On 24 April 2017, a boat carrying 25 Syrian and Afghan refugees was shipwrecked in the Aegean Sea while making the crossing from Ayvacik in Turkey to Lesbos in Greece. Of the 16 people discovered dead, one was found hugging his violin case. He was Baris Yazgi, a 22-year-old Turkish citizen musician who was undertaking the risky crossing in order to reach Belgium, following the rejection of his Schengen visa application to the Belgian Consulate in Istanbul.
As reported in Turkish media accounts of the tragedy, Baris’s family migrated from Eastern Anatolia to Istanbul in 1999, fleeing the armed conflict between Turkish armed forces and Kurdish PKK militias. As a result of poverty he was unable to attend high school and started work at an early age. His life changed four years ago when he was given a violin as a gift for his birthday. Attending free courses run by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, he learned to play his violin and began composing and playing music on the streets or at birthday parties. In 2016 he went to Belgium irregularly to visit his older brother who had been working in restaurants there. Once in Belgium he enrolled in a language course, met with some music groups, and formed the idea of enrolling in a music school in Belgium and becoming a violin virtuoso. He returned to Istanbul, working in hotels to earn money to realise his dream. His application for a visa was, however, rejected on the grounds that he did not have sufficient funds. In deciding to return to Belgium irregularly he spent much of his money on organising his passage across the Aegean alongside a group of refugees, hoping to make his hopes a reality.
There are, unfortunately, many tragic narratives such as that of Baris Yazgi. His story forces us in particular to reflect on the inherent inequities that characterise migration in our times. If you are ‘high-skilled’ or a businessperson you may obtain a visa to look for a job, such as the Ankara Agreement for the UK, but if you are ‘low-skilled’, or a poor student like Baris, your hopes are so much more difficult to realise. Having exhausted legal means of travel, you may even become one of those who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean, or on other deadly routes to Europe. Some experts in the so-called ‘Global North’ might then suggest policies to stop such movement, without questioning the roots of the phenomenon. Recommending that Belgium donates funds to the ‘Global South’ to open music schools there, for instance, so that young musicians can find employment in their own (‘Southern’) countries, would not be a solution. Although there is much to be said on the topic, here I do not want to discuss Europe’s migration and asylum policies. Experts continue to advocate for safe and legal channels for people to seek asylum, which is a universal right. Rather, in this blog post, I would like to focus on visa application processes for tourism, work or education.
States Must Respect Visa Applicants
When my non-UK EU-citizen colleagues are struck, following the UK’s decision to exit the EU, with consternation about the long list of questions and documents that are required to obtain work or residence permits, I only smile: welcome to the club. Turkish, Chinese, Indian and Arab citizens, alongside the majority of the global population, have long faced such detailed and even absurd questions when attempting to obtain visas to enter various countries, including those of the EU. I could write at length about my thoughts on why all these personal documents are demanded by the consulates, what happens to them afterwards, and how much money is earned from the visa fees. For the purposes of this piece, however, I would like to focus on two of the most serious issues – accountability and transparency.
The visa application process is designed to uncover whether the applicant has sufficient resources and a sincere motivation for visiting any given country. And yes, all states have full sovereignty over their territories to decide who will enter and for how long. But applicants as human beings have rights as well and they deserve respect. Requests for documents must focus only on relevance to the application. The list of criteria and information on evaluation periods must be clear. There must be easy mechanisms for applicants to appeal rejections. And there must be a complaint mechanism for applicants who face racist and discriminatory behaviour during their application process or at border control. These principles, of course, are not currently widely applied. For what reason do current procedures request so many documents, including the financial and family history of applicants together with their all personal information, including ID number, bank account information and even fingerprints? Could we consider this as a further manifestation of growing intelligence gathering, by using the visa regime to collect information about the population of another country or countries?
Consistency as a Watchword for Visa Policy
Even if you submit the same documents to different EU states which belong to the Schengen area, as each state has its own evaluation policy, each will grant a visa for a different period of time. You may receive a three-month visa from Spain, a six-month visa from Italy or a six-day visa from Belgium, for example. As well as the expensive visa application fees, you spend days collecting all the required documentation, and further days waiting with concern to learn whether or not you have been granted a visa. Even if you are successful, you must worry about the timing, and all for a simple tourist visit or to attend a training course.
Such applications, furthermore, must and should be immune from political interests. The Turkish media has reported that the Dutch consulate suspended the granting of visas to Turkish citizens during the recent political crisis between the two countries. The economic interests of both countries have not been affected by this crisis; rather, it is ordinary people in Turkey or Turkish immigrants in the Netherlands who must face the results of souring relations.
And it is not consulates themselves who administer visa applications, collecting documents including fingerprints; rather sub-contractor companies are commissioned to do so. Applicants then do not have any chance of direct contact with the consulate. There is also need to consider: 1) who exactly are these companies, 2) what information security measures do they provide, and 3) in what way they are accountable for their work if, for example, unscrupulous companies or unscrupulous individuals within them might use these personal documents for other reasons.
Peace and Destiny
In other spheres there is a broad literature on corporate responsibility, NGO and multi-stakeholder initiatives, workers’ unions who are constantly monitoring transnational corporations, and transnational companies who in turn have their own departments and publications dedicated to monitoring performance against accountability and transparency targets. This trend, however, has not been adopted by the global visa industry. No such initiatives uphold the rights of visa applicants and demand accountability from states to explain their evaluating processes, their fees, or their policy of sub-contracting. And in turn there is also no such monitoring of these sub-contractor visa applicant centres.
While for many their encounters with visa application processes result only – and I use the term ‘only’ advisedly – in frustration (albeit with deeper concerns about transparency and accountability), we must consider the ways in which this is intertwined with more extreme outcomes, such as the tragic case of Baris Yazgi. The talented young musician has a first name which means ‘peace’ and a surname which means ‘destiny’ in Turkish. In our work towards a better and more peaceful world in which those like Baris are able to achieve their destiny it is my view that we must reform inequitable and opaque visa regimes so that the hopes of people like him can find fulfilment in alternatives to dangerous crossings which often, as in this case, end so tragically.