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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Travellers left in limbo by US suspension of Turkey visa services 

The unprecedented step by the United States to halt the provision of all non-immigration visas in Turkey followed the arrest of an employee at the US consulate in Istanbul

The United States Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. Tumay Berkin/ EPA
The United States Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. Tumay Berkin/ EPA

Huge amounts of time, money and planning had gone into Vida’s trip to Ankara, the Turkish capital, to obtain an American visa. An Iranian national, she had bought flights, hotels and paid for the translation of reams of documents as part of the preparations to visit her four siblings living in the United States. But, when she turned up for her appointment on Tuesday morning, it was cancelled. She had been caught in the crossfire of a diplomatic row between Ankara and Washington that saw the suspension of the majority of visa services on Sunday night.

“We are not guilty of anything,” said Vida, who declined to give her surname, with a frustrated shrug. “We are just normal people. I just want to see my family.”

The unprecedented step by the United States to halt the provision of all non-immigration visas in Turkey followed the arrest of an employee at the US consulate in Istanbul.

In a video statement on Monday night, US ambassador John Bass said the arrest of the Turkish citizen, the second US staffer to be detained this year, had “raised questions about whether the goal of some officials is to disrupt the long-standing co-operation between Turkey and the United States.”

Although the arrest triggered the suspension of visa services, it came against the backdrop of wider escalating tensions between the two Nato allies.

The two countries have found themselves increasingly at odds over the conflict in Syria, the prosecution of a prominent Turkish-Iranian businessman on charges of circumventing US sanctions, and the failed coup in July last year.

In total, a dozen American citizens are being held on allegations of supporting Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric exiled in Pennsylvania who stands accused of masterminding the 2016 attempted putsch. US diplomats believe that they are being used as bargaining chips in an effort to force the extradition of Mr Gulen. The arrest last week of the US consular employee, and the summoning of another worker for questioning on Monday, appears to have been the final straw.

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Read more:

Turkish PM says visa dispute with US must be fixed quickly

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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the US decision to limit visa services was "saddening." It was followed almost immediately with a similar retaliatory measure for US citizens applying for visas to Turkey. The row hit the Turkish stock market and the lira, prompting alarm from business groups. Figures across the political spectrum in Turkey have called for the dispute to be resolved quickly.

The measures announced on Sunday do not affect those seeking to move to the United States permanently, but apply to anyone applying in Turkey for a visa for the purposes of tourism, business or study. These make up the bulk of Turkish visits to America. In 2016, the US embassy issued just 4,214 immigrant visas, compared with 113,240 for non-immigrant purposes.

In his statement, Mr Bass said the move was “not a visa ban on Turkish citizens,” but rather “a suspension of our consideration of new visa applications. If you have a valid visa, you can still travel to the United States. If you want to apply for a visa at another US embassy or consulate outside of Turkey, you are free to do so.”

But that argument was rejected on Tuesday by the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yildirim. “Who are you punishing? You are punishing your own country and the people of our country,” he said. He called for the dispute to be resolved immediately.

Outside the US embassy in Ankara — open on Tuesday for the first time since the eruption of the crisis following a national holiday on Monday — the mood was anxious and uncertain.

Most of those with applications for immigration visas reported having no problems. But some were unsure as to whether their appointments still stood. “I’m supposed to have an appointment on Thursday,” said a Turkish man pushing his son in a pram, who had passed by the embassy to check. “I’m meant to be going to the US to open a restaurant. I hope it’s going to be OK.”

Most of those gathered on the leafy side street where the entrance to the consular section is located were from Iran. Long-standing tensions between Washington and Tehran mean that Iranians must travel to a third country to obtain an American visa. Many reported confusion over the process.

Peiman Hasari, an Iranian karate champion trying to obtain a visa to move to Chicago to work as a martial arts teacher, had travelled to Ankara from the city of Hamadan in the hope of completing the final paperwork.

He said that he had tried to send his passport via the Turkish postal service as requested by the embassy, but the post office had refused to accept it, warning that his documents would be sent back.

This is the second time Mr Hasari, 33, has journeyed to Turkey for visa purposes. The first time he fell foul of the chaos over Donald Trump's ban on visitors from six Muslim-majority countries. And now he is caught up in the dispute between Turkey and the US.

“I’ve been trying to get this visa for about two years,” he said. “When I heard about this latest argument, I just thought: Oh God. It’s a double punishment.”