I was not prepared for what was about to happen at Heathrow’s Border Force and never, did I imagine this sort of treatment as a tourist to the UK.
At Dubai’s airport, I can never understand why if you’ve just come off a plane and in transit (in many major airports), you need to go through the whole customs/security check again. It’s not as if you can stop off mid-air and collect firearms or other unsavoury items.
As usual, Etihad’s service did not disappoint and the food was good for plane fare. The connecting flight was on a larger Airbus 380. However, a whingy 2-year old sat next to me and started being a brat, kicking and nudging me in the thigh every 10 minutes…this was going to be a long flight. I was going to strangle her by the end of the 7 hours.
Landed at Heathrow
Arriving at Heathrow at around 7 am, the Captain announced over the intercom that passengers remain seated and wait, which is a request by the local authorities.
A few minutes later, 5 hefty police officers with machine guns and body armour, came marching down the plane to seats opposite our row. The police knew the exact seat numbers that the two young Middle-Eastern-looking guys were sitting in and positioned themselves around the two guys. Told to collect their bags, they were then escorted off the plane.
It should have dawned on me then that this would be an eventful day. After this incident and travelling some 26+ hours, my ‘welcome’ to the UK unfolded somewhat unexpectedly…
Before going into today’s stressful saga and evolving events, I should briefly mention what happened in Portsmouth back in January, on returning from a 3-month tour through the EU from St. Malo (France) with Reg (motorhome). More detail about my Portsmouth treatment in this post: Driving from Italy to the UK: Part 2.
These days, Immigration is known as Border Force and it’s the Portsmouth Officer’s (Border Force) unprofessional treatment that resulted in my pain. To say that the Officer gave me a hard time is an understatement.
I was indirectly accused of being an “Australian taking advantage of the UK-visa system”, amongst other insulting comments. Unbeknownst to me, this same Officer (abusing his position of authority), stamped my passport with a “Restricted visa”…because he could. I didn’t realise this until this fateful day!
Welcome to the UK!
If you’ve been to Heathrow, you know that EU Passport holders go down one Immigration lane and non-EU Passport holders travel down a different lane. Both lanes are totally separate and away from each other. So, with dual Nationalities, my partner went off into the darkness and down the EU Passport lane. Arranging to meet at the baggage carousels on the other side, I ventured down the non-EU route with the rest of the 800 passengers.
Finally, after about an hours’ line-up at Border Force, it was my turn. Although I looked as if I’d just been dragged out of bed backwards and through a haystack, I managed to smile and remain calm, whilst the female officer asked the initial friendly questions. We were getting on…
Opening my passport and checking her screen, she proceeded to interrogate me rather more aggressively. Quite surprised at this change of heart, I asked politely if I had done anything wrong, which seemed to anger her even more. With a frosty glare, I was advised that the Portsmouth Officer in January was not happy during the questioning and stamped my passport with a different visa to alert any future Border Force Officer.
Proceeding to keep my passport and barking the order to follow her to the ‘Alien waiting area’, she advised that I would be interviewed further to see whether I would be granted entry to the UK or deported back to Australia! This is serious…
Keeping my cool, totally confused to what law I had broken, and a thousand other things running through my head, I advised that my partner was waiting in the carousel area. Advised to contact him and to bring all our luggage to the Officer, I did so texting: “You better come to the Immigration Control area as I think there’s a problem”.
Totally confused as to why I was sitting (with a few other passengers) in a holding area, whilst onlookers obviously wondered what criminal offences had been committed, my partner arrived with our luggage. The Officer returned giving him a hard time (although he’s a UK Citizen) and ordered him to bring all my belongings to a bench.
The interest was in my bags only. Together with another Officer, the She-Devil Officer searched every single compartment in both my packs. Not sure what they thought they would find but extremely thorough! Finding nothing but confiscating every skerrick of paperwork, dockets, itineraries, and even my Diary. My partner’s phone number was taken and he was told to leave the Immigration Control area, and to wait in Arrivals. I was to be detained until further notice.
I was then told to sit back in the holding area until further notice. When I asked how long would this take, the She-Devil aggressively responded, when an Interviewing Officer was available, then this is the time it would take.
Without any information of what law I had broken or how long I would be sitting here, I started to become a little concerned and thought this must be a mistake.
After about another 20-minute wait, a male and female Officer came and escorted me to another completely different area and away from passengers…I was really starting to be quite uncomfortable now…
Detainment for 6 hours
I was advised by the two Officers that I was to be detained until further notice and until an interviewing Officer became available for an Interview. The interview would decide if I would be granted entry or be deported. All that was echoing in my brain at this time was “Until further notice” and “deported”. Let that sink in for a moment…
I politely asked what had I done wrong but no one could tell me what crime I had committed!
If you are a tourist entering the UK and detained, this is what you can expect…
Mug Shot room
As the back detainment area was under renovation, the two officers took me to a little dark and dingy room. Imagine a film set for an old crappy Detective Movie and you get the picture…
In this little room, Mug Shots were taken but also all my finger and palm prints; this was concerning. Working with Finger Printing Technology an age ago, I always remember the Developer’s advice: “Never get all your finger prints in a database as any database can be hacked.”
With that comforting thought, I was led to a newly renovated, clean, and very brightly-lit detainment room.
The room contained a drinks/coffee machine, toilet room, a couple of chairs, magazines, a bean bag, and a public phone, which I thought was weird at the time. Sounds comfy? Think again, I was not allowed to leave this room. The assurance of this is a two-way large window with Security Officers looking out at me…
In this room, I was given a full Body Search (not an internal and still clothed) by a female Security Officer. The very nice Tascor (Security Company) Officer asked whether I required any ‘personal’ items from my day pack before showing me where it would be locked away.
I was not allowed my mobile phone, so he took the number and contacted my partner advising that he was to phone on the hour for an update. I was read some rules and advised that at anytime during detainment, if I wanted a hot meal, then I could request one. He could not tell me for how long I would be detained. I was not allowed to contact anyone.
This is starting to unfold like something out of a Border Force Control series on TV…now I am bloody concerned!
The long wait
Some hours slowly dragged by alone in this room with too much time to think. Meanwhile, my partner was waiting in Arrivals and phoning the Detainment Room’s pay phone on the hour for an update. Each hour, I didn’t have an update.
During the long wait, no one came in to the room to explain what crime I had committed or for how long I would be detained. No information, no contact.
Finally, after some time, yet another female Officer (but very nice) took me to another area.
I was advised that she had researched me for an hour before the interview and proceeded to conduct a full interview for an hour. Everything I said was written down verbatim and I had to sign every page – about 20 pages (I think). I was advised that this information could be used in a Court of Law.
The interview was intense. With each question asked, the officer searched my face to see whether I was lying whilst responding; very degrading.
After an hour’s questioning, the interviewing Officer advised that the “Credibility Interview” was now over and asked if I had any questions. I responded with “Why was I being detained and being treated like this?”
The 3 main reasons:
- Restricted Visa stamp caused the additional questioning.
- I didn’t have a confirmed exit ticket from the UK (although I had provided a legitimate reason and carried confirming paperwork). Additionally, at the time of writing, I can not find any information online that an exit ticket is a UK-requirement.
- The She-Devil stated I was “uncooperative”. This was because I asked if I had done anything wrong and for how long would I be held. Questions you have a right to ask?
Following the interview, I was taken back to the Detainment Room and advised that the Interview Officer would decide whether to grant me an entry visa or deport me back to Australia. Even after this long wait and stressful interview, I still had no idea whether I would be deported.
You think I am making all of this up, right? Incredulous?
This was so ridiculous that I was half-heartedly hoping that a TV Camera crew would jump out at this point and say: “Surprise!” Sadly, this was not to be and so, I waited…
During my 6-hour ordeal, I saw 6 Officers and wonder how UK-Citizens feel about this waste of tax-payer money? Why aren’t these guys chasing real threats?
Free to go!
The Interviewing Officer returned and very friendly, advised I satisfied her that I was sincere in my responses. I was granted a 6-month ‘Restricted’ Tourist Visa but “I could not seek employment”. To which I replied (as in the interview), I am semi-retired, travelling, and did not want to seek anything from the UK.
What the Interview Officer didn’t like was the fact that in the last 2 years, I had been out of Australia more time than in. Since when did long-term travelling become a criminal offence and not in the country of your origin?
I was really starting to be p*ssed off with the UK and decided if the UK didn’t want my money, then I would travel elsewhere. Anyone that’s travelled knows that every day you’re out, costs money. Whether it’s transport, fuel, food, accommodation, sites, clothing, and other. Let’s face it regardless of how much money is spent, travellers still pump money into a country’s economy. Rant over.
Finally, after 6 hours of detainment and Border Force ‘processing’, I was out and waiting for the bus to Somerset, which is about 3 hours from Heathrow. Lucky, it’s an evening bus!
After 37+ hours since starting this journey from Thailand, I was now both physically and mentally drained. Still, I could not sleep on the bus as I was angry.
Letters to Home Office
Quite angry at myself for letting the Portsmouth Officer get away with his behaviour and unprofessionalism after the first incident, I was not going to let this detainment slip by. Hindsight’s a beautiful thing and I should have reported the first officer straight after the incident.
I decided to write a Letter of Complaint to Home Office. If you’ve ever written anything to this department, you know that submitting the letter is confirmed with a we’ll get back to you within “20 working days”.
Having waited 74 working days(!) to receive a response, I was both appalled and insulted that Home Office accused me of fabricating not one, but two experiences with the UK Border Force! I emailed a second response.
Request under FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)
After much research, I decided to submit a request under the FOIA to the Subject Access Request Unit (SARU) and paid my £10 to see what sordid information the UK holds and documented, against my otherwise clear name.
- First letter was returned to me with a lame excuse that I had applied to the wrong Department. I followed their online instructions implicitly.
- Second amended letter was returned with a yet longer explanation that my Driver’s Licence was not endorsed by someone in authority, such as a Solicitor, which is not in their original instructions. This is now a requirement, since mailing my second letter.
- Third letter – about to send again.
It feels as if this department does not want to give me the information and probably wants me to go away, and crawl under a rock in a dark place somewhere.
I’ve been sending letters for the past 8 months.
Following 4 letters to Border Force (still waiting on a last response); 2 letters to SARU (another one yet to write); and still no joy in removing the flag (“Notification”) from my passport or myself, I’m going to keep trying.
Apart from clearing my name, the reason for being so tenacious is that I can be detained again at any time entering the UK or even during a transit. No one in Border Force or Home Office can confirm that this will not happen again.
My experience thus far with the Border Force procedure, is one that is both convoluted and time-consuming, which favours its own establishment and tries to sweep under the carpet any errors. What the procedure does not cover or deter is the manner in which someone that is detained is treated. Border Force advised that it reviewed its procedure of my case. I have no problem with the procedure but the problem I do have is the rude and gruff handling from the first and second Border Force officers; and of course, my detainment.
Home Office also tries to exhaust an applicant in the hope that the person goes away…forever.
I would love to hear from anyone who’s had similar treatment in the UK, or any country for that matter!
Apart from travel in the UK, this little episode hasn’t dampened my travel desires. The next travel chapter? Return to Italy…