Segregation, colonialism and unfreedom at the border

I spent one hour and 20 minutes in the queue at Stansted’s UK Border recently. There were probably 1000 people in the hall, divided into the usual EU passports versus Rest of World. Signs saying Tougher Controls Mean a Longer Wait are dotted around. In fact, tougher controls do not have to mean outrageously long waits, even if more questions are asked of each traveller. Some interrogations last several or more minutes, but if enough agents were allotted, waits could still be reasonable. If, however, management allot only two agents to the 200 people on the non-EU side and interviews take at least a minute – well, things get bad.

On top of this, however, some policy had particular groups of people jumping the queue automatically: not only a disabled person but the five people associated with her, not only the small child holding a flight attendant’s hand but the seven teenagers associated with him. Four such groups occupied one of the agents for half the hour and a half I waited, leaving only one agent to work the 200 in the queue. It was not the eve of a significant tourist event but a Friday evening when ordinary city-break tourists arrive for a London weekend.

The ‘transition’ Home Office website says functions of the UK Border Agency (abolished earlier this year) will be split in two.

On 1 April 2013 the UK Border Agency was split into two separate units within the Home Office: a visa and immigration service and an immigration law enforcement division. By creating two entities instead of one, we will be able to create distinct cultures. First, a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally. And second, an organisation that has law enforcement at its heart and gets tough on those who break our immigration laws.a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally.

The claim of distinct cultures sounds ridiculous to me, but on their own terms they failed miserably the other night. No one came out to apologise to the throng, which, if you want to be nationalistic about it, included several families where one partner had a British passport but the other did not, plus their small children. No one came to explain the delay, or offer cups of water or smiles to demonstrate that a ‘distinct culture’ exists to welcome the majority of travellers to the UK.

When one of the agents closed up and left, I sighed loudly and began talking to the woman next to me. Discussing the length of interviews I mentioned how an official wanted to know the nationality of my friends in Britain. The woman said I thought it was just Asians who were treated like that. The landing card gives the impression that crossing is a formality, but the oral questions make it clear that we in the queue are thought liable to be liars, cheats or worse. If this belief is really at the heart of UK border policy then I would like them to make such a closed, imperialist attitude overt on the landing card.

All who travel often can tell anecdotes about long waits and stupid questions at borders. The UK border is a bad one getting worse all the time but not unique. My object here is not to evoke a stream of crazy anecdotes about worse border-encounters. Instead, I am pointing out how my frequent long sessions at UK airport-borders add up to evidence of the field-work kind. It’s not just well-known journalists and their mates that get detained and delayed and ill-treated at airport borders; officials do not have to imagine you have interesting data on electronic devices to begin invasive questioning. The segregation into separate queues is not based on colour or ethnicity though that comes into play. No, it’s a separation by passports that grant different degrees of citizenship. If you don’t have the right kind you can be mistreated for hours with no way to complain or escape. You cannot go backwards or opt out; you are trapped. And given the situation, the longer you wait the more likely you are to be meek and mollifying when your turn arrives – which is a form of coercion.

These places are closed to reporters and photographers; I have no idea what protection one has, or rights. I do not know what happens if someone falls ill in the queue. Chinese visitors are targeted with an absurd and costly process to come as tourists, which can quite properly be called colonialist.

I believe the British government has an outdated view of Chinese visitors, perhaps rooted in colonial times. They wrongly fear many Chinese will overstay. We have to respect our borders, but such unfounded fears are harming the UK economy. – Chief Executive at London’s Hippodrome Casino

Some estimate the UK is already losing billions of tourist pounds. Why bother to apply if through the easy process of obtaining a Schengen visa you can visit lots of other European countries? Sure the UK has a popular brand, but for most of the world it is neither indispensable nor better than the same cliché-level brand of France or Italy.

Having arrived efficiently on a short flight from Copenhagen, I reached my central London destination three full hours after landing at Stansted. This is really outrageous. Usually I manage to maintain a curious attitude, like in Border Thinking. Sometimes I fail.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

8 thoughts on “Segregation, colonialism and unfreedom at the border

  1. lukas

    I often experience the reverse situation on my short haul flights to the UK: The non-EU queue is so short that even travellers with European passports will switch to the other queue. That said, I rarely fly into Stansted Airport, and your experience may well be representative of what happens there.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Not at all, as I said I fly often into all London airports. I would not make claims about ‘field work’ if it were only one airport or one time of day or one day of the week.

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  3. Non-Gendered

    The landing card pictured above would prove particularly impossible for me as I don’t identify as either female or male. I can’t understand why they need to know a person’s sex. Supposing someone is intersex, or is legally neither male or female by the law of their own country – two recent examples where it’s now possible to hold a legal status of being neither female or male being Australia and Germany, for instance? Why hasn’t the UK Border Agency moved with these changes – and why are they so concerned to know a person’s sex? It can’t be any more than just some irrational fear about people that they don’t understand as if it were based on who is most likely to be a terrorist then all terrorists so far have been either male or female and not gender non-conforming. And as your post rightly intimates, it would be pretty easy for terrorists to get through anyhow. I was on the train the other day and someone left a bag on a seat for the whole journey. They’d probably forgotten to take it with them but there was no-one around/no-one bothered to check it just in case. The whole ‘we’re doing this in the interests of security’ seems mostly either an excuse to cover up a multitude of shortcomings – or merely propaganda aimed at giving the general public a false sense of security as anyone could let a bomb off or commit any other terrorist act if they so wanted.

    1. Laura Agustín

      You’re talking to someone who questions the need to give all kinds of demographic information that is not necessary and probably just sits in a box somewhere till it’s thrown out. Peple just get used to lying on forms, applications etc in order to keep participating in life. I suppose eventually liberal societies will get around to providing more boxes for sex, but these are slow-moving dinosaur institutions.

  4. fojap

    I won’t go into the details since you’ve specifically said that you don’t want a comment thread full of border crossing horror stories, but suffice it to say that I took the train from Paris to London with a U.S. passport two weeks ago and I will never visit the UK again. The grillling I recieved from the guard had such a strange quality I was starting to think that she was angling for a bribe. I might have thought race was behind it, except the guard herself had darker skin than I. Did she perhaps think I was Jewish? I’ve also been mistaken for Turkish while traveling in Europe. She was downright humiliating at times. When I arrived at the hotel, I sat down in the hotel bar and, embarassingly, broke down in tears.

    I don’t want to oversell myself as a world traveler or anything like that, but I have traveled enough to have a basis of comparison. The UK is one place to which I will never, never return. The line of questioning was such that it was more humiliating than when I was taken to a back room and physically searched before boarding a plane in Austria. At least they tried to be as courteous and professional as they could under the circumstance. And my complaint had nothing to do with the lines. I’m actually relatively patient about that.

    The UK really has something to think about regarding the questions they ask and the point behind all of them. I was asked about money multiple times. It was just odd and hard to explain. The woman at one point implied that I might be a prostitute. I’m nearly fifty years old! I was attending a conference on human rights. I had my hotel comfirmation, saying it was paid for, and several hundred pounds in cash on me, and this woman seemed to think I had flown from New York to Paris so I could take the train to London to be a street walker. Have you ever felt that a person in a position of power was trying to goad you into saying or doing something. It was maddening.

    A friend who is, like me, a U.S. citizen also had a terrible time recently. She, it might be worth pointing out, is half Asian. (U.S. born, professional woman traveling on business.)

    Interestingly, several would be presenters at the conference had to cancel because they couldn’t get visas.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Border-processing is getting more repulsive everywhere, and the UK border is a good example, as anti-Europe sentiments give certain politicians an easy opportunity. If you hold a US passport you probably haven’t experienced the even more drastic hell that the US border can be for innocent travellers. But I could tell a horror story about Orly airport in Paris myself, another about the Uruguay-Brazil border and so on and on. Last week’s winner of border-horror was Australia, with a shameful anti-migration video.

      Simultaneously you’ll always get people who’ve never had any trouble taking the same route you were tormented on, because while all border officials receive training and are given lists of weird questions to ask (to trip you up), not all interviewers act the same and not all time-periods are the same. If there’s been an ‘incident’ recently of a certain type, there’ll be a profile that’s targeted afterwards. All this is invisible to the hapless traveller.


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