Once upon a time, Iraq was a “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire. Even after their emancipation from British rule in 1932, many Iraqis remained attached to the former colonial power, especially through economic ties and relations with the English language, education and culture.
Today, Iraqi community groups in Britain estimate that some half a million people of Iraqi descent live in the United Kingdom, making them one of the largest population groups in Britain. Many of them are active in politics, business, medicine, education and the arts.
Four of Iraq’s most powerful government posts – president, vice-president, prime minister and foreign minister – are held by individuals having dual British-Iraqi citizenship. Thousands of politicians, government officials, MPs, and members of the country’s ruling elite also have dual British-Iraqi citizenship.
This underscores the political and other influences Britain has maintained in Iraq despite a plethora of different political challenges in the two countries’ post-colonial relations.
However, now some Iraqis, often British-educated or having family connections in the UK, are being refused entry visas to the United Kingdom in a sign of the myopia with which Britain views people from its former colony.
In the latest such rebuff, British immigration authorities refused a visa request last week from an Iraqi Christian nun who had applied for an entry permit to the UK at the British consulate in Erbil in northern Iraq.
The Catholic News Agency said Ban Madleen, a Dominican sister who had had to flee the Islamic State (IS) terror group, had again been denied entry to the United Kingdom. She first attempted to obtain a UK visa in April but was denied.
The Vatican-based news agency said Madleen had been attempting to visit her sick sister who lives in Britain, but immigration officials had said that she had not provided enough evidence that she was not going to overstay her visa and attempt to stay in the UK.
Madleen runs a kindergarten in Iraq and belongs to the Christian Dominican community. British government officials said she had failed to demonstrate that she made sufficient income as a school principal and that she had not shown that her community would be funding her trip.
The visa denial letter that was sent to Madleen was similar to the letters of refusal of visa applications that thousands of Iraqis have received in recent years from the British Home Office, based mostly on technicalities or bureaucratic issues.
British statistics show that refusals of visa applications from Iraq are one of the highest worldwide. In the second quarter of 2017, some 2,813 applications were made for UK visas from Iraq. Only 1,329 were granted, and as many as 1,239 were refused, making the overall visa refusal rate for Iraq 47.75 per cent.
While the number of UK visa rejections of Iraqis remains very high for a country that is in partnership with Britain in an international coalition against terror and is also an erstwhile colony, the nationals of other Arab countries have also complained of receiving similar treatment, including in the form of visa refusals, the high cost of visas, and slow processing.
According to British statistics 9,745 applications for UK visas made by Egyptian nationals were refused in 2017 out of 43,169 applications, which makes the UK visa refusal rate for Egypt about 22.57 per cent.
Though UK visa refusal rates for nationals from the oil-rich countries of the Gulf remain low for obvious reasons, the overall refusal rate for nationals from the Middle East as a whole remained relatively high in 2017, with 8.18 per cent rejected.
The refusal of a visa is always an annoying, frustrating and humiliating experience. It feels as if it is motivated by xenophobia and always seems unfair and discriminatory.
It is hard to determine the reasons behind such large numbers of visa rejections by the UK authorities or come to a conclusion about the decision-making process that has led to the refusals.
British officials have avoided saying that the refusals have been tainted by religious, political or security considerations, and Home Office officials usually cite “service standards” and “robust checks” to avoid any potential abuse by the immigration system in considering visa applications.
However, critics blame the current hostile visa policy on the ruling Conservative Party government and primarily on Prime Minister Theresa May who created the anti-immigration environment when she was at the Home Office.
May’s policy, later pursued by her two successors Amber Rudd and current Home Office Minister Sajid Javid, is largely blamed for the visa refusals.
Critics have also noted that financial considerations may play a part in the British visa system. The Home Office has been overcharging applicants for visas, while also making them reapply after their visas are turned down.
The Home Office keeps the fees from all applications whether they are successful or not, so it makes more money from appeals and bureaucratic complications.
The British newspaper The Guardian has noted that the Home Office is making profits of up to 800 per cent on immigration applications from some families, many of whom are eligible to live in the UK but are turned down on technicalities and forced to reapply and then pay again.
In addition, new immigration policies culminating in the 2013 UK immigration bill have made it much harder to challenge Home Office decisions.
Because of little opposition inside Britain to the harsh visa policy, especially from people or groups in positions of influence, the government is getting away with it.
Unlike the mass protests held across the United States this weekend against US President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, the British and European public has been largely ambivalent about their governments’ immigration and visa policies.
Even opposition parties have been doing little to challenge the cruel visa policy. British MPs have been turning a blind eye to complaints of visa abuses, sometimes even from constituents deprived of family visits.
The treatment of applicants for visas from the Arab world by other Western countries is not much different.
Visa applicants, some with family connections within these countries, or people planning to travel for business, medical treatment, education or tourism, have to wait for weeks before they are told that their requests for entry have been denied.
While Western nations’ concerns about terrorism and asylum-seeking are understood, the threats from visa applicants coming for tourist visits or business seem highly exaggerated, if not completely unfounded.
Since the height of the migration crisis to Europe in 2015, hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers have been braving deserts, mountains and rough seas to reach Europe in defiance of the continent’s immigration restrictions.
Indeed, its stringent visa restrictions are now hindering economic, cultural and human exchanges between the Arab world and Europe.
Iraq’s imports from China, Turkey and Iran, its three main trading partners, exceeded $40 billion in 2017 compared to EU exports which totalled some $4.10 billion, for example.
Top Iranian official Hameed Mohamadi disclosed on 20 June that some 1.7 million Iraqis visited Iran annually, largely due to the easy access of entry permits. Iraqi tourists’ other favourite destinations are Turkey, Lebanon and Malaysia, which also provide easy-to-get visas.
Instead of the United Kingdom, historically the destination for Iraqis seeking medical treatment abroad, patients are now travelling to India, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey.
Iraqi graduate and post-graduate students who used to go to British universities and return as scientists, medical doctors and engineers are now seeking their higher education in countries such as India and Iran.
What the short-sighted Western nations’ visa policies have shown is not just the personal humiliation and family agony they cause for thousands of applicants in the Arab countries, but also the ruining of the historic bonds that have tied the two worlds together for centuries.
With Chinese and Russian political, economic and cultural influence creeping steadily into the Middle East, Europe will continue to lose its influence in the region as a result, even as this was once too important to Europe geopolitically to put at risk.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Widening the gap