VISA staff in Britain have “lost sight” of what immigration rules are intended to achieve, according to a senior Scottish MP, who has described the refusal of a visa for an acclaimed Iranian illustrator of children’s books as “a nonsense”.

Stuart McDonald, the SNP’s front-bench spokesperson on immigration, was speaking after the campaigning group Scottish PEN condemned the Home Office’s refusal to grant a visa to Ehsan Abdollahi to attend the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Described by book festival director Nick Barley as a “highly respected, award-winning Iranian illustrator of kids’ books”, Abdollahi was due to arrive in the UK early next month, but he has received a visa refusal letter, issued by the British embassy in Dubai.

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The 37-year-old teaches at Tehran’s top art university, Farhango Honar, and has illustrated several children’s books published in English by the independent publishing house Tiny Owl, including When I Coloured in the World, and A Bottle of Happiness.

McDonald told The National: “What seems to have happened with these officers now is they’ve completely lost sight of what the rules are intended to achieve and they are absolutely bound up by using stock phrases and stock reasons for refusal.

“At the end of the day what the rules are supposed to try to help them work out are – is this a genuine visitor, can he afford the trip, and is he going to leave and return to Iran at the end of it?

“Anyone reading or hearing about this from anywhere at all would say, ‘This is a nonsense’. But the thought processes have become so engrained in the culture of UK Visas that they don’t look at the big picture.

“They’ve noted that he had £16,000 in his bank account, but they’re not absolutely clear where that came from so what they say is, ‘We’re not going to trust this application at all because we don’t know if that money is actually yours’.

“If they’d just take a step back or even phone the guy or speak to anyone involved in the trip at all it wold be abundantly clear that he is a genuine visitor and of course he can afford the trip and of course he’s going to return to Iran afterwards.

“It’s totally losing sight of the big picture.”

McDonald said that all visa staff had to do was pick up a phone to clarify anything they weren’t sure about, but added: “None of that happened – they sit at their desk looking at a few bits of paper and if they’ve any questions it doesn’t matter – applications are just refused.”

Scottish PEN – which campaigns for imprisoned and repressed writers around the world – condemned the refusal of Abdollahi’s visa.

In a statement, the group said: “The worrying trend of countries using the visa process to undermine the freedom of writers to travel freely to communicate with others and share their work is a significant barrier to free expression and the sharing of literature across the globe.

“The restrictions put in place by the Home Office have an unfortunate track record of inhibiting artists and academics from visiting the UK.

“Eighty-one-year-old historian Sid-Ahmed Kerzabi, Algerian artist Sofiane Belaskri and Syrian artist Thaier Helal have all had their applications rejected on the grounds that they couldn’t guarantee financial independence, or the Home Office remained unconvinced they would return to their home country following their talk or exhibition opening.

“The PEN Charter reaffirms the belief that ‘literature knows no frontiers’ and Abdollahi’s involvement at the book festival epitomised this belief.

“We are deeply saddened that such an opaque and bureaucratic process has restricted his ability to connect with the children who have derived so much enjoyment from his work.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We do not routinely comment on individual cases. All visa applications are considered on their individual merits, and applicants must provide evidence to show they meet the requirements of the immigration rules.”