Shine A Light

Neither working at a kebab shop, nor intending to blow up a plane

On the routine indignities of a migrant's life in Britain.

Güneş Tavmen
22 November 2013

gunes tavmen

The author in the Highlands, Summer 2013

“Are you working at a Kebab shop?” the policewoman at Gatwick Airport border control was yelling at a Turkish man who could not speak any English. He was trying to tell her – in Turkish - that he just came to visit his son and the son was actually waiting outside the airport. I understood what he said, and naturally the policewoman could not.

For a second I thought about offering help to translate. I gave up right away, as by now I learnt very well that the border controls are places where basic human interaction is not allowed. Plus, whilst watching that conversation, I, myself was trying to keep calm, ignoring my pacing heart as I get so tense and stressed every time I am at the border of a European Union country.

I get stressed because I know I will be asked all these mind-game questions that aim to test whether I lied at the point of getting my visa as if the border officer would magically detect an inconsistency and send me back home. And this enquiry will be done with the most patronising and humiliating attitude possible. I will be asked over and over where I am going to stay, the reason for my coming, if I have a return ticket, if I know anyone living in that country… And because I, as a Turkish person already have to go through all sorts of humiliation applying for a visa in my home country, I have little patience left for yet another interrogation done in such a degrading way.

I have been going through these since 1999, the very first time I travelled to a European Union country — the Netherlands. By then, I had a green passport, which exempted me from having to get a visa for most of the Schengen countries. It didn't, though, exempt me from being interrogated.

The reason I had this passport was that my mother was working for the government as an engineer then. And as her daughter and a student, I was eligible for that “special” passport too. The passport, by which the Turkish government guarantees that its holders are neither illegal immigrants nor terrorists. For the rest, the Turkish government does not guarantee that they would not be ‘illegitimate’ in any way and so EU countries act just as they wish. So, to be fair, discrimination starts right at home.

When I first read Les Back and Shamser Sinha's influential work on the texts that the UK Border Agency has been sending to 'immigrants’ advising them it was time to leave the UK, and then their article on racist vans, I thought, "At last!  The ways UKBA treats overseas people are finally made public!" I really am happy that somebody has spoken out about this. But, in my opinion the issue roots much deeper. The unfair and debasing process starts at the point when a non-EU person decides to travel to a EU country for whatever reason.

Since my first experience of travelling abroad, it has got only worse. Visa fees have risen to around 70 Euro (£80 for the shortest stay in the UK) and the application documents have got more and more detailed and varied. The questions regarding your 'true' intentions for travelling seem designed by expert psychologists to trip you up.

In order to make clear that I want only to have a little holiday abroad, that I'm not sneaking into the country to settle down and abuse the social security system, I have to prove my work details with original documents. That's not enough. They want detailed bank statement for the past 6 months or so, proving that I have sufficient cash. The kind of information I consider to be very personal.

Some EU countries demand proof of where the immediate family live and whether they also have an income. The requirement to give a fingerprint as if you are a criminal is barely worth mentioning, it has become such common practice.

Last year, when I applied for a student visa to study here in the UK, I didn’t go through any kind of hassle, thanks to the scholarship I had received from the UK government. So all of a sudden, being successful in a scholarship application means I'm no longer considered a potential terrorist.

But that's a privilege only ten people hold a year in Turkey. Other students, who have scholarships from elsewhere, or no scholarship at all, go through a very costly (a non-refundable minimum fee of £300 per application) and an utterly unpleasant process. So unless there is a governmental patronage guaranteeing that I am thoroughly legitimate, I am by default taken as a potential illegal immigrant or a terrorist as a starting point.

Is this because EU countries are simply trying to prevent illegal immigration and terrorist activities? I don't think so. States could surely pursue those objectives without resorting to humiliation and degradation as a matter of routine.

Last year in October, I rose at dawn and travelled across London to start queuing at 6am outside Borough police station in order to be registered. (Not all overseas nationals must register, only those of us from an apparently random selection of countries.) Three hours went by . . . four, five, six, seven, under constant rain and grinding my teeth with fury and shame.

When I finally managed to get into the building, it was past 1pm. Why not supply a ticket to people in the queue, so that they could wait indoors at least? Why force some hundred people to stand in pouring rain in front of the building? When this shoddy practice was exposed by the BBC and the Guardian, the Border Agency switched to a new process, via universities, which takes about 15 minutes. Why couldn't they think of that before?

Since then, throughout the academic year, I have been receiving hostile automatic email messages from my university's Border Agency Compliance Officer. These messages relied on the presumption that my studies were a fiction, concocted to enable me to get into the country for some nefarious purpose. In order to prove my authenticity, that I attended my lectures diligently, I had to click a link within the email. What kind of proof is that? None at all. But it serves some purpose: it keeps us students alert, agitated, anxious.  It makes us feel that we are not welcome here. 

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