Losing London

Ishtiyaq Shukri writes about his deportation from London’s Heathrow airport in July 2015.

Image via Wikimedia

I entered the world traveling. My first journey was the 1,400 km trek from Johannesburg to Cape Town, although I don’t remember it. I was just two weeks old at the time. I have lived fully in the world ever since. My first plane journey was when I was five. I still have the ticket with the old orange tail and blue flying springbok of South African Airways at the time. I still have the specially tailored jacket I wore on the flight.  I remember staring at the surface of the water in my glass on the tray table, absorbed by how still it remained despite our great speed. My first international journey was when I was ten. With hindsight, South African apartheid had already made its mark because I remember noticing black and white people socializing together in public and black faces on billboards for products that were advertised with white faces in South Africa. I remain grateful for that first exposure so early on in life, and the enduring awareness that life could be otherwise than it was in 1970s apartheid South Africa.

Thirty-seven years later, on 14 July 2015, I embarked on yet another journey. On that day, I boarded a flight to London. The journey started like all the others that had gone before – with sights set on one’s destination. I thought I was flying home. My wife of nineteen years is British. I have held permanent British residence since 1997. We own a home in London. The journey progressed, as all my journeys do, with an awareness of the space I am traversing, a throw-back to the road trips of my childhood, when my mother would lay out a map before our departure, and trace her finger on the route ahead, road trips during which my father would test our knowledge of the route by asking: “What’s the next town? How far is it? How long will it take to get there?” Three decades later, on 14 July 2015, my route was longer and the map global, but my awareness of the space being traversed as acute as ever. As my flight crossed the Mediterranean Sea, I became more aware of the privileges of my journey, because 30,000ft below, tens of thousands of desperate refugees were having to endure unimaginable ordeals to get to safety in Europe. Given my ties with Britain, I had no reason to suspect that in fact I was on a collision path all of my own, and that instead of flying to a city I thought of as home, I was really flying into a brick wall. Unlike all my previous journeys, on this occasion I would be denied the thing after which all travelers yearn – their destination. Upon arrival at Heathrow, I was detained for more than nine hours and then deported, my residence stamp of nineteen years cancelled. At no point did British Border Force officials attempt to contact my wife. No previous journey had prepared me for that, or the subsequent limbo, which at the time of my writing has lasted seven weeks.

This experience has been so disorienting, that I have on several nights since woken from dreams of being in London, in our house, in our garden, with family and friends. My body was returned, but my heart continued the journey. Had my trip gone to plan, I would have been in London till 19 August, but every day since then has been a day of waking up to the feeling of displacement that follows deportation, the alienating sense that comes with not being where one intended to be. I will always value the support I have had from family and friends, from my publisher Jacana Media for releasing my media statement, from my mentor Professor Isabel Hoffmeyr of the University of the Witwatersrand who led the petition to the British High Commissioner to South Africa which was signed by so many eminent scholars, writers, citizens and friends, to the London correspondent of the Sunday Times, Marvin Meintjies for covering my story, to Professor Neelika Jayawardane of Oswego State University of New York who wrote about my deportation on this site on 30 July, to English Pen who wrote to the UK’s Immigration Minister at the Home Office, James Brokenshire MP on 22 July 2015 asking for an immediate review and investigation of Border Force’s actions on 14 July, and to all those who interacted with the story on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. I mention you all at length because I see you all. Your support has been an anchor during the helium days when I have felt cut loose and adrift.

I am not new to the procedures of detention. I have now been detained three times by British authorities, so that when I was asked by Border Force officials at Heathrow on 14 July to step aside, my first thought was, “Here we go again”. My first detention was in December 1993, when I was detained for several hours upon arrival at Heathrow. I remember that the flight from Johannesburg to London was full. I also remember the return flight to Johannesburg being empty and that I had four seats in the central aisle to myself. Consider the date of my journey. Remember the political context in South Africa at that time. Fill in the gaps. They explain the disparity in passenger numbers between the two flights. Whatever the reason, I was the only passenger from my flight to be detained. The usual questions followed. Why I was coming to the UK. What my family background was. How I had paid for my flight. What work I did. How much I earned. How much money I had for the holiday. Where I would be staying. If I had a return ticket. How long I would be staying in the UK. But one question stands out: How, as a teacher, I could afford the time off work for a four-week holiday to the UK when the Christmas break is only one week long. That question stands out still, because in asking it British immigration officials demonstrated just how little they knew of my world, when I knew so much about theirs. In the end I was allowed through, on condition that I report to a police station every 24 hours for the duration of my stay. I objected and refused. I was not a criminal. I had done nothing wrong. As a black man in apartheid South Africa I had never been required to report to the police daily. Under no circumstances would I agree to do that in the UK. I was let through with the caution that it would be better for me upon departure if I had evidence that I had complied with the condition. I did not comply. I entered the UK. When the time came to leave, I was not asked for evidence of compliance. In fact, I don’t remember my passport even being checked and stamped, raising the question: Why the threat that it “would be better for me” – other than to intimidate and humiliate – when I was not tagged for follow-up?

My second experience of being called aside in Britain was on 28 August 2003, the day of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s evidence to the Hutton Enquiry into the death of the British government’s weapons expert, Dr David Kelly. I had spent the previous night in the queue on Bell Yard outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London to witness Tony Blair’s evidence first hand. I was writing The Silent Minaret at the time and this was a momentous moment. Mr Blair’s was only the second appearance by a serving British Prime Minister before an official enquiry. Setting aside the criticism that the remit of the enquiry was too narrow to be effective and that Mr Blair had himself appointed Lord Hutton to head the enquiry, as a citizen, as a Londoner, as a writer, I still felt it my duty to be engaged, to be there. After I left the court, I was approached by two police officers as I entered Waterloo Station, and asked to step aside. One officer questioned me, while his partner hovered behind me just out of view. The questioning officer would not give me his name, only his badge number. Officer 411LX of Brixton Police Station, asked me to confirm that I had been to the Hutton Enquiry. During the twenty-minute walk from the courts to the station, I had no sense of being followed, and certainly not by the police, leaving me to conclude that I must have been tracked and traced by CCTV cameras during my walk across the Thames. Why me? Why not stop me at the court? Why track me for all that time? That experience has left me in no doubt as to what a British government is capable of when it decides to tighten the screws, which is why I wrote about it in what would become my first ever published piece of writing.

My third step aside experience of 14 July 2015 is testimony to how far Britain has gone down the road of tightening screws. This most recent detention is reminiscent of my detention experiences at the hands of Israeli immigration officials whenever I have travelled to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israeli interrogations are intrusive, dehumanizing and grinding. But if you are inclined to think of British procedures as a soft touch by comparison, think again. While the UK’s Border Force prefers to call its interrogations ‘interviews’ – part of the same linguistic trick that attempts to camouflage British ghettos by calling them ‘inner cities’ – this euphemism in no way tames the realities of the procedure. At Heathrow, my luggage was scrupulously searched, and paperwork from my visits to Yemen singled out, set aside and taken away. I was photographed and fingerprinted. I was held in for several hours in an upstairs room in the airport. I was questioned in detail, my answers meticulously recorded. It is illegal to photograph British detention centres and deportation facilities, and so my mobile phone and baggage were also stored in a separate lock-up. None of these procedures is new to me. They are all variations of previous such encounters, and one draws on those precedents to remain calm, to remain upright and to cooperate. But what is new and altogether more enduring is that it was from Heathrow that I was deported for the first time, not from Israeli-controlled borders to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as I had so often expected would be the case. Yet I have written at length about Israeli procedures. Let me do so now about British procedures and tell you about the hidden world of UK deportation and the secret places they don’t want you to see.

At the various stages of the detention and deportation process, detainees receive letters – in English – from the Home Office explaining the process. The letters are hand delivered by Border Force officials, in my case, to my seat in the detention room where I was kept waiting. The first letter I received reads as follows:



1. I am ordering your detention under powers contained in the Immigration Act 1971 or the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.

2. Detention is only used when there is no reasonable alternative available. It has been decided that you should remain in detention because:

• There is insufficient reliable information to decide on whether to grant you temporary admission or release.

• You have not produced satisfactory evidence of your identity, nationality or lawful basis to be in the UK.

The letter is dated 14 July 2015 and signed in an unfathomable scribble by an immigration officer on behalf of the Secretary of State.

Consider that by the time of writing this letter, Border Force officials had already seen my passport, the permanent residence stamp giving me indefinite leave to remain in the UK, our marriage certificate and correspondence with the Home Office from 7 July 2015 regarding an appointment to have my residence stamp transferred into my new passport. The second letter I received informed me that I would have my fingerprints taken. It is also dated and signed with the same unfathomable scribble.

What followed the fingerprinting session, during which I was also photographed, was an in depth “interview” with two male officers in a closed room inside the closed room where I was being kept. One of the officers asked the usual questions – why I was coming to the UK, where I would be staying, how much money I had – writing down all my answers. The other was mostly silent. From my answers they learned that I was in the UK to visit my wife, that we had a home in London, that I have never sought recourse to public funds in the UK, and that I had sufficient finances for my trip. He also specifically asked about my visits to Yemen. He had the paperwork from my trips there in his file. He asked why I went. I explained that I had gone to visit my wife who was living there at the time. He asked what she did there. I explained that she was the Country Director for Oxfam, Yemen. To those who don’t know what this kind of probing interrogation feels like, one curious effect is that somewhere deep inside one begins to doubt oneself. That must be part of the interrogator’s intention, and it left me feeling violated. When the first officer had finished his questions, the second officer spoke. He asked me for my wife’s name and date of birth. Then he asked if there were any extenuating circumstances for why I had not visited the UK since September 2012 for them to consider on compassionate grounds while they decided my case. It was not easy to share reasons. I had to tell these men who were detaining me in a closed room inside a closed room the details of my mother’s sudden illness and death in South Africa in 2013, our changed family circumstances through 2014, and my visit to my wife in Yemen in 2014, which meant there was little reason for me to visit the UK as she was not there. I had not volunteered these reasons, but I did share them when invited to do so on compassionate grounds.

Shortly after the interview, I received the third letter.



I note that you held Indefinite Leave to Remain following your marriage to a British citizen but you do not qualify as a returning resident under paragraphs 18 or 19 of the Immigration Rules (HC395) because you have been away from the United Kingdom for more than 2 years.

You have not sought entry under any other provisions under the immigration rules.

I therefore refuse you leave to enter the United Kingdom.

The letter is dated and signed, this time by a different signatory in a different unfathomable signature.

I wonder what meaning of “compassionate” that officer, whose name I don’t remember but whose face I always will, had in mind when he asked me to share my extenuating circumstances. I wonder what definition of “compassionate” the immigration officer had in mind when he or she signed the “NOTICE OF REFUSAL” and the “DIRECTIONS TO REMOVE A PERSON OR PERSONS” in that unfathomable signature – three times.


I have written novels about disappearances and abductions, but it is still difficult for me to talk about the feeling of powerlessness that comes from being boarded onto a plane not of one’s choosing, except to say: I hope those immigration officials never experience the humiliation. So if I can’t yet talk about the helplessness, let me describe the procedure, the spaces, the other deportees and the conversations I overheard.

Deportees pass through a separate security check out of view of other passengers. It is a closed-in area, and the apparatus is larger, more utilitarian, less fit for public viewing. Staff attending this process know why you are there. Ahead of me was a family of three: mother, adolescent son, and young daughter. They were being deported to Mexico. I will never forget the look of anxiety on that mother’s face. Her son smiled at her as he lifted their bags, the little girl seemed curious, tip-toeing to see, but that woman was terrified. While my luggage was being scanned, I overheard a conversation between two of the officers. They were talking about a deportation procedure from earlier that day. It was a brief exchange, and went something like this:

First officer: Did you get him onto the plane, then?
Second officer: I did. Handcuffed him and got him on.
First officer: Good for you.

What strength. What power. What force.

The embarrassment one feels at being dispossessed of one’s travel documents, of being escorted through the duty-free shopping area, of being walked past the other passengers queuing to board the flight, of having one’s passport and boarding pass handed to the captain upon embarkation for the duration of the flight, and of being handed them back only when one has disembarked after landing, is acute, the gut-wrenching feeling upon take-off that one is being torn away from one’s family and home, more than I can describe. But I am a writer, so l should try … That flight of deportation was a moment of great weakness and dispossession, a reminder that I am a muhajir, an immigrant at the mercy of the journey, and vulnerable to the powerful who would enact their power over me. I am not inclined to making public statements of faith, but during that tortuous flight, I drew strength from the reminder that the Islamic calendar does not start with one of the great moments in Islamic history – the birth of the Prophet Muhammed, the revelation of the Qur’an, victories in battle, the retaking of Mecca – but with a moment of weakness, the Hijrah, the first migration of Muslims into exile from Mecca to Yathrib, now Medina. In Islam, time is not measured by pomp and glory, but by humility and sacrifice.


It is right to acknowledge moments of weakness, when one has been kicked down. But that was then, and this is now. Weakness cannot be a permanent state. Travellers get up, brush away the dust and press on, made stronger by the fall …

People know instinctively when they have been unfairly treated, but let us set that aside and consider Home Office guidance to caseworkers on returning residents outlined in the Immigration Directorate’s Instructions, Chapter 1 Section 3, in particular:

• Paragraphs 19 and 19A (as inserted by Cm 4851) provide for the admission of a passenger in certain circumstances who has been away for more than 2 years if his ties with this country merit it.

• A passenger who does not hold an entry clearance for this purpose but is seeking entry under Paragraph 19, where it is likely, but it is not clear that he qualifies, may if appropriate, be given leave to enter Code 1 for 2 months and advised to contact the Home Office.

Why was I not afforded the benefits of Paragraphs 19 and 19A above and “given leave to enter Code 1 for 2 months and advised to contact the Home Office” when the option existed and when Border Force officials were aware of and had seen email correspondence on my phone regarding my attempts to set up an appointment with the Home Office in Croydon to have my residence stamp transferred to my new passport? Why did Border Officials decide that my ties with the UK did not “merit” the exceptional protection offered by these clauses? In addition to my personal family and property ties to the UK, I have always engaged actively and responsibly with public life and democratic processes in the UK. I have always voted in UK elections once eligible to do so. I have regularly engaged in writing with our local MP about issues that matter to me. I have never been a drain on state resources and at no point sought recourse to public funds. I have always paid taxes on income earned in the UK.

But there is more to life than property ownership and taxes.  The creative landscape of my life in Britain includes two novels written in my study in our London home, the first of which is set in London. It is in all senses a very London novel. The political landscape of my life in London includes Tony Blair’s election victory on 2 May 1997; the same year I received permanent residence. And even though “Education, education, education” was how the fresh-faced new Prime Minster set out his priorities for office that May, it is to me a great tragedy that he allowed his vision to be derailed and that now he is remembered instead for war, war, war. The architectural landscape of my life in London includes Shakespeare’s Globe, which opened in June that same year. It includes the British Library, which was opened in June 1998. I remember that date, not only because the opening was a much-anticipated event after the saga of its construction, but also because it was the same summer my wife and I bought our house. My London landscape includes the Reading Room at the British Museum, where I spent many hours writing The Silent Minaret instead of my PhD thesis.

The Great Court in the British Museum, which opened in December 2000 is part of my London. I gravitated towards it more frequently than any other public space in the city. As anybody who has been will testify, few London experiences rival that of leaving behind a cramped, congested city and stepping into Europe’s largest covered public square. My London includes the London Eye which opened in 2000 and on which I rode several times to get the aerial views of London described in The Silent Minaret. Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge, also opened in 2000, are part of my London, too. And so is 30 St Mary Axe, more commonly known as “The Gherkin”. From 2001 I saw construction progress to completion in 2003 during the regular drive back down Mile End Road from visiting friends in Plaistow. The Royal Albert Hall where a group of friends and I organized the London Concert for Afghanistan on 14 March 2002, following the US-led invasion of that country in October 2001, is part of my London. At a time the White House and 10 Downing Street were vilifying Afghanistan, the concert, organized in conjunction with four leading aid agencies to highlight their work in Afghanistan, also brought classical Afghan music to the Royal Albert Hall for the first time in the history of the venue and was broadcast around the world by the BBC World Service. My London landscape includes protest and dissent as on 15 February 2003 when I joined in the largest day of protest in history to demonstrate my opposition to the war in Iraq.

And as I witnessed London’s landscape change over nineteen years, I have also seen it torn apart, first on 9 February 1996 when the IRA bombed the Docklands Area of London in an explosion so forceful we were alerted to it when the windows rattled in our north London home eight miles away, and again on 7 July 2005 when London was rocked by the worst single terrorist attack on British soil. At 10:05 that morning, I was one of many commuters evacuated from the number 23 bus as it approached Edgware Road tube station, the site of one of the bombs, an experience that prompted me to write an open letter to the then British High Commissioner to South Africa, Paul Boateng on 21 July 2005, and to which I have yet to receive a response.

I mention these ties not because I glorify or value British experiences above all others. I am not star-struck by Britishness or Europeanness. In fact, I do not indulge these fake categories. To take the long view, our species is not British or European. We are all Africans. And while I am the recipient of the inaugural EU Literary Award, I have never been under the illusion that the twelve golden stars on the flag of the European Union shine for us – Europe’s “ethnic minorities”.  I am not star-struck and begging for access to Europe. I value these ties simply because I have a sense of belonging derived through marriage, family ties, residency rights, property ownership, the payment of taxes, public involvement and hard work. I list these ties for the record because when Border Force officials decided on 14 July that my ties with the UK did not “merit” the protection of Paragraphs 19 and 19 A, those were the ties they cut, and that was the life of 19 years which they negated in just nine hours. In the end, I, my ties and life meant nothing to them.



Before I proceed, let me be clear: I do not believe in race, largely because of my experiences of the excesses of South African apartheid, but also because the idea of race is a socially constructed fiction with no basis in science. There is only one human species – Homo sapiens. For those reasons I endeavor not to see the world through racial lenses and I do not write about race. One only transcends race by transcending it. My characters have names and histories. Readers fill in the rest. Having said that, however invented an idea, race regrettably remains a deeply-ingrained notion, a despicable plague that continues to infect the world in many heinous ways. So long as race remains an issue, the world will remain a primitive place. When Barack Obama was elected, I smiled, not because of the colour of his skin but because, at the very least, he is articulate and after two terms of George Bush’s buffoonery, that was a welcome change. (I’m not smiling any more.) So, in the face of my efforts to overcome race, I am vexed to wonder whether, given the evidence, had my name been John Smith, I would have been extended the benefits of Paragraphs 19 and 19A. But my name is not John Smith, and I have been to Yemen. That I believe sealed my fate at Heathrow and led Border Force officials to think that they could not take a chance on me, to decide that given all the options at their disposal, they would enact the harshest. Had John Smith’s circumstances of 19 years in the UK been mine, would British Border Force officials have cancelled his life on the spot?

My case is not the worst. Of that I am keenly aware. But it is part of the increasing heavy-handedness and outright hostility facing refugees and migrants at UK and EU borders, which is why I decided to share my experience.

In September 2013, Campaigns Coordinator for Right to Remain Lisa Matthews wrote:

The location of the border has shifted: no longer just at the port of entry or the territorial boundary of the UK, it has now encroached into schools and colleges, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, places of worship, the home, the private life … Migrants can feel the oppressive presence of immigration control all around them: in their homes, at their children’s schools, at the bus or tube station with stop and searches.

As an immigrant to the UK, I have lived in the centre of the immigration storm there, and mindful that, as John Berger wrote, “To emigrate is always to dismantle the centre of the world, and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments”. In London I taught English to asylum seekers, migrants and refugees. My work put me in touch with men like Ali (not his real name), a blind asylum seeker from Iran who had been moved from temporary accommodation to temporary accommodation more than twelve times in as many months. Such instability would be taxing on even the most able-bodied of people. For Ali, it meant constantly having to memorize his way around new accommodation and neighborhoods, to relearn the location of everything from light switches, doors and gas valves to pedestrian paths and transport routes. Through my work I met women like Najla (also not her real name), an asylum seeker from Libya, so that when the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg invited me to speak on the topic of Europe in March 2006, I took the opportunity to share Najla’s story in my address entitled Fortress Europe.

What gives immigration control such power? Throughout my time in the UK and before, major political parties have gone to great lengths to demonstrate increasingly tougher stances on immigration. 2015 was an election year in Britain. In October 2014 Labour Leader Ed Miliband pledged that immigration was at the top of the Labour Party’s agenda and promised an immigration reform bill with “measures to address voter concerns”. During his campaign trail, Miliband – himself the son of immigrant parents – unveiled his “tough stance on immigration” ahead of the general election in May. If you have never heard the shrill tone of the immigration debate in Britain, if you have never witnessed the depths to which political parties will to sink to “address voter concerns”, look no further than the Labour Party’s shameful immigration mug. If you have wondered how Europe was capable of the hatred displayed in Nazi Germany, how a nation was primed to hate, this was how – through state-sponsored propaganda. The Conservative Party sets the same hostile tone with the UK’s Home Secretary Theresa May proposing in December 2014 to “kick out foreign graduates”. The malignant politics of the border has become all-pervasive, violating private spaces, usurping democratic processes, and infecting language. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, 137,000 people crossed the Mediterranean for Europe during the first month of 2015, the majority fleeing from war. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres quoted on 1 July, “Most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees, seeking protection from war and persecution.” Yet, bigoted language holds sway and despite the facts, on 30 July British Prime Minister David Cameron described them as “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean”, adding that Britain would not be a “safe haven” for migrants. Speak, Mr Cameron, so that we can see you. By 24 August 2015, 2,373 people were killed trying to cross the Mediterranean, making this the deadliest year for refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, and Europe the most dangerous destination. On 22 July English Pen wrote to the Immigration Minister James Brokenshire expressing alarm at the treatment I received at Heathrow and asking him to review the case as a matter of urgency. I am not aware of any response. However, on 13 August Mr Brokenshire told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper that Britain would be building more than two miles of high-security fencing in France.

What am I to do, watch silently while they tear up the world and rip apart lives? These are not the policies of the wise, but of the bigoted who legislate to placate a fearful parochial minority that neither knows nor cares for the world beyond its narrow horizon. Their policies fly in the face of human history, of British history, of Britain’s own hybrid genetic makeup, which is 40 per cent French and 30 per cent German amongst others, and of Britain’s own linguistic heritage – this mongrel language in which I am writing. Their policies betray their blood, and their words betray their language. To journey is to be human. To migrate is to be human. Human migration forged the world. Human migration will forge the future. We will sooner stop the tides in the oceans than the migration of people around their planet. In the meantime, if the British government is inclined to go against the tide of human history by building fences as in Hungary, let it have the courage to build them on British soil for the world to see.

For my part, I will continue to seek the reinstatement of my residency rights because they are exactly that – rights. I pray for the safety of my family and friends in Britain because until my case is resolved I cannot travel there easily. And I will continue to live fully in the world by traveling through it, on an African passport, just as I have always done.

  • Shukri’s British permanent resident status was reinstated in 2019.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.