Illustration by Brian Rea.

New Order on the Border: United Kingdom Shuts Out the Arts


The initiation of a new points-based system (PBS) for immigration by the United Kingdom Border Agency in November 2008 has sparked considerable controversy in the British arts community. Due to more stringent visa requirements, increased costs for arts organizations, excessive delays in the processing of visas and a culture of suspicion toward short- term visitors, a significant number of creative arts events that would have involved artists from non-European Union countries have been canceled across the nation. 

According to the UK Border Agency, the PBS aims to enhance the UK economy by selecting immigrants for their desirable skills, qualifications and financial self-sufficiency, while streamlining the bureaucratic process for employers or host organizations to bring migrants to the UK and supporting cultural exchange; this claim has been challenged by emerging evidence over the past ten months.

Previous regulations required that non-EU artists provide an invitation letter explaining the purpose of their visit to support a visa application. New regulations allow free entry and the right to work in Britain for nationals of the European Economic Area (EEA), a grouping that incorporates the 27 EU nations and three additional members of the European Free Trade Association, while all individuals outside this area require elaborate entry clearance that involves submission of biometric data (ten-digit finger scans and a digital photograph), documentation to prove qualifications or identity, evidence of GBP 800 (USD 1,300) in savings and an in-person visa application. This final requirement means that an artist based in Iraq, for example, now faces a 900 km journey to the closest UK visa office in Beirut. UK arts producers, for their part, must register as a sponsor, prove their credibility, pay a sponsor’s licence fee ranging from £300–1,000 ($500-1,600) and comply with duties of surveillance over their visitors. 

In June 2009, galvanized by reports of threatened arts events, arts advisor and producer Manick Govinda published a report with the Manifesto Club—which campaigns against restrictions on social freedomsentitled “UK Arts and Culture: Cancelled by Order of the Home Office.” It circulated the testimonies of nearly 100 artists, arts professionals and academics from the UK and around the world, documenting cases of artists outside the EEA enduring major financial and bureaucratic hurdles and, in certain cases, incompetent and aggressive behavior from border officials.

Following numerous delays and official hostility during attempts to apply for a visa at the British Embassy in Tehran, acclaimed Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami sent his assistant to direct a production of Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte at the English National Opera in his place. The process was disrespectful, according to the artist’s official statement, as well as “unduly time-consuming and hugely complicated.” Huang Xu was refused a visa to open his February exhibition at October Gallery, a career milestone UK debut for the Chinese artist. The Ledbury Poetry Festival was forced to cancel events featuring poets Dorothea Rosa Herliany from Indonesia and Hassan Najmi and Ouidad Benmoussa from Morocco due to denied visas. Responses from immigration staff revealed that these artists, from developing countries and with low incomes, constituted a “high risk” of being disingenuous visitors who might overstay their visas.

British artists can travel and participate in cultural events in many non-EU countries, such as Morocco, Senegal and Indonesia, without reciprocal visa regulations and official suspicion. Considering these facts, the UK government’s advice that employers should recruit from EU countries before selecting migrants from the rest of the world, and the claim that the new rules assure fairness and equality for “everyone,” suggests instead a policy of selective discrimination. 

A report on the future of creative Britain by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport strongly advocates that the UK be open to ideas and talent from around the world, and maintain the principles of an open society, in order to remain “in the vanguard of the world’s creative economy.” Heightened immigration restrictions, however, remain a high priority to national security policy, itself influenced by political fears brought about by the global war on terror, unemployment in the UK and declining international influence. Prioritizing migrants from the EU and penalizing or rejecting genuine applicants from the rest of the world is damaging both longstanding and new international cultural relationships, and impeding the mutual traffic of 21st-century ideas and perspectives.

A similar shift toward closed borders is evident in the immigration policies of other developed nations, namely the United States, Australia, Canada and Spain, which explicitly discourage the recruitment of foreign workers and tighten restrictions on humanitarian migration. While the theoretical promise of globalization is increased mobility and opportunities for all, these policies perpetuate exclusion and global inequality, and explicitly target vast numbers of people living in the most politically, socially and economically vulnerable regions of the world.