Visa rejection could have ‘chilling effect’ for Edinburgh Fringe

Pressure is building on the UK Government over rejections and crippling delays in granting artists visas for the Fringe Festival.
Pressure is building on the UK Government over rejections and crippling delays in granting artists visas for the Fringe Festival.
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Pressure is building on the UK Government following rejections and crippling delays over granting artists’ visas for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

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The leading Scottish playwright David Greig is now among those warning that the “chilling effect” for Edinburgh festival participants has put the Fringe’s open door in danger, limiting the event to middle class European and American performers.

Two Syrian shows in the Arab Arts Focus, called the first significant showcase of Arab contemporary theatre and performance in the 70 year history of the Edinburgh Fringe, have now been hit by immigration woes, with one already cancelled.

All the visa applications for the Egyptian team organising the event, whose backers include the British Council, were also turned down, said the lead curator French-Egyptian festival director Ahmed Al Attar, who said “the whole visa thing is just killing us”.

Al Attar, Greig, and others question why established performers and artists are being hindered from travel.

Greig said: “The artists in the Arab world are some of the few people who can instigate the kind of change that we all hope for on all levels, and blocking them from coming, from travelling, from coming out of there and showing the work and meeting their counterparts is just plain stupid.”

The new row follows a public warning this weekend by the director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Nick Barley, that “British culture will be damaged” following a visa rejection for a prominent Iranian children’s author. “How can we combat stereotypes and reduce prejudice in UK if author visas are denied?”

There appears a building groundswell of frustration among organisers and performers, who question why established artists or actors, often invited with backing from the British Council or international arts foundations, can’t get visa processed and approved in time. In London, the Shubbak Festival of Arab arts faced a “significant challenge” this year, organisers say.

As a leading Scottish playwright and lately artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Greig has been working with Middle Eastern artists for about 15 years, and is participating in the Arab focus show Chill Habibi this year. But the visa process is now so entangled that he knows of several artists who simply can’t bear to try, he said.

“My experience is it is very ,very difficult,” Greig explained, “and it is essentially off putting how difficult it is to get any sort of visa for artists to come to make work or do festivals. That sense of the chilling effect is definitely there.”

With onerous visa restrictions running from demands for financial statements to daily reporting in the UK, “it is getting to be ridiculous”.

“I understand that there are countries that the government will want to keep a particular eye on and so forth, but I do think that there is a particular problem when arts is often the means by which we are able to communicate with another culture, and that’s precisely what’s being hindered here. That feels like a deeper issue.

“With the economics and visa issue is that there is a danger of the Fringe drifting into an event for middle class British, Western European and American young people for whom it’s viable to turn up and perform.”

The finger of blame has been laid at the door of a privatised visa processing system, contracting from an already limited number of hubs in the Middle East, to mostly operating through Sheffield. Where visas aren’t refused outright, delays alone can drive performers costs, particularly air fares, sky high.

Organisers of the Arab Arts Focus confirmed to The Scotsman that one Edinburgh show, The Elephant, Your Majesty!, put together by Syrian teenage refugees in the Lebanon has been cancelled entirely. The issue in this case, however, was because they feared they would not be able to get back into Lebanon without formal residence permits there, leaving the refugee youths stranded.

But the director and two actors in a major Syrian show, Your Love is Fire, by Syrian emigres mostly based in Berlin, have not had visas granted. Already two other performers living in France, without full travel papers, had their parts rewritten to cover their absence.