By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter
There are 200 more people in the queue at your immigration desk and you're not quite sure about what the young man from Brazil is telling you about his plans to learn English for the summer in London. What do you do - wave him through or hold him back for further interview?
Passports please: But would you get through?
That's the dilemma faced by the UK's immigration officers everyday at the country's ports - but do they get it right?
An official report on the Immigration Service's treatment of UK visitors presents a mixed picture of how well frontline officers are taking decisions.
It accepts they need to prioritise their targeting - but it says some visitors may be being refused entry because of immigration breaches by those who have gone before them.
So while visitors from some countries may be given the benefit of the doubt, others with the same story from elsewhere will be turned around.
The report by the Home Office's independent race monitor Mary Coussey calls on ministers to track refusal rates to see if they are fair. She has also called for action against "case-hardened" staff who make derogatory comments about certain nationalities.
The report criticises ministers for not leading a "more balanced" public debate on immigration, and it adds that the media's "ill-informed, hostile and inflammatory" coverage may influence frontline decisions.
Ministers have powers to permit frontline staff to discriminate on grounds of nationality and ethnic origin to help them better target illegal immigration.
Combined with intelligence reports, this power theoretically helps immigration officers to better target their efforts, rather than randomly stopping visitors.
So at airports, immigration officers will focus on flights from key countries. At the ports, they may stop certain coach companies.
Although we don't yet have figures for 2003, the nations with the highest rates of refusal for entry into the UK are expected to include Brazil, Poland and Lithuania.
Last December, London City Airport witnessed a huge rise in refusals of Brazilians after intelligence suggested South Americans believed it was an easier way to get into UK than Heathrow.
Officers at the Eurostar terminal in Paris have long been on the look-out for locally forged Italian or Dutch identity papers.
'Benefit of the doubt'
But where operations become problematic, says Ms Coussey, is in the exercise of discretion.
"It seemed to me that passengers from certain nationalities with a record of refusals or of immigration breaches were less likely to be given the benefit of the doubt when compared with passengers from nationalities with a good record," she said.
"What in some nationalities is viewed with scepticism will be accepted in others.
"To this extent, the use of information on adverse decisions and breaches may become self-reinforcing."
In one case cited by the report, immigration sent back a Brazilian man who said he was coming for eight days, primarily to go to Carnival in Notting Hill.
REFUSAL RATES BY COUNTRY 2002
Jamaica: 6,000 (9.1%)
Lithuania: 3,400 (7.5%)
Zimbabwe: 2,500 (4.1%)
Latvia: 955 (3.5%)
Brazil: 2,400 (1.8%)
Source: Home Office. More up-to-date figures expected soon.
He was turned back because he could only give vague details about his trip and apparently not earning enough to pay for a week in London. But while cases like this one demonstrated credible reasons for refusal, says Ms Coussey, there are others that do not.
One case highlighted by the report involved an African student who had confirmation papers for his college course, receipts showing he had paid for it and proof of accommodation with his sister, living legally in the UK.
The report says there was no adequate explanation for why this man had been turned away. While immigration officials are on the watch for college/student scams, there was no evidence this man had any intentions other than to study.
Immigration officers use special powers to focus on key countries
While Ms Coussey says most immigration officers are professional - she says she also came across "case-hardened" staff making derogatory comments about
Others appear to be turned away for either getting their facts wrong - or being somewhat economic with what they tell officials.
"Once there are discrepancies, if the person is a national of one of the countries being more closely checked, the officer is unlikely to give them the benefit of the doubt," says Ms Coussey.
"Even if such a passenger admits that incorrect information was given, perhaps in the mistaken belief that it was a more convincing explanation than the true reason for visiting, their credibility has been so damaged that they likely to be refused."
Immigration minister Des Browne said the government would make a detailed response to the report later in the year.
"I am pleased that Ms Coussey was impressed with the overall professionalism of immigration officials.
"I also agree with her that the public needs to have clearer information about immigration and asylum and that the Government has an obligation to encourage and lead informed debate, based on fact not fiction, and challenge misconceptions."
What has always puzzled me is why there are no immigration checks when leaving Heathrow. I regularly travel through Terminal 3 to the Far East and the only person who looks at my passport is the airline check-in clerk. There is no immigration desk in departures. How does the Government know who has overstayed their visa? Why are non-UK passport holders not stamped out of the country? I believe the published figures for illegal immigrants are a sham as nobody knows who has 'disappeared' into the country.
Chris Beck, UK
A Hungarian friend of mine told me recently that ever since his country joined the EU he has had nothing but grief from immigration officers, who are unaware of the fact that they cannot hinder or even question an EU citizen if s/he presents a valid and legal travel document in his or her name. Their ignorance has not stopped them asking detailed and personal questions from my friend about his job and earnings in the UK. Most of them don't know which countries are in the EU; one of them had to look it up on a note scribbled on the back of his bus pass - very professional. Welcome to the United Kingdom!
Mate Schreiner, UK
If someone is coming for a legitimate reason they should have a contact number - course tutor, college, business contact, sponsor's name and address.
Surely the time it takes to make a call could be factored in?
Richard Hough, UK
The immigration services have a different job to do, and most do it well in my experience.
They may not be perfect but they must work within the given remit. You should look to other countries to see how they control immigration and you would see how soft and easy going we really are. As we move towards the Americanisation of England you will notice similar rules and procedures being enforced both sides of the Atlantic, sadly with predictable results.
John Tierney, Cardiff, Wales
I can tell you numerous stories of friends of mine with non-EU passports (in some cases Americans & Japanese, not nations known for illegal immigration) being severely interrogated by UK immigration.
One Romanian friend (who now has dual Romanian/Belgian nationality) said that prior to getting her Belgian passport the UK authorities almost refused her a visa to go to London for several days. She was at the time a permanent resident in Belgium with a full-time job and married to an EU citizen, so in fact had a legal right to move freely throughout the EU with her husband.
A former African colleague of mine was refused a visa to attend a scientific meeting in London on the grounds that there was a risk he wouldn't go back. He would have been leaving his wife and 3 children in Belgium, where he was legally resident while working and undertaking a doctorate. He had even completed an internship in the UK several years before and had left the country two months before his visa ran out.
Surely someone who is legally resident, with a job, a home etc in one EU country is not going to become an illegal immigrant in another, well that logic is not one shared it seems by many UK immigration officers!
When I go to America, I have my fingerprints taken and my photo, I am asked where I will be staying and also how long I will be in the country, do I mind about this? No I do not, we should follow the same policy here, if anyone overstays and is found, they should be deported ASAP, and a charge made to the country they come from, who can then recliam the money from that person.
Immigration officials are a law onto themselves. They appear to have no accountability to anyone. This report is welcome, but I doubt whether it will help immigration officials shake their god-like attitudes. They are after all, on a power trip.
This report is useful as I have always wondered why it is always a little problematic for me to get through immigration at City airport. I am a Brazilian national and have lived in the UK legally for nearly 6 years now, doing a PhD and now working as an Economist in Canary Wharf. I travel a lot as part of my job and for obvious reasons I prefer to use City Airport because of its convenient location (I also live in the Docklands). But the last two times I used it, I found the questioning and the procedures a little exaggerated. It would be a good idea if the data of all foreigners living in the UK legally were digitalised and easily available on a computer at the immigration desk. Another suggestion I have is that those countries that present the highest rates of refusals be contacted by the British Immigration Service so that they can work together to improve the situation..
Dr Leonardo Bichara Rocha, UK/Brazil
In my experience the immigration officers think they are a law unto themselves. My fiancée was stopped at Heathrow. After a 36 hour flight she was left sitting to one side for 2 hours without any explanation and then when the officer finally appeared the first thing she said was "I'm the person who decides if you can stay or we send you home". In the end it took 5 hours and the country my fiancée was from? - Australia.
I used to work at Heathrow as an interpreter at the Immigration Desk and you see some appalling behaviour on the part of the staff there. Some will simply turn away people on the basis of their looks. Businessmen in suits will be allowed through while a young student is refused entry. You often see students who are here to learn English struggling to understand what the officer is asking them. Some officers get frustrated and refuse them entry on the grounds that they don't believe they are really students because their English isn't good enough. But that's always struck me as unfair because students from many countries in Asia don't learn conversation English, only written English for exams. The reason they come to the UK is to learn conversational English from native speakers, something they can't do in their countries. Many are poor students who have saved up for years to get the money to come here. They have paid the language schools already, and they lose most o! f it because they are refused entry. It must be devastating for them.
David Lee, UK