Perhaps by laying out the financial and emotional toll of getting a visa, the UK Home Office will be forced to see me as a human being.
This essay is part of a six-part series guest edited by Nanjala Nyabola. Additional editing by Ayodeji Rotinwa. Illustrations by Diana Ejaita.
On 26 March 2019, I was invited to present on a panel on literary activism in African Literature at the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS). I was excited to learn and share my paper on e-book publishing in Nigeria with academics across the world.
The icing on the cake: it was an all-expense paid trip. The lump in the flour: I had to get my visa.
It was the first time I applied for a UK visa so I did my research. The list of requirements was long, but it mentally prepared me for the arduous road ahead. I spent hours filling an online form, each question flaying me open for the scrutiny of the UK Border Service. Then, I carried my question-stripped self to spend additional hours at TLSContact office, the outsourcing company for document submission and biometrics.
I also put together all the money they asked. The ordinary visitor visa officially cost $126 but I also paid an additional $109.81 to TLSContact for Premium Service and $26.15 for file uploads. TLSContact specialises in placing stumbling blocks on the road of your application. You must pick a date to submit but there is no real choice: the self-service option is hardly available, and you are forced to select the more expensive Premium Service option.
But the biggest cost was the emotional toll of the process.
The application questions treat applicants like they are being suspected of a crime: How much do you earn? How much money are you planning to spend on your visit to the UK? How much money will they be paying towards your visit? Have you as part of your employment or otherwise undertaken paid or unpaid activity on behalf of a non-UK government which you know to be dangerous to the interests or national security of the UK or its allies? Have you ever engaged in any other activities which might indicate you may not be considered to be a person of good character?
Straitjacket questions with no respect for individuality. Straitjacket eyes looking at responses and assuming that we all want to run away to the UK.
As a freelance writer, my payments are irregular. My account status at the time of application had changed and become better as I received some payment for work done before I got my bank statements. If the officer took their time to look through the statement, they would see clearly that it was for writing and editing work done, not just to bloat my account.
Yet, I wondered: what does the state of my account have to do with my application when the entire trip is sponsored? Why is it that my rootedness in my country – my entire family is here which I proved with marriage as well as birth certificates – did not matter? Why would anyone think that I am interested in leaving everything here to go and become a fugitive in a strange land? These questions made me turn in my bed at night.
My application was rejected.
“You have said that your sponsors will fund the trip… I must be satisfied with your own personal circumstances and not just your travel expenses which I noted will be covered. In the light of the above and on the balance of probabilities, I am not satisfied that you are genuinely seeking entry as a visitor for a limited period not exceeding 6 months or that you intend to leave the UK at the end of your visit.”
That keyword “probabilities” was the snag. What are these probabilities? Who determines them? Why would you shut down appeal options based on unknown “probabilities”? As I turned these questions in my mind, I was also too busy, too shocked to know the next line of action. I’d spent so much trying to get this visa that was refused. I spoke with the organisers who advised a re-application, along with a six-month account statement. The embassy requires only three. In addition, I got a letter of support from an organisation for which I freelance.
To submit my documents to reapply, I arrived at TLSContact by 6:45am. At 8am, the security personnel picked only about thirty people on the queue and told the rest of us to return the next day. I was furious as I had travelled from Ibadan, where I live, the day before to make the appointment time. It was that anger that forced my fingers to call out the UK Embassy in Nigeria on Twitter while I was still in line. I got immense support immediately from other people who also shared their visa application experiences. After three hours, I decided I’d had enough and went back to my friend’s house in Lagos where I was staying.
About 2pm, at my friend’s house, I saw the mail from the UK Home Office.
The email read: “Please note that your visa decision has been overturned. Please submit your passport to the Visa Application Centre with a copy of this e-mail. Once we have confirmation that the passports have been received, we will send out a new decision to be endorsed on your passport. Thank you.”
I did as I was told; I got the visa. But none of these four sentences from the UK Home Office acknowledged the indignities of the visa application process.
I spent at least three hours filling the form online and reviewing documents. There were queues at the bank to get account statements. There was time spent sitting on buses travelling from Ibadan to Lagos. I lost a workday waiting in line at TLS Contact, going from one seat to the next like children playing musical chairs. By the end of the day, I slept in Lagos as I could not make the return trip back home. And I did this twice.
This emotional cost is a sunk one: time spent that can never be recovered. How do you pay back for lost time? How does the UK Home Office acknowledge emotional costs when it cannot be seen or measured?
There were financial costs, too, related to paperwork; from bank statement printing, to scanning of all your documents, to transportation to and fro the venue. After 28 days, I got a refund for the second visa fee but to whom shall I send my invoice for these non-receipted miscellaneous fees?
While I waited in line, for my second application, I spoke to some of the people around me. A man from Benin had his visa refused because his inviting organisation did not put their phone number on their letterhead. The previous night, he slept at a church in Lagos as he could not return to Benin and be back early enough to supplement his application.
A mother with three children was travelling for her studies; her eldest child was wondering why he was being pushed around in the queue. Another student had her admission hanging in the balance if she did not get her student visa. I was not alone. We were all bound together, looking into the eye of the British visa god, hoping that our sacrifices would be accepted. Despite our efforts, we had no idea whether our supplications would be a pleasant or offensive offering, an acceptance or a rejection.
I attended the conference and returned to Nigeria, but the toll of my experience remains with me. Those two decisions, to “reject” and “overturn the rejection” came at costs beyond the visa fees. Getting the visa does not invalidate these hidden costs. Perhaps by laying them out in the open, the UK Home Office will be forced to see me as a human being. Will they ever compensate applicants for their indiscriminate decisions?
Further, a visa rejection has permanent consequences for future visa applications to many countries. Like an ex-convict, you forever carry a “rejected” stamp on your head. When asked “have you ever been refused?”, does the “overturn”, as in my case, invalidate the “refusal”?
How do I answer? Yes or no?