By Anita Graafland

This month, we’re delighted to welcome another reader’s contribution to our regular Border Talk column, as my own travels to and from Cornwall are getting quite predictable and there is only so much I can say about Dutch cheese. Coincidentally, quite a few Dutch people populate our pages, what with Fiona’s husband a Dutch national and my daughter Feyona the subject of My Brexit Story. And no, we didn’t do this on purpose, it just happened.

Here’s Fiona’s story:

I’m part of a bi-national English/Dutch couple who have lived together in the UK for almost 36 years. Five days before Easter, we took a ferry out of Dover bound for Calais. We left Cornwall on Sunday 3 April, drove to Dover, stayed overnight and then caught the ferry on Monday 4 April. We started making the journey to the Netherlands regularly in 1991 and this was our 31st year of doing this. We almost always go Dover/Calais and then we drive through France and Belgium into the Netherlands. We had to skip 2021 due to the pandemic and this was our first year of going since the abomination that Brexit has been imposed upon us.

We spent a lot longer preparing. We go self-catering so had to spend hours checking and re-checking what foodstuffs could and couldn’t be taken into the EU (not to mention brought back when we returned). As we were also uncertain whether the car would be searched or not, we decided not to take many of the items we routinely would have because the situation felt so precarious in terms of what we should expect.

In addition to our normal packing routine, there was Covid-19 to think about. Two sets of Covid passes to check, download and print, four lateral flow tests to purchase and remember to take with us in case we should face any Covid status challenges coming or going.

And then there was my partner’s settled status paperwork to round up, download and check to make sure he had some level of evidence that he had the right to return if we should need this. Disconcertingly, the only document the Home Office sends you has “this document is not evidence of right to residency” in bold letters all over it, which made us extra-anxious.

And then there were the horror stories floating around on social media. We read examples where people described being denied re-entry on their return for the flimsiest, most questionable of reasons. In one instance, a Polish man was denied re-entry because Immigration refused to accept that he had settled status even though his paperwork was all in order and he presented it. In an even more bizarre tale, we read about a French/UK couple where the French wife was permitted re-entry but the British husband was not because Immigration claimed his passport did not have a vital stamp in it. This is now necessary to be able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of Immigration that you have only been in the EU for 90 days in any 180 day period, which is what the passport stamp tells them when you come back. This couple were very fortunate that the husband had dual citizenship in Ireland so he presented his Irish passport instead and then they let him in. And so on…..

As departure date got nearer, I felt increasingly anxious about what could happen to my partner when we came back. Although he has lived here for 36 years (longer than in his home country) and he has settled status, I read so many descriptions of stupidities with Immigration where they questioned the status of EU nationals just because they could. I seriously started to wonder whether we should just not go but, as we had already cancelled and re-booked three times in 2020/21, we really wanted to do it this time.

I talked to a really good friend of mine who used to work as a solicitor in a law centre supporting asylum seekers with immigration issues and she made a really good suggestion, She advised us to email our MP (Scott Mann) before we left to let his office know the dates of our departure from the UK and our return. Then, if there were any problems with the return, he could be asked to verify our circumstances and vouch for us. (As we do email Scott quite a lot, I was also pretty sure he knows who we are by now!) So I did this on the Sunday morning before we left. I said that if my partner was not allowed to return, then I would give Immigration his phone number and say that he could vouch for him and for me. I received a reply from one of his staffers saying everything had been noted and wishing us a good trip.

As we approached Dover that Sunday in the dark, the first thing I realised was just how different it was all going to be now. Soon after we got on to the M20, we were limited to either 45mph or 50mph, which lasted all the way into Dover (about 60 miles in total). It soon became clear that this was because of the massive lorry log-jam created by the new export requirements because we are no longer in the free trade area of the EU. There were literally hundreds of lorries lined up in the left lane either not moving at all or moving so slowly they could hardly be noticed and this went on for many miles. At intervals, there were barriers, blue lights and people in uniform scurrying about. This happened first in the approach to Ashford and then again in the approach to Folkestone.

As I drove, I realised each of these places was now the border with the EU for lorries due to the export requirements for their loads before they are able to put their trailers on to the Channel Tunnel or ferry route. So that border Brexit promoters wanted back so desperately that they did the rest of us over big time in order to get it is now in Ashford. Or in Folkestone. Or Dover. Or maybe just in Kent because it seems if you’re a lorry driver you need a licence to go through Kent and all that export nonsense successfully nowadays.

In Dover the next morning, whilst the town itself was moving, I was not surprised to see that every passport lane was dedicated to lorries except for one. This left the rest of us all trying to jam through an extremely tight bottle neck in the only lane available for cars, vans, pick-ups or coaches. Needless to say THIS slowed us down magnificently but we did eventually get through the UK passport window. We then had to go through the same thing a second time so a French passport officer could also check our passports. It was at the French passport window that my passport was stamped.

After finally getting through passport control, I was given a big red star that had to be displayed on the dashboard where it could be clearly seen. I thought of those other famous stars handed out in the Second World War and wondered what this meant. Then we had to drive into the customs shed four at a time and the driver had to get out so a Securicor woman could swab the vehicle and do drugs tests etc. We all stood there in the draughty, cold shed waiting for the results and feeling like idiots. In the pre-Brexit days they used to do this at the passport window checking off your vehicle from a list, which we always assumed were known drugs traffickers or whatever that they were looking out for. I also wouldn’t advise going through in a van as it seemed like these were much more likely to be hauled off to the side and then searched to the level of a colonoscopy.

Finally, we exited the Customs shed and then we got to check in. It was already clear we were not going to make our 10am sailing but, since all the boats were behind schedule, this didn’t seem to matter much to anyone. As she was friendly, I asked the woman behind the glass what the red star was for. She smiled and said “It’s because you’re going to provide the entertainment on the boat!” which relieved the tension and made everything feel a bit more like it used to be when crossing the border in Dover. It then transpired that the red star meant all your paperwork was in order. I wondered how many civil servants it had taken to come up with this sort of thing because, once inside the Schengen area, nothing was ever said or done again. Why we need to distinguish ourselves in such a needless and annoying fashion in the UK remains a mystery. In the end, we left for Calais three hours late. We also thanked God that we had paid the extra for priority boarding because we (eventually) got on the ferry first and got off second, which saved us some queueing time and got us a good set in the bow.

On the return trip via Dunkerque on Friday 22 April, we encountered no queues, no trouble and everything was the same as it’s always been except my passport was again stamped at the French window on arrival. At Customs they did ask us to open the rear doors and the boot, as they always do. They then have a quick dig about in the luggage, which we’ve always thought is mainly to check there are no stowaways hidden under our suitcases, cool-box, kitchen-box, bedding or bags with gifts and Dutch food we generally come back with. We got through in about 20 minutes, no bother.

As we were mainly waved through, we found ourselves wishing we had brought more Dutch food back with us after all once we got on the ferry. Although we will bring more next time, they do undertake random searches too, so we think it is wise to not assume you will not be searched. We will check the relevant limits again next time around. The other big change we noticed was the lack of any UK car or lorry number plates once we left Calais. In all of the 18 days we were in the Netherlands, we saw only a single UK car and no UK lorries. Previously, we would see around 8 – 10 UK lorries in two weeks in the Netherlands and something like 4 – 6 UK cars. So, although it’s only small numbers, this appears to be a very big difference to our previous trips. We saw no UK vehicles at all driving through Belgium both ways and none in the Netherlands, Belgium or France until we go to the final ferry queue in Dunkerque on our return trip.

Interestingly, when we passed through the UK Border Control in France, the man behind the glass never even asked about my partner’s settled status and we were never asked to present any papers relating to this. After all the fuss and trauma my partner has had to go through around this, we were extremely surprised. I wondered whether his settled status has been somehow added to his passport electronic records, but I’m not sure if or how that could be done.

Pre-Brexit, we would get through Dover pretty quickly when leaving, within around 20 mins on average. This time, it took an hour just to get through all the checking and high levels of scrutiny and then we had to spend almost two more waiting to get on a ferry. I also found it remarkable that it took three hours before I was allowed to leave my own country. This is what those Brexit voters getting their borders back means then: we all now live in an island prison where consent is needed if you want to leave the site.

Driving back up the A20/M20 on Saturday 23 April there were still the long queues of lorries as if we had never left. This now appears to be a permanent state of affairs for any company taking goods on the Dover/Calais or Folkestone/Calais routes.

A FEW TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS:

1. Allow a lot of time to get through Dover. The checking took about an hour, then there was the waiting time for the ferry itself.

2. Check that you get a stamp in your passport. Not getting one may mean that you are denied re-entry, so this is extremely important.

3. Don’t worry about your car being searched as it won’t be. If you go in a van that is either empty or loaded, you should probably expect a more thorough search.

4. if you’re a bi-national couple like we are, don’t worry about being put into separate immigration queues. That only happens on public transport like aeroplanes.

5. Make sure your Covid pass is up-to date and take some lateral flow tests with you as a precaution.

6. Allow extra time to get through Kent due to only one lane being open for most of it so the endlessly queuing lorries can take the other one. The southern half of Kent is an absolute mess currently and this seems to be system the government has decided to stick with.

7. If you’re a bi-national couple, email your MP before you go to inform them of your travel dates and say you will ask Immigration to contact them if there are any difficulties on re-entry. (My guess now is that there won’t be, but you never know….)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.