Imagine … your daughter has found an opportunity to spend a year abroad volunteering in a community charity. She will build an interesting CV, learn another language and culture, make lifelong friends, and make a positive contribution to society. The charity is small, so a volunteer will make a real difference to their work.
Their client group, who are people with disabilities and other factors that prevent them from travelling, will get to know someone from another country, another world. A local family will gain income by renting a room to the volunteer, and the wider community will be enriched by welcoming a young outsider. It’s all fully funded through an official scheme, with accommodation, travel and insurance provided. You could never dream of paying for all this yourself.
Volunteering: associated costs and paperwork
Your daughter will need a visa. It’s expensive – over £200. And there’s a risk: if for any reason the visa is refused, she’ll lose the money anyway. But you decide it’s worth finding it somehow. Why should she be refused? She is not a criminal, and has no intention of overstaying.
To apply for her visa, she must provide a certified copy of her entire passport (yes, entire, including the covers), signed and stamped letters from several organisations, copies of agreements, detailed descriptions of the volunteering duties, the precise place of work, residential address and so on. On her arrival, the host charity must report to the authorities. If she leaves their location for any reason, they must report. If she wants to go home for Christmas – well, she can’t. The visa permits only a single entry.
You then learn that she must also pay a £600 health service surcharge, despite having insurance. You don’t know where to find this money. That’s not the end of it: she must also prove that she has over £1,200 in her bank account – not a one-off payment, but continuously over several months. This is way beyond your family’s means. Tearfully, your daughter tells the friendly people in the charity that she can’t afford to come.
Where and in what era is this hostile country? The Soviet Union in the 1950s? North Korea? Bokassa’s Central African Empire? No. This is the United Kingdom today, in the 21st century.
New immigration rules mean that young people coming from the EU to the UK to study, volunteer or undertake unpaid work placements now require visas. Until this year, after offering a volunteering placement, you could expect a young person to arrive within a fortnight. Now you are looking at four to six months – if you are lucky.
Nevertheless, for young people funded by official programmes such as the European Solidarity Corps (ESC) or Erasmus Plus, a ‘Tier 5’ visa is available, on condition that they get a certificate of sponsorship from their host in this country. One might imagine this visa would be relatively simple to obtain. Given that small charities need help navigating the new system so as to keep their volunteering projects (and the hopes of young people) alive, news that the British Council, as the National Agency for these programmes, could provide the certificate came as some relief.
In practice, the system is a disaster. To understand the depth of the problem and the baleful apathy of the people responsible, you have to look at some of the detail.
British system: a nightmarish game of snakes and ladders
At first, the British Council provided no information at all. When they did, their guidelines proved difficult to follow. No training has been offered. Every organisation has been left to make sense of the rules alone. Information and advice are given selectively and indeed secretively to different people (some have actually been asked not to pass on information to each other).
Changes to requirements are made without notice, meaning that you may gather all your documentation only to find that the rules have changed and you are sent back to square one. It feels like a nightmarish game of snakes and ladders.
The staff dealing with these matters are junior, inexperienced and lacking authority to use common sense or reasonable professional judgment. Information is not shared between the unit responsible for the official programmes and the Tier 5 staff, leading to an inefficient duplication of effort.
One small charity, trying to bring five volunteers to a single project, had to communicate with a different member of staff for each volunteer, requiring repetition of information and pointless work. These staff also communicated directly and separately with the volunteers – a highly inappropriate practice, causing anxiety to young people who are already scared by the visa process and now feel threatened by demands from an unknown person for documents which they do not possess.
Off-putting bureaucracy for organisations and volunteers
“I am being honest, I am currently not doing very well and struggling with my mental health. Don´t get me wrong, I am still motivated and looking forward … it’s just this uncertain situation with all the bureaucracy that is kind of getting me down.”(Email from an ESC-approved volunteer, after 3 months trying to get a Tier 5 visa, November 2021)
Endless bureaucratic demands and delays undermine charities’ volunteering plans. Even if papers are in order, processing the certificate of sponsorship takes 11 weeks. Why so long (given that these are already approved projects under an official educational programme), is impossible to imagine. No explanation has been offered.
European programmes are aimed at young people ‘with fewer opportunities’. Yet the British Council has issued no advice to charities on whether their grants can be used to cover their visa fees and NHS surcharges. Similarly, visa applicants must prove they hold over £1,200 in their personal bank accounts. The British Council has publicly stated that Tier 5 visa applicants are exempt, but official visa information contradicts this. No technical guidance has been given on how to complete a visa application if and when a certificate of sponsorship is issued. The process is confusing. No one knows who to believe or what to advise young people.
British Council could do more
The British Council and their commercial partner Ecorys UK say that they cannot influence Home Office policies. While technically this may be true, the fact remains that at the most senior level they could alleviate the effects of these policies by making the case for the official programmes that they manage – and by taking a moral stand for the rights of young people. They should be helping charities to manage the new visa processes, by making their own procedures as seamless, efficient and humane as possible, and by providing leadership. As things stand, precisely the opposite is happening, and young people are suffering.
A cynic might say the Tier 5 process has been deliberately made as convoluted as possible, in the hope that young volunteers will not come to the UK, or that charities will decide the difficulties are not worth the candle, and cancel their projects. This is already happening.
But the UK is still a member of Erasmus Plus and the ESC for projects funded under the 2014–2020 programme. There is an obligation to enable the successful implementation of these projects. Sadly, the British Council and Ecorys UK appear to have washed their hands of them.
The British Council is one of our prized cultural institutions: it is supposed to care about cultural and educational relations, and the intercultural learning of young people. It needs to replace weak leadership and bureaucratic enforcement with people-centred engagement, empathy and service.
The day will come
In Menotti’s opera The Consul, a desperate young woman in an unnamed totalitarian state is trapped in endless waiting rooms as she tries to get a visa to the West. In one of the greatest arias in all opera, she addresses the consular secretary:
“To this we’ve come, that men withhold the world from men … Is there anyone behind those doors to whom the heart can still be explained? Is there anyone who still may care? … Oh, the day will come, I know, when our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains. That day neither ink nor seal shall cage our souls. That day will come!”From The Counsul, by Menotti
That opera does not end happily. But ours still might. We owe it to every young person, to sing aloud for them: “that day will come”.
You can support the national campaign for a youth visa by signing the petition here.
This article is based on an open letter to the chief wxecutive of the British Council and the Managing Director of Ecorys UK. A longer version can be found here.