There has been significant public concern about high visa application fees and the rate of rejections. Why is this?
Well, what I am not going to do is try and pretend that this is a good news story. It is very disappointing. Most disappointing for applicants but it is not a good position for any country to be in. What I would say in response to your question is that sadly migration is a far bigger issue in the UK than it used to be. It is partly flowing from the austerity we face and this means that a lot more people in the UK are now saying well if public money is to be spent it must be spent on British people not on foreigners. And what is happening is that people perhaps who are not the problem are actually being caught up in it all. As we always say, action against the minority often impacts on the majority. In a way that is part of the democratic process. Basically, the rules around visas are designed to make sure that fewer people go to the UK, not just Gambians. There is nothing we can do about the European Union visitors. You have probably read about the fuss about our new friends in eastern parts of Europe. I don’t think they can be stopped but non-EU citizens can be and that is what is happening. So it is not targeting Gambians; it is targeting foreigners generally. And unfortunately this issue has caused a lot of heartache for people here. But it is the politics of the UK. I am happy to defend what we are doing because it is designed to save money. That means other people are going to be upset and I am not gonna pretend that is avoidable. But that means fewer Gambians are going to the UK in the next year or two.
Then why don’t you at least refund failed applicants, say, half of their money, after deducting incurred administrative costs?
Well it is a very reasonable question. I remember having a very amusing conversation with people on the radio a year or so ago. First of all, some saying can we have all back, some saying half. Well, I answer with my heart that you make a very reasonable point but my head says no. The process is designed to be as cheap as possible. I congratulate you for keeping a straight face [smiles] when I said that because visas are very expensive but they would be a lot more expensive if we worked the process in a different way. As you know everything is digital now in the UK, that is to keep prices down. We do not need so many human resources so it means we don’t have to put prices up to reflect that. What has changed in a way since I have been here, visas always used to be subsidised. It was not obvious to the applicants. I think you are familiar with the term hard-charging. For all visa application processes nowadays, the cost is the hard charge cost. It means the cost of processing every application has to be met. There is no way we are gonna say we are employing x thousand people in the immigration visa section worldwide and the UK public service is going to meet the cost of that. Visa applicants have to meet the costs of all these people. That is why it is so expensive. We could have a process whereby it would be technically possible to refund but that would just increase the cost of visas. That expensive process would have to be paid for. So if you are looking at it from a point of natural justice I sympathise with you. You see, if I take my driving test in the UK and fail it, they don’t give me the money back. I can think of lots of lots of examples that would rebut your point with which, nevertheless, I have a huge amount of sympathy. In the olden days, it used to be paid for by the UK public service but unfortunately now it has to be paid by the applicant and I don’t think that is likely to change. But again I said it last time we are trying to get somebody from the immigration and visa people to come down like they did last year and we will make sure they can talk to you. My problem is still the same, I can talk generally about the policies but the operations side I am not really qualified to answer questions about that.
But you must have had your low points?
Personally, I never had any low points. I think professionally my lowest point was when all those people were executed.
What contribution has the UK made to the development of The Gambia during your time here?
I think we have covered the grassroots projects. The impact of some of those has been absolutely dramatic. We were very keen to support your government when Mrs Bensouda got the job of ICC prosecutor. I don’t know whether she is happy now as she was at the time. You have to ask her when she comes back next. We were instrumenatal in getting Gambia Bird aircraft landing rights at Gatwick. When you talk about that sort of bilateral relationships, this is about rooting businesses and that goes on all the time. I mean we have a department of transport in the UK which is only too happy to help. We have been on Gambia Bird and they are very good but without the help of the British government and this office they wouldn’t have had the landing rights.
Will you miss any Gambian foods?
We do have a Gambian cook book, it is a small one, domoda, benechin and all those things. The things I like about all these things the sauce is the same you can put it on anything which I think is really creative so I think we will be eating that in the UK. But I haven’t come across any Gambian restaurants in the UK yet but there must be one somewhere.
Therein lies a business opportunity for you to set up one?
Yeah… but it is a challenging time in the UK at the moment especially at the ludicrous prices we have to charge. Yeah, but Gambian food is good. What a treat! Growing bananas and melons in my garden. The great joy about food in The Gambia is that it is seasonable and being an old person as you can see, I like my food seasonable. I like to look forward to seasons whereas in the UK everything is an all-year round. The last time I was at home I was eating green beans from Senegal. Your beer is very good. I can treat myself to one or two bottles in the UK although no doubt it will be horribly expensive. I won’t miss your taxi drivers though. Most of them shouldn’t be on the road but never mind. Apart from that, everything is good.
Well, I have got a number of domestic issues to resolve because when we get home we have to move house. My current house has been washed away. My house is in Sharpeton, one of the villages around the river so we have to sell house and buy a small apartment somewhere, try and organise our personal effects and get rid of a whole lot of them. We have house in South Africa so we plan to spend half of the year there… the warm part in the UK and the cold part in South Africa. We really like that country. At the moment I am looking at trustee jobs on charities. I can’t say anymore at the moment because I haven’t got the jobs yet but I am looking at a couple of options so that would be a voluntary work. So that will be voluntary work part-time just to keep the old brain ticking over.
Often diplomats have had to defend and promote policies of their governments to which they might not necessarily be in agreement. Did you ever find yourself in such a position?
Yes, defend the indefensible that is what it sometimes appears. It is very difficult. As you said, my job is to represent the interest of my country and to be loyal to the politicians that I work for. It is a very different arrangement in the UK to the way it is here because most ministers are elected officials. So if they don’t do a very good job, they lose their jobs. That is the same here in many ways I suppose. But they are accountable to their constituents. So if a minister wants me to do something he is speaking from a democratic base. He has been elected on a certain platform. I don’t have any problem promoting our policies. I may personally disagree with them totally but if that is the case and I feel that strongly I would have to resign. And that is what some people do. So it is always an interesting balance. That is another reason why diplomats shouldn’t really have any difficulties with host governments. Because all your ministers are very bright and helpful people. They know that I am just doing my job and I know that they are just doing their job. So on the face of it, sometimes we have these positions which seem mutually incompatible. But the reality is I could just be joking with ministers about this apparent disagreements; they will be teasing me because they know I might not agree with it. The reality is, it is not as tense as it appears. And of course in the UK you have a lot journalists who just want to make a lot of mischief out of these issues. You see it on the British media all the time. You see it on Freedom. The professional reality is often very different. I don’t think there has been a British policy which I haven’t felt able to promote and certainly if there had been one I would probably have packed it in and said nothing.
Will you stay in touch after you have left and how?
I am cautious about interfering. One of the most annoying things previous ambassadors can do is to sort of interfere. I will stay in touch but I am not going to do it in a way that would irritate my successor or make him feel that I am interfering. I have seen a few previous ambassadors – how indiscreet can I be – not British ones that turned up back here after they finished their time and being a complete nuisance. So I would be very sensitive but as you probably know the embassy got a Facebook page and I will probably chip in once in a while to let people know what I am doing and also I am in touch with Marlborough Brandt people in Marlborough. You know I have got friends there now. I will be keeping an eye on what you are all up to. That will be no difficulty at all (laughs).
How would you sum up your time in The Gambia?
I love this country. My wife and I came here on holiday in 2006 quite by chance. When we were last living in the UK, every Christmas we like to go somewhere warmer and that time we came here and we stayed at the old Coconut Residence which of course has been closed for such a long time and we are delighted is it is opened again. So I have had a great time. My wife will be very unhappy when we finally go. I think it probably is the best job I have ever had in roughly forty years working in the foreign service because everybody is just charming, helpful and courteous. I can’t think of an exception… even bumsters are charming and courteous although they might not be all that helpful sometimes. But it has been an honour and pleasure doing the job. It’s just been a genuine pleasure doing the job I have been doing here and I hope we will come back as civilians at some stage but yeah we will miss the place and we have had a wonderful time.
Thank you very much.
It’s been good to talk to you.
Author: Sainey Darboe]]>