Monday 6 August 2007

20,000 Nigerians Denied British Visa

Getting a visa in Nigeria

Statistics and numbers sometimes tell stories depending on what kind of derived interpretation one wants to give concerning the data.

I remember some 20 or so years ago when I first had to visit the United Kingdom for business, I was a partner in a printing firm where I managed the new technology aspects of desktop publishing having been involved in major Nigerian legal publications using the same techniques.

The plan was to acquire new computers and peripherals to help grow the business and I had a clear idea of what I wanted to get.

My parents had neglected obtaining my long birth certificate soon after I was born in the U.K., so I had to go through the hurdles of getting my British passport in Nigeria.

I was completely put off by the waiting times to get a British passport, 18 months at the least, but it was the cheapest option and there was no time. So, I applied for a Single entry visa and got that all arranged in just a week.

English, German & French programming

What was interesting was how the conversation went whilst the consulate officer was trying to persuade me to go for the "Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode" (CERA) which was the equivalent of a British citizenship in a Nigerian passport but it did not really appeal to me.

I had enough information to prove why I was visiting the U.K., I had the means for what I wanted to do and had a business I was running in Nigeria, there was no reason for me to get stuck in the U.K. even though I could have claimed the entitlement eventually.

In fact, the interview was more like a discussion when the first question he asked after seeing my job title of Computer Field Engineer was name three computer languages - BASIC, ForTRAN and CoBOL were my answers, he then told me of a so-called Computer Science graduate who gave English, German and French as answers.

I expressed surprise as he shared other funny jokes about pretenders who misrepresented themselves and gotten caught out. Later, I learnt that putting in the postcode of an address wrongly could catch you out so easily, you just needed an A-to-Z of the city in the U.K. and your application ended up in the scrapheap.

Honesty breeds confidence and assurance

Having worked with lawyers, my case was quite complete when I presented the Men of Achievement 1977 in which my father featured, corroborating the fact that he was in the U.K. when I was born and many more things you can derive from that.

Going through Nigerian customs checks was a bit fraught if not nerve-racking when a pregnant customs officer decided to pocket my passport because I had nothing for her - I never understood Nigeria, I doubt if I ever would.

Getting to immigration in England, the immigration official asked about my business and I told him I had come to shop around for computer equipment for desktop publishing. Then he enquired about the application I used for desktop publishing - well, that was Xerox Ventura Publisher with Professional Extension - "You are free to go, Sir", he said, "and enjoy your trip".

How could I have known that you should not be roaming the corridors of Hoddle Promenade North in Peckham Rye Estate at night with ₤5,000 in my pocket, don't worry, nothing happened to me, I met my friend, did what I came to do in England and returned two weeks later with a copy of my long birth certificate and the equipment I came to get.

Opportunities U.K.

I was however, taken aback by the lack of knowledge and understanding of computers in shops, I ended up demonstrating to the shop experts how software worked and sometimes the equipment too, it made me think I did have a strong place in the U.K. market if I did ever decide to emigrate.

When I eventually decided to go for the "Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode" in my Nigerian passport because I just was not waiting 18 months to save 80% of the cost for a British passport, I was asked why I did not take it when it was first offered and well, I did not have the time to wait for it then, however, this time, I did not want to return again and again for a visa to visit where I by rights should be able to visit without let or hindrance.

Again, it ended up a friendly discussion as I expected and all was done within weeks.

Forms, comprehension and tales

I remember soon after settling in England, a number of friends planned a trip to the Netherlands and two of our group had the CERA, so it meant visiting the BeNeLux embassy to get a visa. As we got there, there were so many Nigerians seeking a visa for all sorts of business, we just filled in the simple forms and said we were going for a weekend.

One lady approached us and asked how to fill in the forms, there were no difficult questions in the form from what I could see - Name, Address, Destination and probably the hardest question of all was State Purpose of Visit.

This lady approached the first counter and said she was going to buy cars in the Netherlands but could not provide details of dealerships or necessary funds to conduct such a business, her story was turning into a bit of yarn that the consulate officer asked her step back and think over what she was trying to do.

Hardly, five minutes after that encounter, she was at the adjacent counter saying she only wanted to take a 4-day holiday, so the other consular official popped his head round the counter saying challenging her new story with an utterly perplexed look. Without batting any eyelid she feign total ignorance and said she did not understand anything of the first conversation, my jaw dropped to the floor, but that set the atmosphere in which other Nigerians had to honestly present our applications and be treated at face value. We got our visas the next day.

28% British visa success

But this long story points to a situation related to the matter of statistics I raised at the beginning of this write up, the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr Richard Gozney paid one of those "courtesy calls" on the new Minister of Education and intimated that only 8,000 out of 28,000 visa applications had been granted to Nigerian applicants.

The news report though paints the picture in a headline of a different light - 20,000 Nigerians Denied British Visa - you may read whatever you want into this headline, but was clear why many of the applications failed from the diplomat's comments.

Many applications were improperly filled in or claims could not be properly verified and since the application itself forms the basis of deciding to grant a visa, quite a few would have failed the required threshold of acceptability to proceed to a processing state.

Besides, a few bad-apple applications would have raise the level of scepticism in the vetting process that even border-line but truthful applications would have fallen by the wayside leading to an arduous appeals process and many do eventually make it through.

Dealing with applications seriously

However, the number of those not qualifying for a visa is really very high and much as the Minister of Education entertained the diplomat, he should have expressed great concern about the stringent requirements and at the same time instituted a means to help Nigerians understand the meticulous and thorough preparation that should go into a visa application process.

It is not something to be done in a lackadaisical manner, the typical "idea la need" mentality (a wishy-washy attention to particular detail, sloppiness) is not good enough for such formal settings.

The black sheep destroying honest opportunity

Beyond that, many have applied for student visas and have abused the process such that it makes it difficult for honest Nigerians to state their case as objectively and honestly as they can without resorting to less-principled means.

I know I cannot begin to understand in any detail the travails of visa applications in Nigeria having chucked my Nigerian passport in for a British one within a week of returning from the trip to the Netherlands when because of the passport rather than the content we were held up in France for over an hour almost missing our ferry crossing back to England.

I sent in the application on Tuesday by post and the passport arrived in the post on Saturday hardly 5 days after. Was I impressed? You bet! But that was long ago.

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