Photo: alice-photo/Shutterstock

What It's Like to Be Detained at Heathrow

London Narrative
by Josh Heller Aug 21, 2013

THIS WEEKEND, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained at Heathrow Airport for nine hours. Greenwald alleges this was an act of intimidation by the US and UK because of his Edward Snowden-informed writings revealing the NSA’s widespread surveillance programs.

This is a profound attack on press freedoms and the news gathering process. To detain my partner for a full nine hours while denying him a lawyer, and then seize large amounts of his possessions, is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation to those of us who have been reporting on the NSA and GCHQ. The actions of the UK pose a serious threat to journalists everywhere.

But I mean really, who hasn’t been detained at Heathrow Airport? In the spring of 2009 I was, and probably not for political reasons. More for just being an idiot.

I guess I fit the profile of someone who didn’t belong in the United Kingdom. Perhaps in the months following the global financial crisis, they didn’t want to let me into their country because my beard and stylishly-tattered clothing made me look like a refugee of recent US layoffs. Or maybe they wanted to keep me out because I didn’t have phone numbers for the friends I was visiting. I had their physical addresses and email addresses, but who uses a telephone? Apparently it was also not the best idea to tell the border officials that the sole purpose for my journey was to “just hang out or whatever.”

My online job allowed me to travel the world, so this was the fifth border I’d crossed in recent months. But the rest had been in Latin America where gringos are minimally scrutinized. It was easy to pretend not to speak the language, shrug, and leave the airport. But this border was a first-world Panopticon, similar to entering the United States. And since I wasn’t a member, it was harder to stroll in.

I was stopped and interrogated as I watched fellow passengers leave the terminal.

“Watching funny videos on YouTube doesn’t really sound like a job,” said the border official, which actually made me feel at home (because that’s what my mom had said).

The experience wasn’t terrible, because they offered me two bologna sandwiches, some coffee, and as many crisps as I wanted.

After the initial “I don’t believe you,” two men took me to my bags so they could do a thorough search. They were looking for documents. Once they’d severely ruined my expert packing job, they took me to a waiting room upstairs. After an hour, a woman appeared to say she was taking over my case.

I followed her into an office where an elderly Bangladeshi man was being interrogated. He’d come to the UK on an expired visa in hopes of getting a heart transplant. He was scheduled for the first flight back to Dhaka.

She took my photograph. Although I was tired, scared, and unhappy, I remembered an earlier pact with myself (if you ever have to take a mugshot, it’d be pretty funny if you smiled), so I gave a huge, goofy, toothy grin.

After the photo shoot, they booked me into the detainment unit at Terminal 5. The experience wasn’t terrible, because they offered me two bologna sandwiches, some coffee, and as many crisps as I wanted.

I talked with a man who was being deported to South Africa. He’d spent the past five years in the UK, but had only been to this terminal and prison. He’d arrived at Heathrow smuggling Class A drugs.

“So great trip?”

“At least I got a free return flight.”

They pulled me out of the holding cell to have my fingerprints taken. I read the notes that my gaoler had written, and realized she’d already gotten in touch with my friend Rich. He’d told her I was in the UK for work, and to visit friends. Since my job was completely online, and I was getting paid by a US company, it was always confusing whether or not I should check the “business travel” box. That confusion, and my ineptitude for deception, made me seem particularly suspicious.

After thoroughly explaining what I do (searching for viral videos, and embedding them onto a television network’s website), she decided I wasn’t lying and not an economic threat to this country (because a reputable UK employer wouldn’t seek such a useless skill.) She still had to go through the motions of bureaucracy, which meant going through all of my things.

She read each page of my notebook, searching for possible cues to deport me. Eventually she came to a passage that was concerning. She’d found a joke I’d written three years prior:

“In the mid-nineties there was a rave record label called “HiGHBorn Records,” they’d capitalized GHB in the middle, because GHB is a rave drug, but that’s also a date-rape drug. So I’m going to start a record label called “KangaROO FIESta” because it has my favorite date-rape drug in the name: Roofies.”

“What’s this supposed to mean?”

“It’s a joke.”

“This is not a joke, we do not want to allow date-rapists into his country.”

“No, it’s just a stupid pun.”

I showed her how ‘Roofies’ was capitalized in the name of the record label.

“Ok, I understand. But I still don’t think it’s funny.”

After another hour eating complimentary crisps in the detainment unit, the inspector returned.

“So can I come to your country, now?”

“I still have to ask my boss.”

Twenty minutes later, I was told that I had been granted admission to the United Kingdom. I caught the tube into Central London, where I exploited the British social welfare system. (JK, in case you represent the humourless British border patrol.)

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