Open Minds about Closed Borders

Very recently the UK Border Agency refused visas to visit Britain to one of the curators of the Shubbak festival, an annual celebration in London of modern Arab arts. Also vetoed were visas for two authors from Gaza. Earlier this year, said Boyd Tonkin of The Independent (on 29 June), “a deal-hungry literary agent from Turkey, guest of honour at the London Book Fair” was denied entry to Britain.

The UKBA’s latest stunt is to refuse a visa to a young woman coming to attend the 32nd annual Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, of which I am the chair. The Symposium meets from 5-7 July at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and the theme it will discuss this year is “Food and Material Culture.” Among the plenary speakers are Joan Smith, giving the third Jane Grigson Memorial Lecture, and Bee Wilson, talking about the subject from the standpoint of her new book, Consider the Fork. The guest chef this year is Stevie Parle of the Dock Kitchen in London. The would-be Symposiast is a Southeast Asian studying in one of the European Union countries.

Symposium 2013 Food & Material Culture

We have had prompt and vigorous help in discovering the grounds of her rejection by the UKBA from the office of my own MP, who happens to be the Prime Minister. UKBA has refused to grant her a visa for this weekend because her application to
extend her European visa has not yet been confirmed and they say they therefore cannot be certain that she can return to that country, which I suppose is fair enough. But they also say that they do not believe she has sufficient ties there to guarantee her return, and they seem to have concluded from this that there is not sufficient evidence that she will leave the UK at the end of her visit*.

Their reasons are not spurious. But they are not good reasons, either. It sounds to me as though some jobsworth has gone a bit power-crazed. The Symposium is a distinguished cultural body. Its president is Claudia Roden. Past speakers have included Jane Kramer, Prof. Marina Warner, Dame Margaret Drabble, Simon Schama, Prof. Sidney Mintz, Prof. Richard Wrangham; it is a registered charity, and many of its Trustees have names familiar to a wide public.

In any case, the Symposium is an important international cultural event, normally attended by people from 15 or 20 countries. Shouldn’t it be the task of the UKBA to facilitate such cultural exchanges, rather than hamper them? There are now several examples of the UKBA acting against the cultural and scholarly interests of the UK. Isn’t it time for the Home Secretary to have a quiet word with the head of the agency?

*Isn’t this last the sort of proposition that (as we were taught in Logic 101) is not susceptible to proof? Surely there is no kind of evidence for this that could be both necessary and sufficient, but only that would make her return probable or improbable. And isn’t the burden of proof on the UKBA to show that it is probable that she would stay or improbable that she would leave the UK after the Symposium?

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