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University Conferences at Risk as Academic Speakers Refused UK Visas

When Christiana Ejura Attah, a barrister and academic from Nigeria, applied for a visa to speak at a renowned international African studies conference held at Cambridge University in September, she was denied entry to the UK.

British embassy officials decided Attah was likely not to return to Nigeria, because her husband, also an academic, had been granted a visa to the same three-day conference. Officials chose not to take into account that she would be leaving four children in Nigeria, or that she had a letter from her vice-chancellor at the Joseph Ayo Babalola University confirming her credentials and that she had been supported to make her UK visit with a £2,500 grant.

Attah, who had been due to present her research on the lack of legal protection for women and children in state camps for people made homeless by conflict in Nigeria, says: “I felt disappointed and humiliated”. She adds: “It is a shame that this could come from the UK. I would not know if this was a bias against women but the fact is that my husband and a junior male colleague from my department were given visas for this conference while I was not.”

Dr Insa Nolte, president of the African Studies Association of the UK, which hosted the conference, is outraged by Attah’s treatment, and in particular the apparent gender bias. “That visa officers think it appropriate to make their judgments based on a woman’s marital status in relation to her husband’s travel plans is staggering,” she says.

Attah’s case is far from isolated. At least 14 African academics couldn’t attend the same conference because of visa problems – the society suspects the actual number may be much higher. Academics from different disciplines across the UK are reporting similar frustrations, warning that Britain is quietly closing its doors and damaging vital academic collaboration.

“It is extremely worrying,” says Nolte, a reader in African studies at the University of Birmingham. “We’ve seen the refusal of people who are clearly credible and have absolutely no intention of staying in this country.”

Nolte and her colleagues wrote to everyone invited to the conference asking for evidence about visa refusals because they were shocked about the high numbers of African academics being turned away. Their findings, published on their website, suggested that academics who had provided all the right documents on time were given “dubious reasons” for being denied a visa.