Thursday, May 17, 2012

Holiday horror stories - (Not) Welcome to the UK

Lake Windemere Lake District
This experience changed me forever. I have heard horror stories regarding customs and immigration officials before, but you know how it is when someone tells a story. It’s not happening to you and so you laugh, or sympathise, or whatever is appropriate, and move on to the next subject.

The background to this story is that my now husband, at this time he was my civil partner, does contract work in the oil industry. He holds a British passport and his family live in the UK, but he grew up in South Africa and we have a home together in Cape Town.

Banksy's wall art in London
I travel back and forth so we can spend time together. As a South African passport holder, back then, we were commonwealth members and eligible to come to the UK for a maximum period of 6 months without a visa.

My partner had been working hard in Scotland and had planned for me to join him in the UK. From there we were heading off to Croatia for a few weeks holiday before he went back to work, and shortly after, I would return to South Africa.

Temple Wood stone circle
I duly arrived at Heathrow Airport and we spent a night or two in London with his aunt. Next we flew from Gatwick Airport to Dubrovnik where we had a wonderful holiday. On our return my partner went through immigration via the 'UK Passport Holders' section and I went where 'All Other Passport Holders' go.

St Pancras Station where the Eurostar departs
As I handed my passport to the woman helping me she asked why I had come to the UK only to leave a few days later. I explained. This wasn’t good enough for her. The questioning went on and on and the more I tried to explain the less this woman would hear me. I asked her what the problem

was. What had I done wrong? Then she became downright rude. She said that I couldn’t come and go as I pleased and she knew “my sort”. She threatened to deport me. To say I was shocked and upset would be a complete understatement.

I'm sorry to say that the situation actually got even worse. I explained to her that my partner would be worrying about where I was. She then told me that . . . . if my partner wanted me to be with him  . . . . .  he would have married me. 

I may come from Africa, which is viewed as third-world by some, but I have never been spoken to like that back home.

Narrow boating on the canals in Cheshire
I was ordered to sit. This woman helped the next person to arrive and ignored me. And she helped the next person. And the next . . . . 
I sat there. And sat. And sat.

Eventually my other half realised something was wrong and started looking for me. He made his way back into immigration trying to find me. I saw him and got up to wave and let him know I was stuck and no-one was helping me. This woman ordered me to sit back down. 

My husband realised there was a problem, found someone in authority and had a word. The person my husband spoke to came let me go. She suggested I get a multi-entry visa in future. Which I did.

My story is not unique. I know plenty South Africans who have had harrowing ordeals at the hands of the UK Border Control staff. I can't help but notice that people who hold passports from so called 'first world' countries have far less of a problem than those who have other passports.

Covent Garden London
But I have heard even worse stories from people who have traveled to the USA. Being a member of the 'first world' passport holders club doesn't help there. My husband missed a flight because he stood in a queue for so long, despite allowing more than the required time to board his flight. Meanwhile his cousin had a similar tale in a USA immigration queue. Babies were going without their feeds and diabetics were collapsing from waiting so long to move through immigration. Both have vowed never to set foot in the USA ever again.

Which begs the question, why would countries treat enthusiastic visitors with such disdain? I realise that many countries face huge problems with immigrants entering illegally. I understand these immigrants take jobs and benefits from people. But scaring off visitors or family members who come to spend money is hardly the way to go about solving the problem. Many people are too scared to visit the UK or USA because of other people's horror stories. The balance of power is shifting and many 'third world' countries have stronger economies and visitors with money to spend. A debt strapped country could surely benefit from visitors.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a handful of people with a little bit of power and they totally misuse it. What would have happened if I had traveled alone, if my partner wasn’t British and if he hadn’t rescued me? I suspect if that woman had her way I would have been deported.

Cardiff Castle
So how did this change me? My partner and I got married. We try to arrive in the UK together. My husband always comes through 'All Other Passport Holders' section together with me now. Apparently Brits can enter any side they want.

We also make sure I travel with every possible document and all our travel information at hand so I am best able to answer the questions designed to trick you, even after a 13 hour long-haul flight and 24 hours of no sleep. It is now compulsory for South Africans to enter the UK with a visa but we made sure I had one before they became necessary.

Central London at night
I no longer view the UK as the land of my ancestors. My grandfather and my parent's uncles on both sides of my family fought in two world wars for Britain. Lives were lost in my family for Britain. Marriages unraveled and children grew up without their fathers who believed they were doing their bit for Britain. But the descendants of these brave men are clearly not welcome in the UK.

Crinan Marina Scotland
I expected that people in a first world countries would be well behaved or at the very least civil and hold progressive views. Boy was I wrong. 

For more Holiday Horror Stories read - Wrong airport in IndiaCanal boating on the Rochdale Nine and Taxi in Zanzibar

Go to - My Holidays and Trips - at the top of this page to read about other places we have visited. Or just click on - this link.