Edinburgh in August gives us some respite from roadworks while we push through pavement jams instead. I know the crowds can be a pain when you’re rushing to work, but I love the energy of the place, hearing all the different languages mixing with the patter of the street performers. The bold yellow sign proclaims “Welcome, World!” and I feel proud be part of such a big global gathering. It’s just a pity the Home Office seems so intent on spoiling the party.
Every year there are tales of guests being refused the right to travel. This year, for example, Ehsan Abdollahi was invited to the Book Festival to discuss his beautiful children’s illustrations, but his visit visa was refused until a hard-fought campaign brought about a change of heart. Mr Abdollahi is an acclaimed artist who works at Tehran University, in a country where literature has been thriving for around 2500 years – having him talk in Edinburgh is an enriching experience but bureaucrats almost stopped this opportunity because they were not convinced he’d go home. You have to wonder why he would want to throw away his career and live illegally, in abject poverty, in the UK.
This is not an isolated case. All the festivals have reported similar problems with visa delays, demands and rejections messing up their programmes. Playwright David Greig warned of the “chilling effect” on the Fringe’s open door policy; the Arab Arts Focus is the first big showcase of Arab contemporary theatre in 70 years of the Fringe but many established performers are left tearing their hair out trying to negotiate a path through the process to allow them to travel – others will choose not to try and go somewhere else they feel more welcome.
With Brexit and the end of free movement looming it could be even more difficult to keep the festivals truly global – those who come from Europe and currently don’t need a visa may do after Brexit and how many will be refused on the grounds of strange and newly imagined fears or questionable judgement calls by immigration officials remains to be seen.
Let’s not allow a Trump-style approach to immigration to take root here, throwing fairness out the window. Let’s make sure we keep welcoming people who want to visit and who add to our collective wealth, helping combat stereotypes and prejudices. Let’s make sure our festivals can continue to be places where people from all over the world meet, mix, explore ideas, share stories and learn from each other. We need to break down barriers if we are to build peace, and Edinburgh’s international festivals have a role to play in that.
Deidre Brock is SNP MP for Edinburgh North and Leith