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Moroccan poet denied visa to Scotland as authorities label her ‘potential illegal immigrant’

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The UK Home Office faced backlash after a prominent Moroccan writer, Soukaina Habiballah, was denied a visa to attend StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival set to take place from March 8-10, due to her being a “potential illegal immigrant.”

Habiballah, a renowned Moroccan poet, was slated to participate in the festival’s opening ceremony alongside Scotland’s national poet, Kathleen Jamie. 

However, despite providing extensive documentation, including 35 official documents, and demonstrating her established career, Habiballah’s visa application was rejected. 

Festival director Ryan van Winkle expressed his deep disappointment and frustration, stating, “These capricious decisions by the Home Office not only undermine cross-cultural collaboration but also stifle the sharing of international art at a time when it’s needed most.”

Van Winkle further emphasized the extensive efforts and resources invested in ensuring Habiballah’s participation, highlighting the collaboration with various partners to facilitate her visit. 

“Countless resources went into programming her participation in our festival, as well as her first-ever tour of Scotland, working closely with our partners at Highlight Arts and senior figures in the British Council to secure her attendance,” the Stanza statement said.

Van Winkle questioned the Home Office’s rationale, stating that they ignored her considerable talent and body of work and saw fit to consider her a potential illegal immigrant, despite having no evidence that this has ever been an issue.

“Their skepticism regarding why an artist of her caliber would leave her family, home, and networks to illegally move to the UK is beyond our comprehension,” Van Winkle said.

The statement added that “it’s insulting and humiliating to see acclaimed artists like Soukaina face such obstacles.”

The festival said she would join a discussion on “Resilient Voices: Celebrating Middle Eastern Women in the Arts” virtually. 

Scottish government officials also echoed the criticism. Angus Robertson, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, condemned the decision, calling it an “appalling example” of the Home Office hindering international engagement in Scottish cultural events. 

“Too often Scottish festivals and cultural events are let down by the UK Home Office, who block the participation of international performers,” said Robertson.

Scottish PEN, a prominent organization advocating for freedom of expression, expressed concern that the decision “casts a shadow over literature in our country,” denying readers the opportunity to experience Habiballah’s work firsthand.

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