Britain is open for business? Not for African artists coming to Womad | Ian Birrell

A humiliating visa process is stopping musicians from performing here – a grim sign of our post-Brexit future

Moonchild Sanelly oozes star quality. When musicians from Africa Express – the organisation I co-founded – went to South Africa earlier this year to make some recordings, they were blown away by her. A huge mop of blue hair, an engaging personality and distinctive vocals, she ended up on so many tracks that one visitor joked they were making her solo album. When the collective played in Johannesburg, Damon Albarn hailed an emerging superstar after she performed.

But British audiences must wait to see this fabulous artist. For Moonchild is the latest African performer to fall foul of our “hostile environment” on migration, forcing her to cancel three planned shows in this country after spending almost £500 for the visa application. She handed over all the demanded documents, which range from checked bank statements through to insurance details, and took two days to collate, only to be seemingly tripped up on a financial discrepancy largely caused by fluctuating exchange rates.

Her case is far from unique. Obtaining visas for non-European artists coming to Britain has long been a nightmare, even for world-famous stars. Two years ago Africa Express sought visas for 50 Syrians to tour a re-formed orchestra, one of the most stressful things I have ever attempted. Everything was still up in the air for a tour costing more than £500,000 just days before the first show – which was due to be joined by the likes of Paul Weller and Rachid Taha. Thankfully, it was well worth the effort in the end. But this gut-wrenching process seems to be getting tougher amid a rising tide of nationalism and post-Brexit paranoia.

Chris Smith, the director of this weekend’s Womad festival, told the Radio Times that for the first time musicians had rejected invitations rather than face the “humiliation” of confronting Britain’s visa services. “Culture is being crushed as politicians lurch to the right,” he said. “My fear is the situation is only going to get worse.” Yet this is a time when divided communities need the soothing balm of art and unifying power of music reaching across borders more than ever.

Those involved in promoting music from abroad swap horror stories. Womad had to cancel one act after British officials put the wrong date in their visas and shelled out £15,000 on emergency visas for another artist last year. One famous African group’s manager was shocked recently to find charges of almost £7,000 to obtain visas for his touring party – and these only last three months. “It is not really worth coming any more,” he told me sadly. This was echoed by a leading booking agent, who said artists were being deterred by the complexity, the costs and the lack of humanity in an outsourced system. “Often the officers on the borders don’t know their own rules but it’s the artists who get punished,” he added.

It is bad enough that passports are handed over for weeks, preventing artists working, but then they must sit in hotels for days after flying across continents for biometric tests. These are, bear in mind, people from poorer parts of the planet trying to develop careers by visiting a nation that proclaims creative leadership and a desire to improve the world. Sadly, they are often frozen out by costs or confronted by condescending attitudes. I have heard also from Kenyan charity workers, Nigerian entrepreneurs and Ghanaian techies outraged at being treated like illegal immigrants when seeking visas to visit Britain for business from their fast-growing countries.

Such issues pale beside bigger problems such as the soaring death rate of migrants crossing the Mediterranean amid the surge of fearful populism. But when artists from developing nations reject the platform to perform at one of our best-known festivals, this should be a warning sign. For it symbolises the hypocrisy of politicians who boast about global Britain, only to then tighten borders, rip off foreigners and treat visitors with contempt.

Sadly, the message going out is that Britain is closed for business and culture – from some places at least.

• Ian Birrell is co-founder of Africa Express, a collaborative music project


Ian Birrell

The GuardianTramp

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