Before international research cooperation lies the UK border

Published 29 January 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

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I am just finishing a three-years EU FP7 funded project EUmagine - Imagining Europe from the outside. Last week, the international project consortium held the final project conference in Brussels to present our findings to a mixed EU, international and national policy-maker and academic audience. This was an important element in our dissemination strategy (which now is an important element in any research proposal). It was only too logic that we also present our findings at our host institute COMPAS here in Oxford; for this purpose, because we were all already in Brussels, I also invited my colleague from Ukraine with whom COMPAS collaborated for three years in a 'geographic duo team' (GDT, our funders, the EU liked the idea of a non-Eurocentric management structure).

In our field, international migration, it is almost inevitable that we collaborate with colleagues from others countries and often from those where migrants come from. Indeed, some of the countries we study are perceived by policy and public as migrant sending, even as sending countries of irregular immigrants. It has always been a hassle to engage in such collaborations because our colleagues normally need two visas, one for the Schengen area and one for the UK, and this takes double time and money. I was once asked by a colleague from Ukraine or Russia, I can't remember which, to come to Brussels for a meeting as she did not want to apply for this extra visa to the UK.

So between Brussels and London, and between the idea and the seminar there is the 'UK Border'.
My colleague, assistant professor at her university, holds an academic visa for the UK. It is her second visa of this kind, she has been to the UK before as visiting academic on the very same project, on this and her previous visa. She also travels frequently to other EU destinations for similar activities, so her passport is full of visa and stamps, entry&exit, entry&exit. Therefore, I just invited her and we did not bother much about immigration matters as this seemed just another routine visit for academic purposes. But when we arrived at the border late at night, the flight was delayed due to the bad winter weather, I was through within minutes; but then I was waiting for her and she didn't turn up. So I went back to check what was going on: there were no queues at Heathrow (unusually) only a handful of non-EU passengers. But several immigration desks were open and she was held up by an immigration officer.
He began asking questions, or rather he was shooting questions at her without giving her much time to think, 'what is the purpose of your visit' (seminar, and then visit some library), 'do you have an invitation' (no), 'do you have a return flight' (no because I might need to leave early), 'where do you stay' (at this address), 'how long do you stay' (maximum 21 days, terms is over in Ukraine), 'do you work in the UK (no).

The immigration officer then took her passport, issued a paper explaining what he did and went towards some offices. I took the opportunity to approach and ask if there is a problem and he immediately shot questions at me, 'who are you' (colleague so and so), 'what's the purpose of the visit' (EU-funded project, international cooperation, seminar), is it for the government' (no), 'does she work for you' (no, it's just a seminar). He went for some extra checks, whatever these are, and after about a long 20 minutes my colleague was allowed entry.

However, in the meantime, I as the invitee felt pretty bad. I was shaken, not to mention my colleague, I felt somehow guilty as I through my invitation had exposed her to this rather uncomfortable situation. I also became angry because this case illustrates the complications imposed on us by immigration law with respect to international collaboration with colleagues from outside the EU. Ok, my colleague had no invitation printed out and no return ticket but she has a visa, it was her second entry on this visa, exactly as stated on the visa application 9 months earlier (one stay as visiting academic, one visit for a seminar) a clean visa record and in the past she was not required, recommended or asked these documents.

What issues does this situation expose?
For me one of the issues is the inconsistency in the immigration control. Twice there was no request for an invitation for the individual visit (but there was of course the initial invitation required for the visa application) or the return ticket but on the third occasion there was this new expectation by the immigration officer. So what is the rule, what is it one needs to prepare colleagues for, what is it I as invitee must provide?

The other issue is that UK immigration policy and control complicates international research collaboration, notably through the issue of needing two visa, for Schengen and for UK, and through the stress and even risks (of refused entry) colleagues encounter at the border.

I was requested by our university to read through the immigration rules to make sure that our non-EU colleagues, visiting academics and students act according to the rules. I was asked to explain to them what their status is and what type of visa they should apply for and I must say I found it hugely unpleasant and inadequate for the university to put me in this position.  I am a researcher and do not want to play any role in immigration control!