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Immigration Minister Retaliates Against Protest Over Artists' Visa Restrictions

LONDON.- Civil liberties campaigners, Manifesto Club, have been waiting for a response from the Government since February 2009 when it launched a petition against new draconian Home Office restrictions that have caused mayhem across arts organizations throughout the UK.

The new regulations, which replaced the old work permits system, affect non-EU artists and academics invited by arts organisations to appear or perform in the UK. The campaign was launched with a letter to the editor of The Observer:

The response came yesterday in the form of an angry letter to the Guardian newspaper by the Government Minister. On Tuesday 14 July the Rt Hon. Phil Woolas MP, Minister of State for borders and immigration responded furiously to attacks by the writer and political columnist Henry Porter on The Guardian's Comment is Free. Porter, who described the Minister's new immigration system that bars "artists from visiting this country. . ." as being ". . .some of the most contemptible ever devised, even by this narrow-minded apology for a government."

Until being directly challenged on Monday 13 July by Henry Porter writing in the Guardian, Mr Woolas had been reticent about making public statements concerning the new draconian immigration rules that have led to cancelled concerts, deportation of musicians, heavy-handed and humiliating treatment of artists by border agency officials and UK embassy staff. Mr Porter accused the Minister of creating "some kind of campaign against poets with strange sounding names and of Muslim origin who want to come to this country" Mr Woolas replied: "Henry Porter's recent piece on Britain's visa system was at best naive, and at worst designed to deliberately misinform people about our immigration system."

The row was sparked by three internationally renowned poets, Dorothea Rosa Herliany from Indonesia and Moroccan poets Hassan Najmi & Widad Benmoussa who were invited to this year's Ledbury Poetry Festival, Britain's biggest poetry event, but were denied access to the UK and unable to appear . The festival ran from July 3 and ended on Sunday July 12.

Ledbury Poetry Festival Director Chloe Garner said: "I'm devastated, this is hugely embarrassing for the festival. These new regulations make it almost impossible to for us to programme international poets. I feel ashamed that the UK is effectively becoming a fortress."

The Ledbury Poetry Festival is the latest casualty of the new ruling on 27 November 2008 by the UK Home Office, (it introduced a new points-based system and harsh visa restrictions), which makes it much harder for international artists and academics outside the EU to come into the country. The measures are having a disastrous effect on the Arts right across the UK.

The Manifesto Club are spearheading a petition against the home office restrictions on invited non-EU artists, which was launched in The Observer on 22 February
The group also launched a report in The Times on 3 June entitled, UK Arts and Culture: Cancelled by Order of the Home Office. The report illustrates numerous incidents of how the new visa restrictions have led to the jeopardising of many arts events including concerts, exhibitions and artistic collaborations. The petition has gained over 6,670 signatures including writers Benjamin Zephaniah, Maureen Duffy, Hari Kunzru, artists Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Zarina Bhimji, Jeremy Deller and theatre makers Nicholas Hytner and Jatinder Verma.

Manick Govinda, artists' producer for Artsadmin and a Manifesto Club campaigner, who started the petition says: "it's outrageous that artists and poets, who are not in the same income bracket as international celebrities, are being discriminated against because of where they come from and how little they earn from their practice. This is yet further evidence of political bureaucracy dictating our relationships with artists for whom we have the utmost respect and admiration, who wish to share their art to a UK audience."

Manifesto Club | Phil Woolas MP | Minister of State | Henry Porter | Hassan Najmi | Widad Benmoussa |

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