Toyyib Ọládiméjì Abdulkareem, NCDA's Policy and Campaigns Consultant, speaks at our WHA75 civil society briefing on Sunday 22 May 2022.

Global health isn’t global (yet) – My experience applying for visas in Nigeria and the UK

23rd June 2022

Is global health truly global? No, not while visas continue to represent major barriers to the participation of most people in the world. Read more in this blog by NCDA Policy and Campaigns Consultant Toyyib Abdulkareem.

In July 2018, I applied for my first visa. This was early in my career. I was going to be sponsored to attend a conference in Sweden. There were many implications for me personally and the growth of the organisation I led, The Wellbeing Initiative (a community of young people advancing NCD prevention in Nigeria), but the visa was denied. The Swedish Consulate cited “not enough ties to Nigeria” as their reason. At that time, I was a postgraduate student at a public university in Nigeria and the lead of a government-registered organisation. I later got the UK Commonwealth Scholarship in September 2018, which meant less visa hassle, and I lived in the UK for 16 months. Between then and now, I have applied for several visas, and lived in and visited several countries.

I have been back in Nigeria for over a year and the last visa I applied for was denied. This time the reason was that “the information presented to justify the trip and the stay conditions were not reliable enough”. This was also a fully-funded, work-related trip for which I had provided all required documents. This time, the Spanish Consulate could not say I did not have “enough ties”. After all, I now work with an international NGO and have an extensive travel history. I also just got back from Europe on another work trip two days before my visa appointment.

My friends and colleagues were angry and disappointed, but truly what happened is the reality for many people like me living in countries like Nigeria. It was my reality in 2018 and it is my reality nowadays. When I was living in the UK, I never had any reason to think any of my visa applications could be denied - I was denied a visa zero times out of five applications. Meanwhile in Nigeria, it is completely different and challenging. I have been denied twice in three attempts, despite meeting the required criteria. In the UK, the shortest Schengen visa I got was for 2 months. In Nigeria, the only Schengen visa I got was for a week (my exact travel dates).

The reality of visa discrimination

I wonder if the world outside countries like Nigeria understand our reality. As someone that has applied for visas inside and outside Nigeria, I know the issue is not just about the Spanish Consulate. It is a systemic issue that marginalizes and disenfranchises people like me. Even when we do get a visa; we have to overcome many difficult situations. This was not my reality in the UK – requirements were not as strict, and the process was friendlier. The world as it is does not acknowledge the barriers and challenges that exist for people like me to access the rest of the world, whether to participate in conferences, study or even work.

We (all of us working in global health) must do better to acknowledge these differences and address these limitations. While I have been privileged enough to travel, visit and work in different places that wouldn't have been possible without visas, and the processes have not been easy, especially in Nigeria. This is today’s reality. In an ideal world, where I am from, and where I live would not define my right to participate and access opportunities. And until we get to that world, we need to rethink access and inclusion – who gets access and who is left behind.

This is not sustainable - something has to change

While I got a paid internship at WHO which was pivotal for my career, there were other jobs I could not apply to, because the organisations could not sponsor the visa/work permit needed. In today’s world, people like me are not only losing opportunities, but the rest of the world is losing the representation, knowledge and diversity that are important to move the dial and create change. We need to prevent situations where some participants join sessions virtually (because of visas) while others travel to meet in person and benefit from networking opportunities.

To get to that world, we as a community need to be more deliberate, act now and do better. Here are some ideas:

  • Host events and conferences in visa-friendly countries
  • Set realistic timelines for conferences and events to allow time for visa processes
  • Share necessary documentation for visas in advance and offer support where needed
  • Continue to sponsor and provide opportunities to diverse voices from different parts of the world
  • When travel is not possible, do not ignore those who cannot join in person, provide hybrid participation in conferences and events

There are many stories of people like me out there. More are detailed here, and I hope these start conversations in different parts of the world on what we can do differently to ensure not just equal access but also inclusive global health built on the capacity of everyone from Lagos to Melbourne to Mumbai.

About the author:

Toyyib Ọládiméjì Abdulkareem is a Policy and Campaigns Consultant at NCDA - supporting the organisation’s policy and advocacy work around NCD prevention and the Global Week for Action on NCDs campaign ( Toyyib’s background is in public health and medical sciences. Before joining NCDA, Toyyib worked with the Physical Activity Team at WHO HQ and in another role, he supported a project that piloted a universal health coverage scheme at a subnational level in Nigeria.

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