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Challenges and Barriers faced by people from the Global South in participating in global health conferences and symposia: My UK visa story

By Sorie Samura
on October 10, 2018

Emerging Voices for Global Health (EV4GH) is an innovative multi-partner blended training program for young, promising and emerging health policy & systems researchers, decisionmakers and other health system actors with an interest in becoming influential global health voices and/or local change makers. EV4GH coaches “Emerging Voices” to participate actively in international conferences where global health issues are addressed and to raise their voices in scientific and policy debates.

The 2018 call for Emerging Voices for Global Health had a special focus on increasing inclusiveness, equity and the participation of young people with a passion for strengthening health systems within their regions and countries, particularly in the global south. It did this by adding a second track which included activists, health journalists, knowledge brokers, patient advocates or anyone involved in advancing health equity and social justice in their regions.

It has always been my dream to contribute to improving access to health for the vulnerable people in my community and country, and I have done this in a variety of ways, particularly through my involvement in emergency preparedness and response in Sierra Leone. I was for instance, one of the responders during the  Ebola outbreak in which I nearly lost my life, as well as during the mudslides of last year. This, together with my advocacy role within the health system, made me eligible for the second track of EV4GH 2018.

One rainy evening, after 4 months of anxiously waiting for news of my application status, I received an email from the EV4GH secretariat with the subject (Important: Regarding your EV4GH 2018 application formal acceptance). I was thrilled with the sentence ‘’we are pleased to inform you that the committee has selected your application for the Emerging Voices for Global program 2018’’ which involves an online distance learning phase and face to face training in Liverpool ahead of the 5th Global Symposium on health system research. I had earned the golden ticket of being one of the select few, chosen through an elaborate meritorious peer review process, from among 537 applicants from 80 countries.

This marked the beginning of ‘’my Liverpool dream’’ which began on the 9th of July 2018 with a nine-week distance learning phase and an introduction to new skills and technologies such as the use of mind maps, multimedia principles, research/policy presentations, peer reviews of presentation and policy handouts. This whetted my appetite and increased my desire for further training in Liverpool. I was also looking forward to sharing with and learning from EV colleagues and other scholars attending the program, and having the opportunity to discuss my work, and the need to increase access to health for vulnerable people both in my country and in other places across the world.

The moment of nervousness finally came three weeks into my distance learning phase when the EV4GH secretariat, warning about the strict UK immigration policy and the fact that the process is sometimes tedious, advised me start my visa application process. Bearing this in mind, I decided to try to facilitate the process by requesting a visa support letter from the HRS2018 organizers, in addition to a visa support letter and invitation from the Emerging Voices Secretariat.

My UK visa application process started on the 2nd of August 2018, with me filling a 12page online visa application form which took two days to complete. I was then asked to pay the application fee of $207, an amount that is almost as much as my monthly income, and book an appointment with TLScontact Freetown Visa Application Centre for my biometric registration, taking along my passport and all the supporting documents including a hard copy of the online application form.

After three anxiety-filled weeks of tracking my application online, I finally got an email confirmation on the 28th of August that a decision had been made. Four days later, I received an envelope containing a letter with the heading Refusal of a visit visa. I was shocked, but managed to read the contents of the letter which in summary stated that my application had been refused because I had failed to provide evidence of my personal and economic status in my own country – I had apparently, not provided enough/the right documentation to show how I support myself financially in my country.

This refusal notification did not, however, kill my Liverpool dream and my desire to participate fully in the Emerging Voices face to face training program. With support from the organisation I work with, I reapplied again on the 13th of September, 15 days to the start of the program in Liverpool, and paid another $197 for the application, excluding printing and transportation fee to the visa centre

This time round I was determined to do everything in my power to increase my chances of obtaining the visa and provided documents showing evidence of my personal circumstances and economic status (bank statements, lease agreement, current work contract, letter from my university and letter from my current employer). In addition to this, I got more specific details of the EV4GH financial support towards my travel to the UK, as well as  a breakdown of all expenses that would be covered by EV4GH including booking confirmation for accommodation and a letter from my employer to cover any extra expenses that would not be covered by the EV4GH. It took me more than a week to get these documents together, and I had to pay extra to get some of them on time, but I was hopeful that all that effort meant that I would be given a visa to participate in the EV4GH face to face training and participate in the HRS2018 symposium. After 18 days of finger crossing, I received a call on the 2nd of October that I had a visa-related parcel waiting for collection at the DHL office. As I hung up, the first word that came out of my mouth was YES! I was happy I finally had it, and rushed off to the collection centre. To my immense surprise, when I opened the parcel, I found a three-page leaflet with a different texture to my documents, and nervous to look at the contents, I instead took out my passport to look for the visa stamp which I did not find. Without this, I concluded that my Liverpool dream was dead and my hope of participating in the EV4GH face to face program and the HRS2018 was finally over. I was unable to read the content of the refusal letter for hours, and when I finally decided I was ready, I found that instead of the two pages that were inserted in the first application, this time, they had sent a three page letter explaining why they had refused me visa.

From the summary of the two visa refusal notes, it was clear that I had not been given the visa because of my economic status (a lack of sufficient funds in my account) and/or personal circumstances (for me be eligible under the academic visitor category, I must be highly qualified in my field of expertise which would mean in this case, being an eminent researcher or senior doctor or dentist etc.).

The refusal of my visa application marked the end of my participation in the EV4GH program 2018, halfway, with the completion of only the online distance learning phase. The reason for this was not my lack of willingness and motivation, neither was it due to a lack of funding from EV4GH to support my participation nor a lack of effort by the organizers of the event to provide evidence of my participation but rather due to barriers put in place by the host nations of such global events.

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