on the ease of childcare as ‘open’ to the sister is erroneous. In Oxford, the Trinity Term 2014 childcare waiting list was loaded with an incredible 595 applicants. Parents who do land a spot in one of the area’s nurseries find themselves paying enormous fees. For example, the Kidsunlimited Oxford Business Park Nursery fee breakdown for the 2014/15 academic year is:
5 days – £961.07
4.5 days – £864.96
4 days – £768.85
3.5 days – £672.75
3 days – £576.64
2.5 days – £480.53
2 days – £384.43
1.5 days – £288.32
1 days – £192.21
My daughter attends Kidsunlimited Bradmore Road Nursery, where the fee breakdown (again, increasing for the 2014/15 academic year) is:
5 days – £767.22
3 days – £503.62
2 days – £335.75
At the same time, the cost of private childcare has increased by 19 per cent between 2013 and 2014 in Oxford. Families privileged enough to be part of the exclusive Schengen Area or the European Union might be able to get around these restrictions if they can have a family member join them. Families from North America, Australia or New Zealand (countries the UK Home Offices deems ‘low-risk countries’) can visit for up to 90 days without applying for a visa. For families from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, the limitations are often insurmountable, as demonstrated by the comment implying that the Cameroonian woman needs to have a child or get married to prove her willingness to return to Cameroon.
The African Development Bank Group reports that, ‘Africa is one of the regions of in the world with the highest visa requirements’ (take a look at this infographic on the power and exclusion of the world’s passports). In her recent article, Beasts of No Nation, Paula Akugizibwe writes,
Whether immigrating, emigrating or just passing through, Africans suffer among the greatest indignities of cross-border travel, abroad and on the continent.
Visa rejection letters reveal the thinly veiled catch-22 of travel to the UK: the sister-in-law hasn’t travelled outside of Cameroon, in part because European countries like the UK demand unrealistic visa requirements; because she hasn’t travelled, her visa application is rejected. It is an impossible system. Her passport is stamped in red with a large ‘denied’ icon, permanently castigating her passport for any future visa applications to any nation in the world. Her visa application cost her and her family $142 USD/£83.00; or, 68,500.80 CFA Francs. This is more than two month’s salary in Cameroon (with average monthly income for an employed person at 30,000 CFA Francs).
Imagine a UK citizen being denied a visa to Cameroon—or to any country—because the applicant is childless and unmarried. It would never happen. This is institutionalised racism.
What is more, immigration-related emails are often not monitored, the phone lines are often disconnected and the plethora of perpetually changing websites give conflicting information about the application process. The new online visa application system has no option for applying through the various forms that are still identified on hundreds of websites explaining the process of applying to the UK. For example, a year ago someone holding a UK T4 Student Visa would have applied for a family member to join them using the Dependent of a Tier 4 Student/VAF10 form.
Today, this process has changed—really, it has been obscured and the use of numbered forms has been eliminated all together, replaced by a series of pull down tabs in a much less clear process—but most university websites with directions for students continue to explain the family application process using the VAF10 form. As recently as two months ago, the UK immigration website itself continued to list the VAF10 form as the necessary form for student families (again, despite such a form no longer being officially accepted).
In another case, a Cameroonian man’s tourist visa had taken so long to be processed that he wrote to the UK consulate in New York requesting his documents be returned to him. In this particular case, the man held a ten-year US green card and had been living in the US for over five years. After he requested that his documents be returned to him, he received an automatic email informing him that UK immigration email accounts are not monitored and that if he has questions pertaining to his application, he should call the automated system, at a cost of $12 per call. Four different telephone numbers were listed in the email; each one was disconnected when he dialled in June 2014. When he called, he was greeted with a variation of the following:
The number that you called is not valid.
The number you have called is not in service. Message 32 BOI.
Next he visited the website that had been forwarded in the email—visainfoservices.com (WorldBridge Services)—only to discover that there is no pull-down tab option for travel to the UK.
Effectively no one responds to emails, no one answers the phones and websites are outdated or irrelevant. The cost of his application for a visa to join his family was $475.00 USD/£277.20 (229,140.00 CFA Francs). Indeed, UK consulates profit enormously from visa fees in a system where officers are encouraged to deny (as much as possible) applicants with ‘high risk’ passports.
The result is pain, frustration and separation as families are kept apart or forced to leave the UK to reunite. This has serious implications for the state of higher education in the UK. Recent conversations about mental health in the university—depression, loneliness, suicide—have largely flailed to consider in any holistic way the distance imposed on families within such systems, as life-partners live apart for months and often years at a time, with one spouse shouldering the burden of childcare alone while the other manages the psychological pain of loneliness and distance from the children and partner. We must be innovative in thinking through ways to support and advocate for student parents/families—particularly families who are disempowered in the geopolitics of institutionalised racism and deemed ‘high risk’. Otherwise UK institutions risk losing the bright, qualified and experienced intellectuals that were trained or wish to be trained in the country.
Efforts are underway within sectors of the academy at Oxford, including the push to install baby changing tables in some departments and to make the Middle Common Rooms (MCRs)—spaces reserved for the comfort, sanity and fraternisation of postgraduate students in their respective colleges—more family friendly. Such efforts translate to placing baskets with colouring pencils and children’s activity books in MCRs. These efforts are tremendously important in a context where many student parents, myself included, cannot take their children with them to dine in their college dinning halls, even for non-formal lunches (the reason given is ‘insurance risk’, which would make sense except many colleges have managed to obtain insurance which allows for children to dine in hall). The former Oxford Graduate Woman’s Officer, Eden Tanner, has done much to push forward these initiatives, collaborating with student parents to organise events and compile the otherwise disparate information on childcare space and university housing for families.
There is more to be done. The dehumanisation experienced while applying to visit family in the UK for those with passports from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia must be addressed in a systematic manner by university officials. The recent ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’ campaign was important in bringing the history of elitism and racism to the fore and demanding that, ‘a discussion on race be taken seriously and that real institutional change occur’. I see these projects—both of which engage with deeply rooted institutional racism and sexism—as closely related, simultaneous efforts to decolonise the university.
Some projects to support:
- Support efforts to freeze childcare costs at their current rates.
- Update the university’s website for family visa application processes to realistically reflect current trends. Address forthrightly the institutional racism that disprivileges families and students from particular geopolitical regions.
- In addressing the mental health issues and work pressures in academia, engage with the psychological pain of separation from children and partners, which takes on a particular form (anger, anguish and frustration) when the reasons behind this separation are institutionalised racism.
- Acknowledge children during academic events. If your activist-intellectual workshop could have children present without disruption, declare so directly on the event promotion and fliers.
- Be aware of the immense joy and simultaneous frustration of being a caregiver; this includes acknowledging the tremendously important and valuable work of the (mostly) young women who staff day nurseries or work as nannies, who are often underpaid and under-appreciated.