UK-Africa partnership: Why the UK should review its visa system for African visitors

15 Feb 2020

An open letter to Boris Johnson, both Houses of the UK Parliament, and friends of Africa

by Arkebe Oqubay


A new beginning

In January 2020, the UK hosted the UK‒Africa Investment Summit 2020, the first of its kind. At this historic event the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, declared that “Africa is the future, and the UK has a huge and active role to play in that future … the UK and African nations are taking the first steps on the road to a new partnership”. Mr Johnson pledged that the UK will introduce a fairer immigration system built on “treating people the same wherever they come from, by putting people before passports”.

Does the UK discriminate against African visitors? A recent cross-party study by the Royal African Society (RAS) concludes that “The UK has good relations with most African countries, but it needs to be recognised that no single issue does more potential damage to the image or influence of the UK in Africa than this visa question”. The study highlights that “Home Office data on visa refusals shows that African applicants are over twice as likely to be refused a UK visa than applicants from any other part of the world”. The perception is that the objective of the policy and practice is to increase barriers and “deliberately decrease the number of applicants” from Africa. Separately, British MPs have warned that UK-African relations are being severely damaged by what they refer to as a “broken” UK visitor visa system.

Problems faced by African applicants for UK visas

That the RAS report and the warnings by MPs have received little attention from government bodies, Parliament, and the majority of the media is disconcerting. There is a lot of truth in the finding of a cross-party inquiry that “people from African countries often perceive the reasons given for failed applications as biased or discriminatory”. This perceived discrimination runs counter to the government’s ideals and values, is damaging to the country’s long-standing historical ties with Africa, and will weaken the overall relationship between the UK and Africa at a time when the UK needs to strengthen links with old friends outside the EU.

The bias against African visitors is multi-faceted, and not just limited to visa refusals. The visa process is lengthy and bureaucratic. Almost all visa applications from African countries are processed in Pretoria, South Africa, often taking up to 3-4 weeks. In most cases, visas granted are valid for 30 days only, even for ministers and government officials. Applicants are often charged a much higher fee than British visitors pay for visas to enter African countries. Comparison with other developed countries’ visa systems shows that it is less costly and time consuming for Africans to travel to the USA, EU, and China than to the UK. Visa applications to the USA and the EU, which often grant two-year multiple visas, are usually completed within a week. Some countries, such as Singapore, offer a visa service on arrival for African visitors.

Three practical measures for implementation in 2020

African governments have themselves been working to improve visa systems. More than twenty African countries grant E-visas for international visitors, including UK citizens. In January 2020 South Africa and Ethiopia signed a visa waiver for government officials and diplomatic passport holders. It would be easy for the UK to take three practical measures to eliminate the apparent bias against African visitors to the UK in 2020.

1) Visas should be easily accessible for African visitors to the UK and the fees should be reduced from their current levels. The minimum validity period should be comparable to those of the EU Schengen visa and the USA visa, which is 24 months. Applicants requiring visas for health care or business purposes should be encouraged and the duration of the visa process shortened.

2) Student visas are instrumental to the strategy of developing long-term and deeper relationships with African countries. Students educated in the UK will be the next generation of business leaders, government officials, and community representatives. Student visas should be the simplest and most accessible, enabling African students to benefit from the UK’s excellent higher education system and allowing African universities to work closely and exchange academic staff and students with UK universities.

3) The UK should sign bilateral reciprocal agreements with the governments of individual African countries waiving visa requirements for diplomatic passport holders.

In addition to these, a comprehensive review of the current system should be undertaken, with particular attention to the findings of the cross-party study, which identified areas urgently requiring improvement.

Issues highlighted include: practical and logistical barriers; inconsistent and/or careless decision-making; perceived lack of procedural fairness; financial discrimination in decision-making; perceived gender or racial bias; and lack of accountability or a right of appeal. Addressing these problems will be seen by all Africans and African governments as a symbolic demonstration of the UK government’s commitment to partnership with Africa.

Thus, without prejudice to the UK’s right as a sovereign state to determine its own immigration policy and visa system for visitors to the UK, I call on the UK government to give urgent attention to improving the current system, especially as it applies to applicants from the African continent. As the UK leaves the EU, it will be seeking to further strengthen its diplomatic relations with other countries and increase its engagement in Africa. In a landscape where many international powers are competing for stronger ties with and influence in Africa, an easing of the visa process and increased goodwill towards African visa applicants could be of considerable mutual benefit to African countries and the UK.

February 2020

Arkebe Oqubay, senior minister and special advisor to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, ODI Distinguished Fellow, a member of the Royal African Society.



Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this letter are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Government of Ethiopia. This letter has also been previously published in the Financial Times.

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