Turks find opportunity, obstacles in U.K. visa scheme

In recent years, a special business visa that allows Turkish entrepreneurs to set up shop in the United Kingdom and opens the door for long-term residency has grown in popularity. As many as 20,000 Turks now live in the United Kingdom as a result of this scheme.  

But recent changes by the U.K. government have made the path to long-term residency through this scheme a bit longer. In June, the U.K. Home Office announced that these visa holders could apply for a settled status after five continuous years, up from four.

This will prolong the process in applying for an indefinite leave to remain (ILR) visa, according to Mehmet Polat, an adviser for the LexLegal Law Office in central London.

"There were many advantages for this unusual type of visa, like applying for a settled status in four years without having to pay any fees,” he said. “But with this new regulation, this type of visa has been brought in line with other types of immigration visas."

The visa programme hinges on the 1963 Ankara Agreement between Turkey and the European Union and falls under the EU-Turkey European Communities Association Agreement (ECAA). Anyone who has the necessary work experience and know-how in a particular area with a sufficient amount of capital can apply for a special ECAA visa.  

Now it will just take a little longer to apply for residence. This isn’t the first change made to this type of visa.

"In the past, we had the right to appeal,” Polat explained. “Say your application was denied or you could not get a three-year residence called an extension visa, you could take it to court. But in 2015, the right to appeal was lifted.”

For many, simply applying for the visa is an uphill battle. Pinar Karakoç is a 38-year-old designer from Istanbul who founded a design company with her sister called Black Ram Sp London. It took a long time to secure a space for their stall.

“We experienced setbacks from the very first day,” she said. “When we first arrived, we were subjected to a lot of misinformation because we didn’t know much. Luckily, we happened to meet a good person not too long after, and we got our visa quickly.”

Sinem Alper, a 39-year-old freelance accountant in north London, said that ECAA visa holders often have a difficult time in the beginning due to a lack of support.

"We will often help them on the phone for hours,” she said. “Those who have a visa as part of the Ankara Agreement are part of a very unprotected community, and nobody stands behind them. For this reason, many people experience difficulties in applying."

Another major problem, Alper says, is that Turks have a difficult time obtaining a national insurance number, which could negatively impact the decision to get an ECAA visa extension. Turks also have difficulty opening a bank account in the United Kingdom.

“Banks are not able to see the applicant’s banking history in Turkey,” says Alper. “In all countries that have signed the G-20, a U.K. bank can easily see a banking record, such as in France where the digital tax system has been implemented. Even though Turkey has signed up to be one of those countries, they still have not implemented it, and the bank records for Turks are not yet viewable.”

Because of this, Karakoç wasn’t easily able to open a bank account to complete the required paperwork to obtain a national insurance number, which she tried to get multiple times.

"I was already having language problems,” she said. “We applied to nearly all the banks. Fortunately, one of the last ones took pity on our situation and helped us out. So much so that the bank staff now recognises us."

Despite the obstacles Pinar Karakoç and her sister have gone through, she enjoys working in London’s Camden Market, known for its bohemian vibe with more than 1,000 shops and stalls.

“I love this place – it looks like Kadıköy [in Istanbul],” she said. “The market environment is safe and fun. Most of the customers are tourists. Turks come here quite often, but they don’t buy anything from me. We’re open every day...We’re more fortunate than many other people, since we – as two sisters – completed our application and persevered together.”

Bekir Ulusoy, a 52-year-old father, has not yet been able to obtain a national insurance number. He completed the first year of his Ankara Agreement visa and has applied for an extension. He said being away from his family – not bureaucracy – was his biggest challenge.  

"My wife is a financial expert, and we can't make proper plans for the future,” he said. “My daughter is studying at a university in Izmir. The most difficult part is being separated from them. For instance, when I applied the first time, my father-in-law died, but I couldn't go to the funeral because I didn't have my passport on me. I felt terrible, and I said that I wished I hadn't even come here in the first place. In the end, you're like a refugee. But I'm glad to live here despite everything. Apart from economic concerns, the lifestyle here is much better."

Many feel the same way. According to Alper, about 24,000 Turkish families settled in England last year. Increasing political and economic turmoil in Turkey have spurred many to migrate overseas.

“This constitutes a loss and a gain for Turkey,” she said. “After all, it means a serious brain drain. But surely, the people who earn money here will invest in Turkey.”

This visa has strict working requirements, that, if not met, could lead to disastrous consequences. 28-year-old Can Güzel graduated from Kadir Has University with a degree in culinary arts and came to the United Kingdom on a ECAA visa with high hopes.

His first application for the ECAA visa was rejected due to a missing document. When he appealed the rejection, his appeal was also rejected. He applied again – which Turks are allowed to do 14 days after their application has been denied – and was given a one-year visa.

“For a while, I worked as a chef for my friend's workplace,” he said. “Then things got very bad. All of a sudden, I was unemployed and broke. In the meantime, I had gotten my visa, and I couldn't find another job, and I decided to work in a market for a short period.”

Güzel was picked up by immigration police responding to a notice that he had violated his visa terms, and deported. He still hasn’t gotten over the shock of it.

“I experienced misfortune from start to finish [in the U.K.],” he said. “No matter how hard I tried, things never went right. Maybe this is my destiny, and my luck will never turn around.”