In Tunisia and many neighboring countries, people fought for the introduction of democracy in 2011. German institutions took in Turkish scientists who had been fighting against their government’s policies and for freedom of expression since 2015/16. So what could be more obvious than bringing protagonists from these states together in Berlin for a conference on concepts of political rule and participation in the Mediterranean region?
And can it also be a mistake to invite West Africans to a conference on Islamist currents in their region? After all, there is a German military operation in Mali that is fighting precisely against radicalized Islamists. Berlin in particular, the city whose scientific institutions are currently investing a lot in order to offer refuge to endangered colleagues who have fled from the Ukraine, for example, should be open to this.
Unfortunately, the reality is different, as was recently shown again in a project funded by the Leibniz Association, which is just one of many examples. Cooperation with colleagues from the Global South is a dedicated priority, and joint conferences are an integral part of program planning.
Of the six researchers invited to the former conference, three were denied visas. A Turkish doctoral student was not believed that he only wanted to come for a conference and then return. The chapter submitted for the final proceedings of the conference did not change that.
A Tunisian lawyer allegedly did not provide the necessary proof of vaccination, which was demonstrably wrong. And an Algerian professor was briefly told that she had not provided evidence of the purpose and conditions of the stay. In addition, the private visa agencies, which are commissioned by the consulates to pre-sort the applications, did not offer those affected any appointments for weeks.
In two other cases, colleagues received appointments so late that the application process was no longer possible. A colleague only received the visa a few days before the trip. After consular processing, the agencies sometimes needed weeks before those involved received their passports back. Phone calls and emails went unanswered. As a result, the notifications came at such short notice, despite several months of advance planning, that objections to the decisions were often no longer possible.
Local appeals can certainly be successful, especially if they are accompanied by a parallel appeal by the inviting party in Berlin to the Federal Foreign Office. However, this not only requires a lot of time from the applicants, but also from the German colleagues and the officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, both on site and in Berlin.
However, this time is often missing due to the processes described. One can also ask whether the very time-consuming individual supervision of well-founded and publicly funded trips is actually part of the tasks of scientists and high-ranking officials. This is where working hours and thus tax money are lost – and more and more often without a positive result.
But it’s not just about wasted work time. The culture of distrust in the decision-making structures of the visa-issuing institutions and the last-minute decisions often force people to make hotel and flight bookings that can no longer be canceled if the visa is refused at the last second. Financial damage ensues again – not to mention the profound frustrations of the rejected and the inviters.
In November 2021, the President of the German Research Foundation called for more scientific diplomacy from the new federal government. In doing so, she relied on a position paper from the Federal Foreign Office from December 2020, which calls for “the creation and protection of a free framework for scientific activity and the promotion of science as a necessary condition of democratic action”.
The fact that this does not only apply to other countries of the Global North is already shown by the internationalization strategy of the last federal government, which explicitly refers to the shaping of the global knowledge society together with emerging and developing countries.
Unfortunately, the way here seems extremely difficult. And this does not mean cooperation with colleagues from other scientific systems, which is already extremely demanding in terms of language, institutions and the different traditions. It would be hoped that the invitation from publicly funded scientific institutes together with the assumption of costs would be sufficient to obtain a visa – regardless of the country of origin.
However, the objection can be heard that participation in a conference is also possible via video link. That’s wrong too! On the one hand, electronic communication in authoritarian countries is quite risky, on the other hand, there is a lack of informal personal communication, which is an important part of scientific exchange.
It is also about what impressions and expectations scientists get from a country that sees itself as a leading international science center. An internationally renowned Tunisian colleague canceled a conference visit last year in protest after his doctoral student had also been refused admission to an event in Berlin. These are not good prerequisites for international cooperation on an equal footing.
Incidentally, the Tunisian scientist received her visa thanks to multiple personal interventions by the inviting institute. The Algerian professor and the Turkish doctoral student had to stay at home.