“Never again!” Of dozens of pained messages sent to the Guardian by EU citizens who have had run-ins with the UK Border Force since Brexit, this is the expression that stands out. These people insist they will never visit Britain again.
Recent stories in this newspaper show people are being locked up, handcuffed, humiliated, stopped from accessing their medication, prevented from communicating with family or lawyers and kept in fear or ignorance. This is the new reality for EU citizens at UK borders. Airport warning signs should read “Welcome to Hostile Britain”.
Hostile Britain is a place constructed on earlier foundations by mainly Conservative governments over the past decade, which is now being extended massively to afflict our closest neighbours and friends.
Some will rejoice that EU citizens are vowing never to visit again, but only if they do not work in a part of the economy that depends on the 26 million visitors who arrive from Europe each year.
Since two thirds of visitors to the UK come from the EU, according to Visit Britain, that means the vast majority of foreign tourists, business people and shoppers who roam the streets of London, Edinburgh, York or Bath.
Before Brexit, these people had no contact with the hostile environment that Theresa May began building while she was home secretary, and which Priti Patel is determined to reinforce. Post-Brexit, the current home secretary will now apply it to three times as many people as before.
Even though we share a “visa-free” space with EU citizens that allows lengthy visits without paperwork, they are discovering that Britain works on the principle that foreigners are suspect. They must prove they will not do something banned – such as settle, find work, look after friends’ children or do unpaid internships.
Given that it is impossible to scientifically “prove” that you will not do something in the future, it is up to Border Force’s instincts to decide who must be kept out. Those instincts can be unreliable, subjective, arbitrary and occasionally in clear contradiction of the Home Office’s own rules.
The Guardian has reported cases of people being refused entry for job interviews and volunteer work, both of which are formally allowed.
Indeed, it seems to be only after Border Force is called out for these practices that officials look at the rulebook and declare that they will no longer be used to inflict the degrading experience of expulsion on people.
Some visitors are making honest mistakes, unaware of the exact nature of the new rules. Yet even when they realise this and offer to turn around and go straight home, they are being locked up for days at detention centres, despite Covid scares. The Home Office only announced a change to that policy – offering them bail until they fly home – after being quizzed on the reports in this newspaper.
Other practices, such as humiliating people by handcuffing them and walking them through the shopping areas at Luton airport, continue – despite the fact that HM Inspectorate of Prisons has called it out on this.
A browse through the latest inspections of detention facilities at Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton and City airports reveals, too, that fewer than half the recommendations for improvements have been carried out.
These reports show the problem is structural. Border officials are generally, though not always, deemed polite and considerate (though they are also sometimes accused of putting words into visitors’ mouths). It is their bosses, and the confusing rules they insist on, that are the problem.
Nowhere was this more startlingly revealed than when inspectors made their first ever visits to the often shabby and inadequate short-term detention facilities (STDFs) at 13 smaller airports and seaports a year ago. Border Force managers did not even know how many of these they controlled. Worse still, children were being routinely handcuffed at some of them, or held for hours while different social services departments bickered over who would take responsibility for them. Inspectors deemed the facilities often “not fit for purpose”.
Even EU citizens with permission to live and work in the UK can find themselves detained for hours as Border Force officials struggle to understand or apply the new rules themselves. As one experienced traveller, himself an airline worker, put it: “I felt like I had landed in some enemy state.”
Among those turned away at the border recently was Ramón, a Spaniard who had come to the UK for his nephew’s baptism. Ramón, who asked for his name to be changed, had only just obtained Spanish nationality, having been born in Nigeria. It is, at the very least, odd that one of the small minority of Spaniards who are black should be refused entry.
Nigerians and others have long been used to the realities of hostile Britain. Indeed, the fact that EU citizens are being stopped at borders serves to highlight a long-running situation that we all should have been watching more closely for years.
The scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation shows that the pain and scars of this sort of treatment ruins lives and can persist for decades.
At the end of June, a transition period for EU citizens seeking to remain settled in Britain will end. More than 5 million people have applied for settled status.
They expect to be allowed through borders without the treatment already being meted out to some of them. Worse still, as some are already finding, relatives and friends who want to visit may also find themselves treated as suspects at the border.
All this is happening with visitor numbers at an all-time low because of Covid. That, too, could change rapidly over the summer. We can expect many more stories of EU citizens bounced or locked up at the border. We can also expect EU countries to react by applying similar rules to British travellers arriving there.
A far higher of proportion of Britons travel to the EU each year than EU citizens who come to Britain. Tit-for-tat treatment would see Britain emerge as the loser. Hostile Britain, in other words, could easily backfire – hurting more Britons than Europeans.