HOME Secretary Sajid Javid has been urged to travel to Edinburgh for an urgent UK-wide summit on visas for international festivals after immigration lock-outs for performers.

With less than 100 days to go until the start of this year’s Edinburgh Festivals, Fiona Hyslop has invited Javid, Welsh ministers and a representative of the Northern Irish Executive to Scotland over the impact of Westminster’s “hostile environment” on overseas artists.

In 2017, Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst cancelled a performance at the Edinburgh International Festival after three Vienna-based backing musicians, all Syrian, were refused permission to perform.

Yesterday Hyslop told MSPs that “embarrassment” is one example of the many refusals keeping international talent from Scottish stages – and those in the rest of the UK.

Most of those affected are of Middle Eastern and African origin, including Iran’s Ehsan Abdollahi, who was finally allowed to take up his position as artist-in-residence at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year after a U-turn following public outcry.

In 2018, organisers of more than 20 festivals issued a joint letter raising their concerns about the impact of the UK’s visa system, saying the costs, delays and refusals for writers, musicians, dancers, technical crew members and more mean artists are now “much more reluctant to accept invitations to come to the UK”.

Hyslop told MSPs yesterday that the rejections are affecting the business sector, with conference delegates also turned down. They include some who were set to attend the World News Media Congress in Glasgow this weekend. Hyslop said: “Something has to change.”

Branding the Wurst row an “embarrassment”, she said: “This was a Scottish Government expo-funded, British Council-supported, Edinburgh International Festival event where the Austrian Broadcasting Company was the lead broadcaster, and it was the Austrian performance that couldn’t take place. It was beyond belief. Does the Home Office not realise how bad this looks, let alone the effect on the individual artists?”

The National:

Calling for a “meaningful shift”, Hyslop (above) went on: “Scotland remains open, open to the unrivalled pleasure of the arts, open to cultural exchange and open to business,” despite the Home Office system, adding: “It is time that the immigration systemrecognised this.”

Hyslop’s comments came during a Holyrood debate on “the impact of hard-line visa controls” called by Edinburgh Pentlands SNP MSP Gordon MacDonald, who told the chamber: “Artists are facing a humiliating application process. Their visas are being refused. And, due to inaction from the UK Government, artists are being deterred from coming here.

“This is an utter shambles and completely unacceptable. The Edinburgh festivals rely on the seamless flow of artists from across the world and it’s time for the UK Government to listen. If they won’t listen, then they should devolve immigration.”

Labour’s Claire Baker called the Home Office approach “increasingly hostile” and a “threat” to Edinburgh’s festivals, which attract a global audience and are worth £313 million to the economy. The SNP’s Sandra White said the same issues had hit Celtic Connections in Glasgow. Andy Wightman of the Greens suggested a campaign to counter the problem and Rachael Hamilton of the Tories backed the idea of a “cultural passport” for performers.

In her letter to Javid, Welsh International Relations Minister Eluned Morgan, Brexit Minister Jeremy Miles and Tracy Meharg, permanent secretary in the Northern Ireland Executive Department for Communities, Hyslop said it is “in our shared interests to address proactively the challenges ... of the Home Office and its handling of festival-related visas”.

Last night, the Welsh Government said it had received the letter and the Northern Ireland DfC was “considering its response”. The Home Office said: “We welcome artists and performers coming to the UK to perform, and appreciate the important contribution they make to our creative sector.  

“We have launched a year-long engagement process with businesses and stakeholders – including Festivals Edinburgh – on our future skills-based immigration system and we want to hear from the creative sector as part of that.”

Meanwhile, organisers of the European Conference on African Studies fear many of their attendees will be kept out of the Edinburgh University event later this month.

It is understood that around 130 visas for academics have yet to be granted. Organiser Paul Nugent, professor of comparative African history, told The National at least seven of 16 rejections have been overturned, but “there are an awful lot of people waiting to hear and time is getting short”.

The Home Office said all applications are “considered on their individual merits”.