Eight hours in airport detention for wanting to talk about a course? Welcome to the UK

US PhD applicant Sabine Parrish recalls an unpleasant encounter with UK immigration

February 22, 2016
Razor wire and searchlights

Immigration official at Stansted Airport: “How old are you?”

Me: “25.”

Immigration official: “So you are telling me that you will graduate from this course at the age of 30, having never held full-time or valuable employment?”

Me: “I hope to be a professor.”

Immigration official: “I’m sure you do. I said ‘valuable’ employment. You are 25. You are an adult, not a child. School is where we put children.”

This was the final, humiliating, exchange I had with the border guards before being led away to detention.

To set the scene: I am an American citizen. I was entering the UK last month to visit friends and meet with potential doctoral supervisors. I am a 2015 master’s graduate of the University of Oxford, and I remained faithful to all terms of my student visa throughout my original stay in the UK.

As an American, I do not require a visa to enter the UK for tourism, nor do I need one to attend “a conference, meeting, or training”.

These were the purposes of my visit, yet I was first stopped on account of not possessing formal letters of invitation for interview by the universities (impossible, as I wasn’t actually being interviewed, merely attending an informal meeting).

My fate was sealed, however, when Border Force discovered that I did not have £19,000 currently in my bank account to pay for a full year of study here. Yes, I was detained on account of having insufficient personal funds to pay for a course that I hadn’t even been accepted into.

Allow me to explain what eight hours in airport detention are like. To begin with, you spend the first four hours alone in a small room.

In the moments before your phone is confiscated, you have time to send two texts. First to your best friend, letting her know that you’ve run into some trouble and might not make it over to hers tonight so don’t worry about staying up (knowing full well that this will worry her into staying up all night).

Next, to your mother, but you only have the chance to say, “I think I’m being deported.” She will, of course, spend the next many hours in a panic halfway across the world as you continue to not answer her incoming texts or calls.

Just before midnight, you go to a new room where you get your fingerprints and an absolutely charming mugshot taken.

Your fingerprints are now on file for a decade. You try to point out that the UK already has your fingerprints – you willingly surrendered them two years ago as part of the conditions of your student visa.

The next hours are spent in a communal holding cell. There aren’t gender-separated cells, so you decide that the best course of action is to stay awake – despite the watchful eyes of the staff through the window, you’re not entirely trustful of the male detainee in here making kissing faces at you.

At 2.45am – after you’ve waited for nearly seven hours – they begin the interview process. Of course, they query your travel history – comprehensively. You are asked to explain the purposes of 28 passport pages worth of international trips, and how they were, in every case, paid for. In chronological order. And to explain what exactly you think you’re doing in this country now.

Expect many questions about your research and your entire academic history. It’s helpful to consider this – a layperson-friendly research explanation when sleep-deprived, incredibly stressed and rather hungry – as great practice for the future: you will be unflappable when facing conference or lecture audiences.

From the very start of my airport detention adventure, it was clear that at play was both a lack of understanding as to how the postgraduate education system works and little prospect of viewing students (or potential students) and academics as desirable immigrants.

The current blanket crackdown on overall immigration numbers is having an impact across the student spectrum. From Paul Hamilton, the Shakespeare scholar arrested at his home, to the vast numbers of my international student friends facing unprecedented and increasing levels of scrutiny upon each subsequent entry, students are feeling the pressure.

And, what’s more, these policies present a deterrent to those merely expressing interest in studying in the UK. I can only imagine the implications that this short-sighted approach to cutting immigration numbers will have on the UK’s ability to remain a leading producer of research and knowledge.

Somewhere along the line, someone realised that I couldn’t be held for not having the finances for a course that I’m not even in.

And so, all facts pertaining to my case and reasons for being in the country having checked out, I was finally released from custody at 4.01am into the warm and welcoming glow of Stansted arrivals.

Sabine Parrish is the associate editor of Standart Magazine. Home Office permitting, she hopes to complete an anthropology PhD in the UK.

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Reader's comments (7)

Why do you need to visit the UK in-person for informal inquiries into a doctoral program and spend a lot of money on a plane ticket? Do you have any remaining ties back to the US such as employment or do you want to immigrate to the UK? You've been in the UK for a few years, so it's unlikely you are here for tourism or business purposes (no job) for the visa free option. They looked through your phone to see if you're intending to work or otherwise move to the UK on this trip. This is no different than someone foolishly coming back to the UK as a visa-free "tourist" to see Buckingham Palace after a previous long stint on a working holiday visa. I'm sorry, but you sound a little naive. Australia, US, and Canada would all do the same thing and pry through your cell phone.
@frankm1_273951 Utter nonsense. I've visited the US several times both for tourism and for business purposes and never had any problems going back time after time - other than having to queue for a while on entry. As Ms Parrish makes clear, she was also visiting friends. Her treatment was appalling and makes me ashamed of my country. UK universities rely heavily on income from overseas students and on international collaboration. This is, sadly, no isolated case. The Home Office is pursuing a strategy - of being beastly to foreigners - that is hugely detrimental to HE in the UK and, ultimately, to the UK economy.
frankm1_273951 - so judgemental! Could you possibly be an immigration official? Last time I entered the UK through one of the London airports (as a tourist) I was harassed about my lack of religious beliefs by a customs officer. I am a New Zealand academic with a University position who researches in evolutionary biology. Upon handing him my completed document he said: "so, you're a friend of Mr Darwin, then?" (I said something like 'Yes, I'm very familiar with his work'). I then got "so, you're not a God-fearing person then?". I can't remember what I said but I wanted to say "how is that any of your business? And how does it relate to UK border control?" He then went on to grill me about whether I thought "some people are more evolved than others" (clearly trying to provoke an inflammatory response). Meanwhile, there was still a queue an hour long behind me. This man was of the Islamic persuasion; the whole experience was extremely odd and unsettling and not something I'd experienced from the usually friendly and down-to-earth UK immigration staff. I think that some staff are crossing a line with their questioning and should stick to relevant questions and in the case of the story above, actually know the rules.
It is entirely normal to want to meet supervisors informally before starting a time-consuming process of looking for a scholarship or grant to find your PhD and then entering an intense supervisory relationship. As a UK professor, I encourage all my prospective students to visit and see whether they can imagine working with me and my team for at least 3-4 years. And yes, as a scientist I don't care about the passport, I want to spend my time on the brightest, most enthusiastic candidates who promise to make a difference in the world.
The Border Agency staff are in an awkward position, damned if they do and damned if they do not. The simple fact is that the UK Student Visa system is abused by many and that does include those purporting to be on doctoral programmes.
I just created this account to post a comment here, I am no student or academic. What shocks me most here is why so many students are desperate to study and contribute to a country where they are so badly humiliated at airports just to get in? An American should have no reason to study in UK, they can go anywhere in the world. I am Indian and Indians are even more desperate to go to UK (or anywhere for that matter) but I have no such desperation. Ive been a long time visitor to UK (over 30 years) with many visitor visas on all my passports and a very long clean history, yet I am questioned about my motives each time I enter UK, most of the times its not a pleasant interaction at all. british immigration officers are rude, racist, aggressive, manipulative and most importantly Stupid....last time I entered I was asked what is the source of my wealth......and I wanted to ask him what is the source of Britain's wealth? Lootings from India....my country? UK is a shamlesss country with a shameless culture and history that is based on aggression and looting nothing else....and they continue to do so in the present. I no longer go to UK and waste my money, many like me refuse to go there, when a country has such humiliating rules for foreigners, they only end up losing in the end, UK has been losing power, influence and even respect over the years....and with their behaviour they will only attract BAD immigrants. The good genuine visitors and immigrants will not put up with this sort of humiliation at all. Well I believe its only a matter of time UK will fall down on its knees further and then start treating foreign visitors and immigrants with more respect.....to earn respect you need to give respect first.
I’m from the US and had a unpleasant experience in the UK as well however i kept my mouth shut to avoid them playing games with me. I’m not saying that their behavior is acceptable however at end of the day they can make your life miserable for no reason. Best practice is to answer thier questions directly with no attitude and do not take it personally. We should also consider that they have had a few herindious terrious attacks where innocent people tragically died. I was really upset how i was treated but i just tell myself that the customs officers have a huge responsibility and appear to be under a lot of pressure. It is embarrassing and unacceptable however the handful who do behave like this are the ones who look dumb. Just tell yourself that and don’t let it bother you.