Monday, October 05, 2009

British Border disgrace

Over many years a visitor to the United States has had to run the unwelcoming gauntlet of US immigration. Long lines at each desk were followed by intrusive and rude questioning and in recent years by fingerprinting and even more questions. Though in recent years the process has become more organised and slightly more welcoming, it remains the case that if passengers are not US citizens or green card holders then it can still take a long time to clear US border controls. At the end of the day, though, the controls are targeted against foreigners and the United States has the perfect right to control foreigners who enter their country.

The United Kingdom, however, does things backwards. Although non European citizens still need to fill in a landing card and be interviewed by an immigration officer, there is now a special kind of hell reserved for European travellers, including British Citizens.

The lines to show your European passport are now regularly over an hour long, and at certain times of the day they can extend to three hours at Heathrow. In other words, I regularly waste a huge amount of time lining up to enter my own country. It is frankly a disgrace. The immigration officers are up in arms at the conditions they now have to work in- and I can not say I blame them. The slow speed is not helped by each passport now being put into a machine reader to be checked: the new chip-passports are slower to be read than the documents that they replaced.

Of course the wonder is why the UK still insists on such checks- they are fairly useless when few -if any checks- are made when passengers are departing from the UK. The whole process- irritating "UK Border" signs and all- is a pathetic cravenness by Labour ministers to the Daily Mail agenda of stupidity.

As a resident of a Schengen state- inside the borderless area of the EU- I cross most other borders easily and quickly all the time- that is, right up to the time when I have to come to the country of my birth and citizenship. Now the news is that the immigration service will charge you £50 in order to skip the queue. It would be hard to find a more flagrant example of rip-off Britain. The other day my flight into Heathrow arrived at the same time as a Libyan Arab Airlines flight from Tripoli. The passengers on that flight, going through the Non-EU entry process were through in about 15 minutes, while my flight from another EU state- Denmark- were still being processed an hour later. I do not think that I would have felt happier if, having paid my £50, I was processed in the same time as the Libyans.

The fact is there is a perfectly obvious solution: The UK should join the Schengen area. Then there would be no delay to arrivals from the EU, who are already cleared to enter when they crossed the external border of the Schengen zone. The immigration officers would not have the tedious and pointless job of checking tens of thousands of EU passport holders but could instead focus on other areas: including the tracking down of the large number of illegal migrants already in the UK. The Mail will point to the camp of potential illegal migrants in Northern France as evidence that border controls should not be relaxed. My comment to that is firstly, there is nothing to stop regular patrols around the channel tunnel and south coast- and in any event these illegals are not the people who present themselves to an immigration officer at Heathrow anyway.

These pointless, expensive and intrusive checks serve no purpose. It is time to recognise this and also to enact what most other EU states regard as a major benefit of joining the EU in the first place: free movement across borders.

As I contemplate the easy travel I will have to Luxembourg next week with the likely delay I will have at Heathrow the week after, I am growing more understanding of the large number of frequent travellers who no longer make the UK their main base.

A three hour line after a tedious flight is not the kind of "Welcome Home" that the UK can be very proud of.


Manfarang said...

At least we can avoid British Airways!

Anonymous said...

To queue once from time to time it is good to have an idea of what some people have to go through continuesly. I leave in EUROPE for 15 years and I have an average passeport check queue of 1 heure per tavel within Europe. Considering that I have to travel twice a month, do the math... And this is just the airport queing part...