My visa denial to enter Belgium
In a refugee camp, carrying out research is most important. As refugee residents, we feel there is much to be improved about the conditions in which we have to live, and research is one of the avenues through which we can indirectly raise our voice to attempt to change things. Research can lead to policy recommendations and that can lead to an improvement in access to education, water, food, medical support, human rights, security, resettlement, and everything else.
The way research is carried out in refugee camps is of course not all that great. Take Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda, where I am registered as a Congolese refugee since 2013. Next to my professional obligations as a teaching assistant in a primary school, I have helped foreign researchers to conduct interviews for their bachelor, master and PhD studies, and camp-based NGOs in their evaluation surveys on the implementation of their projects. Without going too much into every detail that can be improved in the design and implementation of these researches, the power relations embedded in the camp environment and which are reproduced during research projects, are certainly worth a blog. My visa denial to participate in a workshop at Ghent University is a good example.
Since 2017, I have been a research assistant to Jolien Tegenbos, a PhD student at Ghent University, during her research on conflict mobilities in Nakivale. After a while, she invited me for a workshop at Ghent University about the contribution of research assistants in research projects (Silent Voices from the field: exploring new avenues for collaborative research). Together with other PhD ‘research couples’, we would be discussing our impact on research projects, our working relationships, recognition as real researchers, difficulties and problems. A great opportunity to raise my voice and meanwhile see Belgium. To guarantee my participation, I applied for a Schengen visa to enter Belgium.
At the visa reception center in Kampala, I met with an officer who gave me a sheet of paper containing the required documents for a Schengen visa. While I would not even have managed the seven-hour drive from the camp to Kampala without the financial support of my boss, Jolien Tegenbos, the list of required documents was making me even more traumatized: invitation letter, flight booking, insurance, accommodation booking, bank statements, passport, tax identification number, permission of leave from my employer.
The difficulties started right away from the beginning. My boss of the NGO responsible for education in Nakivale did not want to grant me permission for leave. He wanted to know where I was going, why I was going, if I planned to return after reaching there, etc. His suspicion was rooted in the many desperate attempts refugees undertake to finally escape the terrible camp conditions. Disappearing while being abroad is one of the ways people try this. But, I had promised Jolien Tegenbos I would not do that and the officer’s suspicion was in no way a reason to force me to legitimate my own free time. Eventually, I had to bring in Jolien Tegenbos to defend my travel plans to the NGO officers in Nakivale, and later again at their Kampala headquarters to request a simple permission for leave. Three weeks later, we obtained the first required document.
Similar difficulties arose during every step of the way, especially including the 3-month process of getting my refugee passport and an extra recommendation letter from UNHCR. Obtaining that last document was recommended to Jolien by a UNHCR official and would help convince the immigration authorities in Belgium that I would be returning to the camp after the workshop. In this situation, UNHCR was going to act as some kind of ‘guardian’ with more credibility than me in motivating my stay and promises of return. But, despite their own suggestion of obtaining such a letter, the offices in Nakivale, Mbarara (i.e. the regional UNHCR office in the nearest town) and Kampala were reluctant of granting the letter themselves and sent us running between offices without success. After two months, we gave up and submitted the full visa application without UNHCR support.
On a Friday, ten days after submitting my application, the embassy in Kampala called me to collect my passport and I was surprised to see my visa denial in the same package. I will never forget that day and it still troubles me. The decision to refuse my visa was explained in one sentence: “in accordance with article(s) 32 of the execution agreement of the Schengen Agreement of the 14th June 1985.” Article(s) 32 contain all the possible reasons to deny someone entry to the country. Should I figure it out myself?
I waited long after the workshop to write this blog (workshop took place in October 2018). As if it was not embarrassing enough to be needing Jolien to defend my credibility as a refugee researcher during every step of the visa application process, the absence of clarification for my visa denial left me crushed. For a long time I felt disappointed and discouraged to continue developing my research skills. It was as if everything I was doing remained dark in the world of research. But, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick: but when the desire comes, it is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). As Jolien came back for her next visit to Nakivale, I worked on my writing skills and improved them to write this blog. It took multiple writing exercises, revisions, editing, and waiting for Jolien to give feedback, but here it finally is.
The world actually needs researchers. Since camps exist, it means refugee researchers exist too. As a refugee, I was the only invited person who got his visa denied for the workshop. It seems that for many people, for UNHCR, for NGOs, for immigration officials, and many foreign researchers too, we don’t really exist. Our contributions are not acknowledged. If they were, my visa would not have been denied. Foreign researchers always reach different areas for their research and do not get their visas denied. That is their privilege, to be found credible and their contributions to research are recognized. But they need us, and we need them to acknowledge this. How is this possible if we can’t even reach their universities to make this point? Let us all stand together to improve the unequal power relations imposed by the superior agencies and reduce the limitations that hold back our participation in these debates.