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‘Thousands’ of Turkish citizens left in limbo by post-Brexit visa delays

Some have been waiting for extensions to ECAA visas for two years, losing work and unable to see family

Hilal Seven
Hilal Seven
6 July 2022, 12.40pm
Fizza Qureshi of the Migrants’ Rights Network said ECAA applications had suffered long delays
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Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

Thousands of Turkish citizens in the UK are thought to have been left “living in limbo” due to post-Brexit delays in extending their visas.

Those interviewed by openDemocracy say the delays are causing serious hardship, leaving people without the right to rent homes, enrol children in school or travel abroad. Migrants’ rights campaigners describe the delays as among the worst in a beleaguered immigration system, and the issue has drawn criticism from the Turkish government.

Until December 2020, one of the most common ways Turkish citizens could get permission to live in the UK was via business visas issued under the European Community Association Agreement (ECAA), an arrangement between Turkey and the EU also known as the Ankara Agreement.

Since the scheme closed at the end of the Brexit transition period, visa holders have been allowed to apply for extensions – but some waiting times have rocketed from six months to as long as two years.

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Leyla Ozyolu, 28, lives in the UK as a dependent on her husband’s ECAA visa. Ozyolu said a delay of 21 months left her unable to visit her sister, who died of cancer in Istanbul last month, because she was not allowed to leave the country while the application was pending.

“I couldn’t see my sister while she was alive. What happens if they give me a visa now? She isn’t with us any more,” she told openDemocracy.

Leyla Özyolu and Muhammet

Leyla Özyolu and Muhammet, who asked us not to publish his surname for fear it would affect his application

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Courtesy of Leyla Özyolu and Muhammet

According to Home Office data, a late rush of applications before the Brexit deadline meant applications for ECAA visas shot up from around 4,000 annually to 27,000 in 2020.

In the final quarter of 2021 – the most recent period for which information is available – figures show that 8,079 people were waiting for a decision on applications via the ECAA route, more than six times the equivalent number at the end of 2019. As of September 2021, at least 733 people had been waiting longer than the six-month Home Office standard – up from 55 at the end of 2019.

Fizza Qureshi, the chief exec of the Migrants’ Rights Network, which has been investigating the issue, told openDemocracy that while there was “a general problem in terms of visa delays” most “haven’t been as [badly] delayed as ECAA applications”.

Some ECAA holders have been sharing details of their situations in Telegram groups. A 40-year-old Turkish health consultant resident in the UK – who asked to remain anonymous for fear it would affect her own application – said she had seen accounts from hundreds of other people experiencing delays.

One of the most common problems, said the consultant, is that people can’t return to Turkey for family funerals.

“People’s files and applications are reviewed very slowly,” said the consultant, who has been waiting for more than 20 months for a visa extension. “I have lost all my joy from life.” A doctor, who also asked to remain anonymous, told openDemocracy that the experience had left his entire family “mentally exhausted”.

Other ECAA holders told openDemocracy that the delays have harmed their businesses. Former kebab shop owner Muhammet, 28, said that a chronic health problem forced him to sell up, because he was unable to visit his family doctor in Turkey during his 20-month wait for a decision. A yacht salesman, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he had been unable to do any business for the last two years without a valid visa.

Labour MP Feryal Clark, who represents a north London constituency with a large Turkish community, raised the issue of delays in Parliament in January this year. Clark told openDemocracy that while there has been some modest progress in waiting times since January, disruption continues.

These delays mean that businesses cannot operate, putting families at risk during an already damaging cost-of-living crisis

“These delays mean that businesses cannot operate, putting families at risk during an already damaging cost-of-living crisis,” she said.

In a response to Clark in April seen by openDemocracy, immigration minister Kevin Foster blamed an “unprecedented” number of applications, saying that over 80% were being processed within six months. Foster said that delays had been compounded by accounting irregularities among about 700 visa holders who were accused of claiming more from the government’s COVID-19 Bounce Back Loan scheme for self-employed people and small business owners than they were eligible for.

But lawyers who spoke to openDemocracy said it was unlikely that so many applications could have been delayed for this reason.

Semira Dilgil, an immigration lawyer who represents ECAA visa holders, said: “Things piled up because they were hiding behind the COVID excuse. In fact, they don’t have enough staff to handle visas.”

Ozan Askin from Silvine Law agreed. “I think the delays have nothing to do with the loans,” he said. “It is very difficult to [estimate] the number of mistaken applications… but I don’t think 700 applications all mistakenly got the loans.”

Do less, but better

Nida Dincturk, 31, a UK-based journalist and ECAA holder, is among those who claimed the Bounce Back Loan. But she told openDemocracy: “I pay back my loan regularly yet have been waiting for a visa for 14 months. I wrote a two-page cover letter six months ago to explain everything and still haven't responded. If the Home Office is sceptical about loans, why aren’t they inviting us to an interview to explain ourselves?”

Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister and author, said an overly complex immigration system was adding to the problem. “Ministers need to stop making unnecessary and distracting work for officials and focus on doing less but better,” he said.

Zoe Gardner, policy and advocacy manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, agreed. “Instead of spending money on helping ordinary people here,” she said, “they are spending millions of pounds to send people to Rwanda.”

On 23 June, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu raised the issue at a meeting in Ankara with UK foreign secretary Liz Truss. A spokesperson for the Turkish embassy in London told openDemocracy it would “continue to closely monitor the issue … until this extraordinary backlog in our citizens’ visa extension process ends”.

A Home Office spokesperson told openDemocracy: “Where applications to this visa route are straightforward and non-complex, the majority are concluded within our published six-month service standard. If applications are more complex they may take longer to consider – we have notified customers of this and we aim to conclude each application as quickly as possible.”

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