A daily bulletin of news & opinion

3 May 2012

Last week I flew back to London from Bilbao on a plane that was nearly blown off the runway while landing. It was a scary experience to say the least. But once I’d calmed myself I was in for another shock – the winding, twisting line into the UK’s passport control. Thousands of men, women and children were crammed into the airless corridor.

There were only two people working in the non-EU border control area and passengers were not very happy with the situation. The two people working that day were not looking cheery about it either.

Not only were they so small in number but they were also rude. One of the officers was interrogating an elderly lady like she’d just escaped from Alcatraz. A man in a crackling polyester blazer was shouting at the crowds, marshalling us into lines like cattle.

I’m not asking for dance routines and Hawaiian garlands on arrival (although that would be nice). I understand this is London, a major transport hub and a busy spot. But a bit of humanity would be appreciated. There is a big event coming up in London this summer and the scene at the UK’s borders does not bode well for the future.

Last week the UK’s immigration minister Damian Green was called to Westminster and quizzed by MPs on what he was going to do about the snaking queues at Heathrow. He insisted he was bringing in extra staff and said that border control desks would be fully manned during the Olympic Games.

That’s good to hear, although rather hard to believe when you consider the Home Office’s plans to cut the number of people working in immigration control by 18 per cent by 2015.

And now there’s news of an all-out UK Border Force strike planned for 10 May, because of a dispute over government plans to increase the retirement age for public servants. Damian Green’s employees seem just as unhappy as international arrivals to the UK.

Damian Green’s mistakes have coined a new phenomenon – Heathrow queue rage. Last Wednesday a Spanish passenger couldn’t wait any longer and pushed himself through the passport control. And last month the same thing happened in Birmingham but with 20 passengers.

I can only predict chaos during the Olympics. If these lines get any longer we’ll have to step off the plane with camp beds and blankets. Personally, I will make sure I have a large book and a bar or two of white chocolate.

My fixes for an ideal immigration queue are quite simple: friendly and numerous staff wearing a uniform that doesn’t look they are going to chase criminals. No shouting. And what about warmer lighting to make the tourists feel welcome?

I’m sure this is not a British problem. I’ve heard from colleagues that the same thing happens in other countries. I know that in my home nation of Brazil there are some pretty wild queues.

It’s a shame, as the passport control queue is the first impression you get of a country, it can leave you with a spring in your step and even a feeling of belonging.

I will never forget when I landed in Stockholm a few years ago and the lovely immigration officer spoke to me in Portuguese after seeing my passport. He told me his dream was to visit his wife’s country – Brazil. His smile meant it all.

It would be great if Damian Green could give his employees reason to smile too.


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