James Hughesonslow

Hop off, you Aussies

James Hughes-Onslow on how the humiliating ordeal of an Australian friend at Stansted illustrates the rudeness and incompetence of British immigration officers

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‘Individuals who seek to create fear, distrust and divisions in order to stir up terrorist activity will not be tolerated by the government or by our communities.’ So said Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, on Wednesday, when outlining the grounds on which undesirable foreigners can be deported or excluded from the UK.

But you don’t have to create fear and distrust to find yourself excluded. Being Australian will do. Earlier this month, an old schoolfriend of my wife’s was booted out of England for no reason that she — or we — could understand. Julie Hope, a 50-year-old divorcee and mother of three grown-up children, arrived to stay with us in London in March. She had given up her job as a garden designer so that she could take what she called a ‘late gap year’. She has many friends and relations in England and Europe. Her father is an influential New South Wales grazier, and her children were educated at Prince Charles’s old school, Geelong Grammar.

Last month Julie accompanied us on a holiday to France, but left before us to stay with cousins in Suffolk. We took her to Nice airport for the easyJet flight to Stansted. It was all very routine. What followed, however, was anything but routine.

About eight hours after her flight left, Julie rang me on my mobile to tell me she was being sent back to Nice on the next easyJet flight, and would we please pick her up at the airport? There was no time to ask her what had happened. Could it be that the immigration officers at Stansted, in their post-7 July zeal to protect our borders, had decided that Julie was somehow an undesirable alien? The idea was just too absurd ... and then we heard Julie’s story.

As she came through the arrivals gate, eyes red and swollen, she was barely able to describe the horrors she had endured at the hands of Charles Clarke’s finest. For five and a half hours they had bullied and humiliated her, rifling her personal correspondence and belongings, eventually arriving at conclusions so utterly wrong that they would be laughable if they weren’t so sinister. Julie’s crime, it seems, was that she had worked illegally in England. The immigration officers discovered the ‘evidence’ for this in Julie’s diary and personal correspondence, which they read without her permission.

Julie came here to see friends and to enjoy herself. She stayed with us in south London and also with friends of hers and ours in Holland Park, Suffolk, Hampshire and Northumberland, lending a hand in house and garden, as is the Australian way. She once accompanied a busload of children from my daughter’s school as an unpaid ‘responsible adult’ on a trip to Normandy. She made four trips to France, staying with friends in Brittany and Rouen and going to Flanders with her parents. All these details were neatly chronicled in a notebook in her handbag, with addresses and telephone numbers. She also had with her a letter from her mother to say that friends in Scotland might have her to stay for the grouse season.

Julie’s ordeal began at the passport desk. She was asked for mobile numbers of friends and relations, presumably to check her credentials. She was not, however, allowed to ring her cousins in Suffolk, who had sent a car to collect her.

Her bags, which had been taken off the carousel and dumped in a corner, were opened by a man with rubber gloves. Later she was confronted by a woman, also wearing rubber gloves. Julie thought she was going to be strip-searched, but mercifully she was spared that indignity. The immigration people telephoned two of her UK contacts, neither of whom was told what was going on, but Julie herself was not given the chance to ring anyone, not even a lawyer. The conduct of the immigration officers seemed deliberately calculated to demean and frighten her.

Then she was summoned to an interview room. ‘Hello, I’m Julie,’ she said, holding out her hand to her inquisitor, a woman. ‘I didn’t catch your name.’ ‘I’m not required to give my name,’ snapped the woman. ‘Are you in a fit state to answer my questions?’ The woman started to write, occasionally asking questions, most of them rude and unpleasant. Julie tried to explain that they’d got the wrong end of the wrong stick, but it became clear that they were convinced she’d been working illegally in the UK and were not going to budge. The questions were a mere formality.

The notion of unpaid help, or of Australians using London as a base for quick trips to Europe, was obviously more than the woman could handle. She asked Julie about her unpaid babysitting for the children of her first cousin, a banker with Goldman Sachs. ‘Surely, that’s not illegal, is it?’ asked Julie incredulously. It simply hadn’t occurred to her, as a law-abiding citizen, that there was anything wrong with helping friends and relatives out.

The interrogator left her to her own devices for an hour and a half. When she returned she told Julie, ‘You’ve given up your job. Why did you come here? It looks as if you’re making England your base.’ Then she delivered her verdict: Julie was to be denied entry to Britain. ‘You’ll be leaving on the 6 p.m. plane and going back to Nice.’

Julie’s passport and other documents were put in a big brown envelope labelled ‘Removal of persons from the United Kingdom’. She was escorted to the plane by an armed guard and the envelope was handed to the easyJet captain. In Nice, Julie was met by eight French customs men and she feared another humiliation. But they were hugely sympathetic. ‘This is ridiculous,’ they said when she told them her story. ‘We like Australians. You are welcome to stay as long as you like.’

Opening her brown envelope, Julie found it contained a statement full of errors and fabrications. According to it, she had a four-month visa, which had expired, when in fact she had a six-month visa, which was still valid. The statement claimed: ‘You have based yourself in the UK with Christina Hughes-Onslow, an old schoolfriend, for whom you help with domestic duties in return for free accommodation and food. During your stay you have also cared for children in return for cash, accommodation and food. Furthermore, you initially denied that you had intended to take a job in France, for which you do not have permission, and only admitted to it when questioned further.’

All this is a grotesque distortion. My wife and I had fed and housed Julie as an old friend. There was no deal between us. Julie had cared for the children of relatives, but had not been a paid babysitter. Nor had she been given accommodation and food in return for help. She did not admit to taking a job in France, though she acknowledged that at one stage she had hoped to stay with Australian friends in France, and help around the house as she had for other friends and relations. Innocent until proved guilty? Not according to the immigration service. Julie had given ‘insufficient reliable information’ and had failed ‘to give satisfactory answers’ to their inquiries.

The document was initialled — the initials were indecipherable — but not signed. Its contents should have been explained to Julie and signed in her presence. ‘The contents of this notice have been explained to you in English by me,’ declared the document. They also appear to have slipped up in not allowing Julie to ring her friends. According to the document: ‘You may on request have one person known to you or who is likely to take an interest in your welfare informed at public expense as soon as practicable of your whereabouts.’

‘They rang me to ask about Julie but they never told us she was being deported,’ says her cousin Jocelyn Magnus, wife of merchant banker Sir Laurie Magnus. ‘They never allowed me to talk to her and they made no attempt to investigate our credentials to vouch for her. They wouldn’t give their names and they wouldn’t say who they were accountable to. They didn’t seem to understand that it is quite normal for guests to help around the house. When I stayed with Julie’s family in Australia, I made tons of apricot jam and I helped with the artificial insemination of sheep. I was never paid.’

What’s going on? It is perfectly true that Julie would not have passed the Tebbit cricket test. If she were here now, she would be rooting for Australia. Might her ordeal have something to do with the heightened state of security, however? According to a spokesman at the Australian High Commission, ‘there’s been a noticeable tightening up at UK airports. We’ve certainly noticed an increase in the number of people who’ve contacted us, but we don’t keep figures. We can’t intervene. It’s something for the UK Home Office.’ Or was Julie simply a victim of bloody-mindedness? The Australian embassy in Paris told us that British immigration authorities were ‘absolute buggers’.

A woman from Southern Cross, an immigration information service for Australians overseas, agreed. ‘From what we hear, Australians are finding British immigration much tougher these days,’ she said. ‘There are more Australians being deported and immigration officials seem very suspicious of those who try to come in on a visitor’s visa. The stories I hear suggest that Australians are being given more of a grilling, they’re asked a lot of personal questions and need to be able to show officers that they’ve booked a plane ticket home. I think it’s just part of a general crackdown on immigration. Australians make easy targets.’

Indeed they do. Julie was not the first Australian friend of ours to fall foul of immigration. Another one, Belinda Crombie, a 22-year-old postgraduate advertising trainee from Brisbane, was stopped by immigration at Dover in the spring of 2000 and made to get out of the car. ‘Keep out of this, it’s got nothing to do with you,’ said the officials when we tried to intervene on her behalf. In 2001, yet another friend, Elisabeth Loughnan, an 18-year-old gap-year student from Geelong, was held for two hours in a room at Heathrow without being told why she was being detained or why she was not allowed to speak to anyone. Both girls took it on the chin: their friends had warned them about the British.

I found a less laid-back Australian visitor to Britain on the internet this week. He is so angry at the way he was treated that he has posted an open letter on the internet addressed to ‘the UK Immigration staff at Heathrow Airport’. ‘You are not gods,’ he writes. ‘You are not highly trained agents of the British government and you certainly are not intelligent. You are for the most part failed police officers. You say to me, “I have the right to let you into the country or deny you entry.” Yes, you are absolutely correct. I, however, should have the right to have the visa issued by your government acknowledged and the right to enter the country unobstructed as a result.’

It is a question of attitude rather than of numbers: according to Home Office figures, 819,000 Australians travelled to the UK in 2003 and only 315 were refused entry. The trouble with attitudes, however, is that they can become entrenched. It would be a shame if we were to become as jumpy as the Americans. Visitors to the United States are now sometimes photographed and fingerprinted by immigration officers, and, if they go in on the visa-waver scheme, must assert that they will not engage in criminal or immoral activities. It would also be a shame if, in an understandable attempt to tighten security, we ended up offending people from friendly countries whose citizens pose no terrorist threat.

Julie is in some ways lucky. She has generous friends in Provence, who have lent her their house, where she makes herself useful in her usual style. She is fortunate, too, in that the French authorities do not believe that she and her friends are engaged in a conspiracy. Like all Australians, Julie long ago ceased referring to Britain as the ‘home country’. Now, however, she may start referring to it as perfidious Albion.

James Hughes-Onslow is deputy editor of the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary.