UK Immigration: Don’t get caught in a perfect storm

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It’s safe to say that the UK immigration system has undergone a radical upheaval over the last couple of years. Whilst non-EU crew on vessels within UK waters and ports have always been subject to strict and often complex rules, the end of free movement between the UK and EU has also presented new challenges for many employers in the marine and maritime sector.

Most seafarers who are entering the UK in transit to join a ship will not need to apply for a UK visa in order to do so. However, we have seen many cases of non-British (or non-settled), overseas seafarers and other marine workers being refused entry to the UK, or even deported once they have arrived, for not having the correct immigration documents or evidence of the purpose of their entry to the UK in place. It is therefore critical that prior consideration is given to the purpose of the visit and that there is documentary evidence in place to support it.

Whether or not a seafarer or marine worker requires prior permission (for instance a visa) to enter the UK will depend on their nationality, the intended activities they will be carrying out (either on UK soil, in ports, or in UK waters) and how long they intend to stay in the UK.

Prior to the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, this was not a concern for EU nationals entering the UK, as they benefited from free movement. Since 1 January 2021, this is unfortunately no longer the case. We now have one immigration system which applies to all non-British nationals who are not “settled” in the UK (i.e. have not been granted indefinite leave to remain or settled status in the UK) requiring entry clearance which, depending on their nationality, must either be in the form of a visa or permission granted upon entry at UK boarder control.

A common misconception that we encounter on a regular basis, is non-UK settled workers holding a Seafarer’s Discharge Book, believing that they can enter the UK and carry out any duties required within the UK, on their vessel or within a port, by virtue of them having a Discharge Book. Unfortunately the position is not that straightforward and, to make the situation even more challenging, Immigration Enforcement do not seem to take a consistent approach.

Whether or not the planned activities in the UK are permitted depends on whether the activities amount to the individual performing “work” in the UK, for which a UK work visa is required. The implications for getting this wrong can be severe. UK Visas and Immigration may take action against individuals who have entered the UK with a Discharge Book and stay for a period of time in the UK, for example because their vessel is docked, if they do not have the required immigration permission. Such action can include immediate deportation, which may lead to future entry requests being denied.

One of the situations in which this issue regularly rears its head, is when a vessel is undergoing a refit or other works in the UK for an extended period. Often there will be a requirement for members of the crew to oversee the works and effectively project manage the refit from within the UK on behalf of the vessel owner or their overseas employer. Very often what the crew member will be doing will amount to carrying out work in the UK, for which a visa is required.

In circumstances where there is a non-UK employer and the “work” to be carried out on UK soil is linked to a time-limited project (such as a refit), seafarers are highly unlikely to qualify for UK work visas (such as Skilled Worker visas, or Global Business Mobility visas) because the employing entities do not satisfy the requirements for obtaining a Sponsor Licence to enable them to employ overseas workers, or the time and costs associated with obtaining a Licence are not proportionate to the time-limited work required onboard.

However, there may still be options available. We have been successful in securing a number of long-term visit visas for non-UK seafarers ranging from 6-21 months in duration, which has allowed vessels to maintain their usual workforce onboard whilst the vessel is docked or based in the UK for an extended period of time.

Visit visas are only available where the individual will carry out “permitted business activities” in the UK, and rushed visa applications will almost certainly be rejected on the basis that the Home Office are not satisfied that the individual is a genuine visitor. We therefore work very closely with our clients to advise on the permitted activities, as well as preparing detailed supporting documents and statements to satisfy the Home Office that only permitted activities will be undertaken by the seafarers.

Not obtaining the appropriate permission to enter the UK has risks for both the individual (including deportation, and negative implications for future entries) as well as businesses engaging seafarers or marine workers without the correct documentation in place. Organisations or vessel owners could face fines of up to £20,000 per illegal worker, and even criminal sanctions. However, the risks should certainly not preclude travel and genuine visa applications being made. Vessel owners and employers of seafarers should instead ensure that they obtain expert legal advice on these complex immigration situations.

For further advice regarding Immigration issues in the Marine sector, please contact Ashfords’ Immigration team.

For other queries about the marine sector, please contact the Ashfords’ Marine & Transport team.

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