My friend Becky is an American citizen from the Pacific North Western city of Seattle. She is not currently, and has never been, on the FBI’s most wanted list or indeed in any trouble with the authorities whatsoever. She’s your average honest hard working American girl. However, to the UK Border Agency Becky Lewis is a criminal who must be deported!

Becky LewisBecky has been traveling across the UK over the summer, enjoying a little time out of her ordinary day-to-day life with money she had been saving for just such an adventure. Along the way she’s been couch surfing and volunteering on non-commercial organic farms with an organisation known as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). It’s been an exciting year for her, but thanks to UK immigration her time in Britain came to an abrupt and unpleasant end.

Her ordeal started when we recently returned to the UK from Croatia where we had enjoyed a few days of late summer sun in on the Istrian peninsula. My brother has an apartment in Rovinj so the few days we spent in Croatia was a cheap escape. However, had I known what lay in store for us I would never have gone.

As we stood in the immigration line to re-enter the UK we joked with one another about how surly faced the gate agents looked as they inspected passports of the people who stood before them, treating them with the usual kind of contempt that anyone who has been to an airport can attest to.

I always try to be pleasant with immigration officials, but most of the time they come across as disputatious little people itching to issue punishment for even the most minor of infractions. Their mean disposition probably comes from the lack of job satisfaction that must go along with being the traffic wardens of a countries border, uniformed drones programmed for only the most mundane of duties.

A gate agent motioned for us to approach him. Spitting commands at us in his thick Indian accent the agent sat on his throne behind the safety of a sheet of plexiglass. Perhaps feeling like he was keeping England safe he coldly ignored my attempts at pleasantries in a miserable manner similar to the weather that had welcomed us back to this rainy little island.

He waved me passed with little more than a grunt and I assumed Becky would be grunted back into the UK a few moments later, but no. Apparently her passport had not been stamped by the American immigration department when she re-entered the U.S. after a trip to the UK earlier in the year. This oversight by the American authorities was a “red light” to the uniform wearing unarmed gatekeeper.

Excited at the break in the monotony of his dreary job the gate agent started to ask Becky further questions about her the time she was spending in the UK. Where had she been? How was she affording a six month trip? And what had she been doing? Being an honest soul with nothing to hide Becky answered his questions in the belief that this was simply a minor delay, but unfortunately her honesty was her undoing.

She told the uptight immigration official that as part of her trip to the UK she had done a little volunteer work on some non-commercial organic farms. Perhaps sensing that he might have an opportunity to excursive the little power that his position afforded him the agent asked her to clarify this.

As part of her self funded trip to the UK Becky had set up joined an organisation called ‘WWOOF‘ through which she did unpaid volunteer work on small scale organic farms. For her trouble the ‘farmers’ provided her with a place to stay. To be clear, this DID NOT involve any kind of financial compensation and was something Becky did only to meet interesting people across the country.

Unfortunately for her the immigration officer felt that this constituted “work” and therefore was outside of the bounds of her general visitors visa. She was then detained for further questioning whereupon it was decided that she should be deported, not back to the United States, but to Croatia because this is where she had just come from!

Yarl's Wood Immigration Detention Centre (Jail)Before she was deported she was taken into custody and jailed in an Immigration Prison called Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. The UK border agency are sensitive about Yarl’s Wood being referred to as a ‘prison,’ however with it’s high barbed wire topped walls and lock-up wings it is only not a prison by name. Indeed the facility comes under the authority of the HM Inspectorate of Prisons!

Photographed, fingerprinted, and searched numerous times, Becky was processed into the controversial immigration jail where she would stay for two nights before being taken back to the airport and put on the first flight back to Croatia.

To say that I was furious with the heinously draconian decision to deport her would be a master of understatement. Becky had at worst made a small mistake which could have been dealt with by issuing a verbal or written warning. She was only seeking to enter the UK for two more weeks before leaving to travel to Nepal where she would be teaching children in an orphanage.

Documentation of her onward flights and Nepal trip, and even documentation proving that she would be in the U.S. for Christmas were ignored by chief immigration officer Tony Simon who was to be judge and jury in her case. Rather than using his discretion and treating Becky, a U.S. citizen and therefore a friend of the UK, with the respect and consideration one would expect a friend to be shown, he decided to jail and deport her regardless of the effect.

According to WWOOF UK recent changes to UK immigration laws have confused the issue of ‘wwoofing’ in the UK. Indeed immigration officer Tony Simon apparently told Becky that even couch surfing would be considered a violation of a visitors visa to the UK as it allows a visitor to “extend their stay” in the UK. This statement is at the very least contentious and would seem to reveal something of the legalistic and obnoxiously disagreeable attitude of Stanstead airport’s chief immigration officer Tony Simon.

Angered by the outrageous decision but unable to effect it in any way I felt I should purchase a ticket back to Croatia on the same flight Becky was to be deported on so as to be there for my friend. I collected the luggage she had left at my house and organised another apartment for us to stay at in Croatia. From there we spent a rain soaked week reorganizing her onward plans.

I remain shocked and ashamed at the way Becky was treated by UK immigration. Chief immigration officer Tony Simon undoubtedly wasted tax payers money putting Becky through this ordeal that was, for us both, extremely costly, stressful and time consuming.

In the end, while I doubt we’ll be seeing her return to the UK again any time soon, I’m happy to report that Becky was able to rearrange her onward travel plans and make it to Nepal as planned. I will be writing to the UK authorities to express my anger at the way she was treated, though I have little faith that there will be any redemption in this story.

I’m not a crook (Becky’s blog about this)
A Yarl’s Wood detainee speaks out
Britain looks to jail more visitors
UK to build Europe’s largest immigration jail
WWOOF advice on UK immigration
C4 News – Confusion rife in UK border agency removal cases
Inside Yarl’s Wood: Britain’s shame over child detainees
BID – Bail for UK immigration detainees
HM Inspectorate of Prisons report on Yarl’s Wood