migrant artists paint refugees

Are Migrant Artists at Risk of Becoming Obsolete in the UK?

Migrant artists at the forefront of concerns in visa and COVID-19 restrictions

The arts sector fear losing a generation of migrant artists as COVID-19 continues and the government looks set to pursue its punishing immigration system.  

One of the most coveted immigrant visas, the Global Talent visa (previously known as Tier 1 Exceptional Talent), allows successful applicants to stay in the UK on an Exceptional Talent or Exceptional Promise endorsement for lengthy amounts of time. 

Yoko Ono’s ‘Add Colour’ exhibition depicts a refugee boat and encouraged participants to write their thoughts, ideas and hopes for refugees. [Image: Yoko Ono, Widewalls].

However, it is a costly route and one that is notoriously difficult to gain. In the many years that the Exceptional Talent visa has run (since 2011), the quota for visa placements has never been hit, meaning very few seek to apply for the route and/or few are victorious. This is perhaps due to the fact that applicants need to have established an internationally recognised award and may even need to be considered semi-famous to receive an endorsement. Applicants need to prove that they are a leader in their field or an up-and-coming leader with vast potential.

In the many years that the Exceptional Talent visa has run (since 2011), the quota for visa placements has never been hit, meaning very few seek to apply for the route and/or few are victorious

The COVID-19 pandemic means artists are limited in how they share their work and thus reduces the chance to be discovered and considered for a Global Talent Visa.

However, there is another route: the Skilled Worker Visa. Yet this visa requires workers to earn at least £25,600 per annum unless the role is featured on the UK Shortage Occupation List. Currently, dancers, choreographers, arts officers, producers and directors are listed, meaning those in such roles can earn no less than £20,480 to come to the UK. But artists still frequently earn much less than this due to precarious contracts that have been exacerbated amid the coronavirus crisis.

There is a fear in the arts community that work will be difficult to come by for both migrant artists and British artists. 

migrant artists paint refugees
A painting by Razieh Gholami, Afghanistan last year called ‘Hoping to Survive’ depicts the difficult journey of refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe where countries frequently send asylum-seekers back to danger. [Image: Christie’s / The Guardian.]

Playwright and TV writer Stephen Laughton said: “I’ve been working hand to mouth and now, when it looked as if I might finally be able to breathe, I don’t know when I’ll get paid again. I just need to find a way to keep my head above water.” 

Arts unions such as the UK Musicians’ Union has stated that it fears livelihoods will disappear in the blink of an eye, potential future work will dry up and any plans for income will be ruined for smaller companies and independent workers. Reasons for this include having to fund advance costs, from musical equipment and venue hire to PR work needed to promote an event or piece of work. 

The UK Musicians’ Union has stated that it fears livelihoods will disappear in the blink of an eye, potential future work will dry up and any plans for income will be ruined

Social distancing has currently shut down any form of gathering unless outdoors and with one other person from outside your household. Artists, from actors to poets and singers, cannot perform their work through usual routes such as at weddings, parties, film and television work, concerts, theatre work and more.  

There are concerns that artists, particularly those with disabilities, caring responsibilities, inseucre immigration statuses or those from working-class backgrounds are suffering. The Arts Council is providing some support but demand for grants and help is so vast that there is no feasible way for everybody to benefit. 

Streaming art performances is possible but it is less likely to be paid, yet again making the expensive visa routes even more challenging to navigate. British arts will struggle without the input and talent of migrants, even without the coronavirus pandemic.