Thursday 19 April 2018

Are there special rules for Greeks entering the UK?

This is a guest post by Cardiff University PhD student (and EU national) Loukia Tzavella, reporting how she was required to do a language test to pass immigration controls enroute to the UK. If you have had a similar experience, please share in the comments below.  

Last week I attended a scientific conference in Lyon, France and was ready for my journey back to Gatwick Airport, UK. The first ‘special treatment’ of the day came from the employee at bag drop. She kept looking at my passport and flicking through the pages. She told me that I couldn’t go to London without a visa and after a few minutes she looked up and said, well we don’t really know how to “handle” these type of passports (i.e., Greek) which of course caused me to react with the reply “It’s an EU passport!”

I had to wait a few minutes because she still couldn’t deal with the situation and had to consult with other colleagues. After having to explain that Greeks have the right of free movement in EU countries, including the UK (!), I left my bag and met my colleagues who were waiting for me to move on to security. I had already had quite a rough day for personal reasons so at that point I couldn’t wait to reach the gate and be on my way back home. Writing this, I deleted the word “home” a few times. I have been in the UK for almost 8 years. Should I call it home? 

We were rushing to get to the gate when we saw passport control and I thought “Will I have to feel different again for being Greek, maybe apologise for the inconvenience”?

I don’t know if this was passport control for EasyJet or UK destinations in general, but there were no lines and it seemed like we were going to go through fast and reach the gate, which was right behind passport control. My UK colleagues went through instantly. Many airport employees so far were not very keen to speak or listen to English, so I spoke French to the passport inspector and put on a smile. He looked at my passport and then stared at me for a few seconds, and then did so repeatedly several times.

I checked with him if everything was okay and he requested my driving license. No explanation offered. After I gave him the license I asked why this was required and he ignored me. He then pulled out a paper titled “Test of Greek Language”, written in Greek. Of course I reacted to this as I had no idea why this was happening and asked why I needed to complete a test. He then squeaked “Why, why” mockingly and told me to stop asking questions. At that point I was extremely frustrated, surprised this was happening and overall furious. However, I was worried that if I made a scene I could be held for questioning and miss my flight. I couldn’t help it, though, and as I was going through the test I asked again why, in French this time.

He finally told me that immigrants obtain fake passports from Greece and travel to France to get entry into the UK illegally and so they have to check Greek passengers travelling to UK destinations. He thus needed to know if I was an illegal immigrant. Okay, so what would happen if I made a stress-induced mistake on the test and seemed to make corrections (that would look suspicious) or didn’t have my driver’s license? What are the guidelines on this? My rights, as I know them, may include rejecting, or failing, to do the test as I only need my valid EU passport to travel, so what would happen if I did? I still have no idea! He kept staring at me and after 2 mins, before I had finished the language test, he said “OK, leave”. I packed my things and ran to my colleagues to explain what had happened.

Are language tests for Greek citizens part of an official agreement between France and Britain? Does this only occur in French airports, and if so under whose instruction? Does this happen in other countries when trying to reach the UK? Is this practice targeted at Greeks only? If so, is this a practice for all Greek nationals or does it depend on how we look? In any case, this policy should be explained upfront so that citizens don’t feel discriminated against and distressed during the whole process.

Anyone should be happy to comply with such procedures when the reasons are explained in a polite (i.e., professional) manner. Previous reports of fake passports don’t include any information about special procedures for UK destinations. Reports mention that fake passports can be Mexican, Brazilian, Argentine, Syrian and German, so I would be curious to know whether there were also language tests for these citizens.This sounds like a serious issue, and if regulations are needed for stricter border controls, advance notice to citizens holding Greek passports should be provided or at least a brief explanation should be given before all the extra checks are requested.

At UK airports I am frequently asked why I am travelling to the UK and how long I am planning to stay, but border staff have always been professional, so I am not sure whether this is an issue solely for Lyon Airport. I don’t know whether this unofficial ‘directive’ has anything to do with the upcoming Brexit, or whether other EU nationals have experienced similar treatment. But one thing is clear: there should be official information on this ‘special treatment package’ for Greek citizens entering the UK and this apparently new procedure of imposing language tests. 

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