LONDON — Health and development researchers have warned that difficulties in getting travel visas for professionals from low-income countries has become a major barrier to access and inclusion, after at least 17 researchers were unable to attend the Women Leaders in Global Health conference in the United Kingdom this week.
Fourteen researchers from sub-Saharan Africa and three from Asia were blocked from attending the two-day event, hosted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London.
Speaking during the opening plenary on Thursday, Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at LSHTM, said the visa denials were tantamount to “discrimination.”
“This is not just about equity and rights; we’re missing out on a major amount of talent … This is not good for science,” Larson said.
She also read letters from some of those who had been denied entry, including Abrar M. Alalim, president of Ahfad University for Women Students' Union in Sudan. Alalim was told by the U.K. Home Office that her academic background was not clearly related to the topic of the conference, despite being a fifth year medical student with an invitation letter from LSHTM.
A number of researchers said on Twitter that they had been denied entry to last year’s conference despite having been given scholarships.
Speaking to Devex at the event, International President of Médecins Sans Frontières Dr. Joanne Liu said it was a common problem for staff.
“We have that all the time with MSF ... We have general assembly and then all our personnel from specific countries, mainly from Africa and the Middle East, they never make it,” she said, adding that in an attempt to tackle the problem, the organization has started issuing invitations to staff a year in advance.
Wafaa El-Sadr, director of ICAP, an HIV research program at Columbia University, who has dual United States and Egyptian nationality, told Devex, “it’s a very serious issue, and it causes enormous distress for people ... It’s beyond just coming to a meeting for two days. It has huge personal implications for the person who is denied a visa.”
LSHTM’s Director Peter Piot warned the visa restrictions compromised the U.K.’s ability to be a leader in global health research and that the school was considering hosting its events abroad to make them more accessible.
“If the UK wants to establish itself as a global hub for health and science, the current visa restrictions represent a significant threat to that goal,” he wrote in a letter to the Home Office.
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was unable to attend a previous event at LSHTM for visa reasons. A recent report by the Wellcome Trust found that 25 percent of academics from African and Asian countries have experienced visa issues.
A Home Office spokesperson told Devex: “All U.K. visa applications are considered on their individual merits and in line with U.K. immigration rules and guidance … In addition to any support provided by a sponsor, decision-makers will take account of an applicant’s own personal and financial circumstances in assessing whether the application meets the requirements of the Immigration Rules.”