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Writers humiliated by visa demands, Edinburgh book festival boss claims

Several authors due to speak at this year’s event have had difficulties getting permission to enter the UK.


The Ediburgh International Book Festival is part of the Scottish capital’s annual festival season (Jane Barlow/PA)

The Ediburgh International Book Festival is part of the Scottish capital’s annual festival season (Jane Barlow/PA)

The Ediburgh International Book Festival is part of the Scottish capital’s annual festival season (Jane Barlow/PA)

The UK’s reputation as a global arts venue could be seriously damaged if the problems some overseas artists have in obtaining visas worsen after Brexit, the director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival has warned.

Nick Barley said some of the writers due in the Scottish capital had been “humiliated” by the measures they had to go through to get permission to enter the country.

He said one author had had to supply his marriage certificate, his daughter’s birth certificate and bank statements, before then being sent for biometric testing.

Speakers at the book festival this year include Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of former US president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, who was the first woman to run for the White House, as well as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and former prime minister Gordon Brown.

The literary celebration is due to get under way on Saturday, but Mr Barley said they are still to get visas for four people scheduled to take part.

Maria Alyokhina of the Russian protest punk band Pussy Riot said she had been prevented from travelling to Edinburgh by Russian authorities, who said she had failed to perform a community service punishment handed out for her part in a Moscow protest.

Mr Barley said it is an “increasing problem” for guests to have issues getting the necessary permissions, with 12 authors having faced “serious problems” this year.

He told BBC Radio Scotland: “The stories I’m hearing from some of the authors from around the world are pretty devastating, I have to say.

“There was one author, I don’t want to name names, but he told me as well as having to supply his marriage certificate and his daughter’s birth certificate, and three years’ bank statements, he was then told he had to go in for a biometric test to prove he was who he claimed to be.

“He was so humiliated by that he decided he didn’t want to go through with the process of coming to Edinburgh to talk. I persuaded him to stick with it and thankfully we got the visa, but this is just one example of the kind of crazy things people are being made to do in the name of coming to talk about their books.

“The festival is going ahead as normal and we’re trying to resolve these issues, but I worry that is increasingly a problem. This year we’ve got round about 12 authors who have faced serious problems.

“We’ve managed to overcome nearly all of them, we’ve got four outstanding, and I think we will resolve them with any luck.

“But I think if this goes further we start to damage the reputation of the festivals, and we start to have authors wondering whether they can be bothered to go through that process of applying to come.”

While he said senior government officials in both Edinburgh and London had been trying to help, along with ambassadors and members of the British Council, Mr Barley claimed: “I think the immigration laws which have been set in the last few years have had this consequence on artistic travelling.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has tweeting about the issue, saying: “It is really not acceptable that one of the world’s most renowned and respected book festivals @edbookfest is being undermined in this way. The UK government needs to get it sorted.”

Mr Barley said that most of those who have had difficulties this year have been authors from the Middle East and parts of Africa.

But he warned: “Unless we act quickly after Brexit, this problem might also come to Europe.

“The visa issues that we’ve seen, which have largely been to do with authors coming from the Middle East and Africa, I foresee after Brexit we may have similar issues with authors and musicians coming from Europe. If that happens then we do seriously damage our chances of putting on a genuinely international festival.

“We want to put Scottish writers and artists on the international stage, but we have to be able to create the international stage on which to celebrate the Scottish work too.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “We welcome artists and musicians coming to the UK from non-EEA countries to perform.

“In the year ending December 2017, 99% of non-settlement visa applications were processed within 15 days and the average processing time in 2017 was just under eight days.

“Guidance on visa and entry clearance requirements is publicly available on gov.uk. Each case is assessed on its individual merits against the published immigration rules.”

Last month, Peter Gabriel said it was “alarming” that a number of musicians were unable to perform at his world music festival Womad in Wiltshire after they faced visa issues.

The former Genesis frontman said many musicians “no longer want to come to the UK because of the difficulty, cost and delays with visas, along with the new fear that they will not be welcomed”.

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