How can anyone ever be prepared when landing in the UK, for detainment at Heathrow Airport for 6 hours?
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 does not disappoint and the food is good for plane fare. The connecting larger Airbus 380, sees me sitting next to a whingy 2-year old brat – kicking and nudging me in the thigh every 10 minutes – this is going to be a long flight and I’m going to strangle her by the end of the 7 hours.
Landed at Heathrow
Arriving at Heathrow at around 7 am, the Captain announces that passengers remain seated and wait – a request by 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 are sitting in and position themselves around the two guys. Told to collect their bags, they are 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 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 lane with the rest of the 800 passengers.
Finally, after an hours’ line-up at Border Force, it’s my turn. Although I looked as if I’d just been dragged out of bed backwards, I manage to smile and remain calm, whilst the female officer asks the initial friendly questions.
We are getting on…
Opening my passport and checking her screen, she proceeds to interrogate me rather more aggressively.
Quite surprised at this change of heart, I asked politely if I have done anything wrong, which seems to anger her even more. With a frosty glare, I’m 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. Really?
Proceeding to keep my passport and barking the order to follow her to the ‘alien waiting area’, she advises 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, but totally confused to what law I’ve broken, and a thousand other things running through my head, I advised that my partner is waiting in the carousel area. I’m allowed to contact him to bring all our luggage to the officer, so I texted: ‘You better come to the Immigration Control area as I think there’s a problem’.
Still totally confused as to why I am sitting with a few other passengers in a holding area, whilst onlookers obviously wonder what criminal offences I committed, my partner arrives with our luggage. The officer (named her She-Devil) returns giving him a hard time although he’s a UK Citizen and orders him to bring all my belongings to a bench.
The interest is in my bags only.
Together with another officer, the She-Devil searches every single compartment in both my packs. Not sure what they thought they would find but extremely thorough. Finding nothing, they still confiscated every skerrick of paperwork, dockets, itineraries, and even my diary. My partner’s phone number is recorded and he’s told to leave the Immigration Control area, and to wait in Arrivals as I am being detained until further notice.
Then told to sit back in the holding area, I ask how long this would 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 another 20-minute wait, a male and female officer came and escorted me to another completely different area, away from passengers.
I am really starting to be quite uncomfortable now…
Detainment for 6 hours
I’m advised by the two officers that I am being detained until further notice and until an interviewing officer becomes available for an Interview. The interviewer 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 ask, what have I done wrong, but no one can tell me what crime I have 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 is under renovation, the two officers lead me to a dark and dingy small room.
Imagine a film set on an old crappy B-Grade Detective Movie and you get the picture.
In this small room, mug shots are taken but also all my finger and palm prints – this is 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 this comforting thought, I am led to a newly renovated, clean, and very brightly-lit detainment room.
The room contains a drinks/coffee machine, separate toilet, a couple of chairs, magazines, a bean bag, and a public phone – weird.
Sounds comfy? Think again, I am not allowed to leave this room. The assurance of this is a two-way large window with several security officers looking out at me…
In this room, I am given a full Body Search (not an internal and still clothed) by a female security officer. The very nice Tascor officer (security company) asks whether I required any personal items from my day pack, before showing me where it is to be locked away.
I am not allowed my mobile phone, so my partner’s number is recorded again, then he phoned my partner advising that he should phone on the hour for an update. I am read some rules and advised that at anytime during detainment, if I want a hot meal, then I can request one but he can’t tell me for how long I would be detained.
I am 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 drag by, alone in this room with too much time to think.
Meanwhile, my partner is waiting in Arrivals and phoning the pay phone on the hour for an update. Each hour that passes, I haven’t an update.
During the long wait, no one came into the room to explain what crime I committed or for how long I would be detained.
No information. No contact. Just like a criminal. Actually, worse than a criminal as a criminal is allowed a lawyer.
Finally, after some time, yet another female officer (very nice) takes me to another area – a corridor.
I’m advised that she researched me for an hour before the interview and proceeds to conduct a full interview for another hour.
Everything I say is written down verbatim and I have to sign every page – about 20 pages (I think). I’m advised that this information can be used in a Court of Law.
The interview is intense.
With each question asked the officer searches my face to see whether I am lying whilst responding. Very degrading.
After an hour’s questioning, the officer advises that the Credibility Interview is now over and asks if I had any questions.
My response: Why am I being detained and being treated like this?
The three main reasons:
- Restricted Visa stamp caused the additional questioning.
- I don’t have a confirmed exit ticket for the UK (although I have provided a legitimate reason and carry confirming paperwork). Additionally, at the time of writing, I cannot find any information online that an exit ticket is a UK-requirement.
- The She-Devil stated I was ‘uncooperative’. This is because I asked if I had done anything wrong and for how long would I be held. Questions you have a right to ask?
After the interview, I’m escorted back to the Detainment Room and advised that the interviewing officer will decide whether to grant me an entry visa or deport me back to Australia. Even after this long wait and stressful interview, I still have no idea whether I am being deported.
You think I am making all of this up, right? Incredulous?
This is so ridiculous that I am half-heartedly hoping that a TV Camera crew will jump out at this point and say: Surprise!
Sadly, this is not what happened. I wait.
During my 6-hour ordeal, I’ve seen six officers and wonder how UK-citizens feel about this waste of taxpayer money? Why aren’t these guys chasing real threats?
Free to go!
The interviewing officer returns and very friendly, advises I satisfied her that I was sincere in my responses.
Granted a 6-month ‘Restricted’ Tourist Visa but advised ‘I cannot seek employment’. To which I reply (as in the interview): I am semi-retired, travelling, and did not want to seek anything from the UK.
The interviewing officer didn’t like the fact that in the last 2 years, I have been out of Australia more time than in my country.
Since when did long-term travelling become a criminal offence and not in the country of your origin?
Really starting to be p*ssed off with the UK and decide if the UK doesn’t want my money, then I can travel elsewhere. Anyone that’s travelled knows that every day you’re out, costs money. Whether it’s for 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 am free and waiting for the bus to Somerset – about 3 hours from Heathrow. Lucky, it’s an evening bus.
After 37+ hours since starting this journey from Thailand, I am now both physically and mentally drained. Still, I cannot sleep on the bus – I am much too 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 am not going to let this detainment slip by. Hindsight’s a beautiful thing and I should have reported the first officer straight after the mistreatment.
I 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’ response.
After waiting 74 working days(!) to receive a response, I am both appalled and insulted that Home Office accused me of fabricating not one, but two experiences with the UK Border Force!
I email a second response.
Request under FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)
After much research, I decide to submit a request under the FOIA to the Subject Access Request Unit (SARU) and pay £10 to see what sordid information the UK holds, and documented against my otherwise clear name.
- First letter is returned to me with a lame excuse that I have applied to the wrong Department. I followed their online instructions implicitly.
- Second amended letter is returned with a yet longer explanation that my Driver’s Licence is 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 – another long-winded explanation with yet another long-winded new form to complete.
It feels as if this department does not want to give me the information – 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); 3 letters to SARU; 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 6-hour 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 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, as I advised Border Force that I would do – I wasn’t lying!