The Immigrant investigates the murky UK border procedures

“Cousins – but in which sense?

My cousin Gracinha and I have been related since the day I was born in Brazil nearly 34 years ago. My mother is her mother’s elderly sister, and my mother has always looked upon her as some sort of motherly figure. Gracinha and I also get along extremely well. We have always had a very strong link, and not just blood. We connect musically, intellectually, and we have similar ideologies, principles and lifestyles. Am I dabbling away too much? Well, that’s for a reason.

A few weeks ago Gracinha, who lives in Rio, visited me in London. During her stay, we flew to Spain for a few days in order to see my father, some friends and relatives. I joined Gracinha on the non-EU/EEC queue at the UK border when we flew back to the UK, in case the border agent had any questions for me (Gracinha was staying at my place and I wrote her invitation letter; I hold a British passport, while Gracinha only has Brazilian nationality). That’s when we were faced with a question that would redefine our relationship forever.

“So you are cousins – but in which sense?” – spat the immigration official on us. The question was delivered with an arrogant, authoritative and patronising look which would make Simon Cowell seem more humble and compassionate than Madre Teresa of Calcutta. Gracinha and I were left speechless, looking at each other in a mix of amusement and shock. I then replied: “we are first degree cousins”. This clearly wasn’t enough, and so Mr Border insisted: “in which sense?”. Gracinha and I paused. We genuinely didn’t know what to say. We smiled clumsily and looked at each other in perplexity. We had never asked such profound question.

Are we cousins spiritually, or perhaps philosophically? Are we earthly cousins, or do we come from different planets? Should we call our mothers? They might know the answer to this intriguing and thought-provoking question.Instead, I went on to explain: “my mother and her mother are sisters”. He then turned to Gracinha, who was standing next to me, and asked “how are you related to him”. She replied: “my mother and his mother are sisters”. To our relief, he did not ask: “sisters in what sense?”.

Mr Border then decided to lecture us, still with the same condescending look of a loveless, sadistic primary school teacher, while also grasping his hands, raising his eyebrows as high as possible (until they resembled a capital M) and pouting: “that means you are maternal cousins”. He smirked and sneered.I wondered to myself what we would be called if my father and Gracinha’s mother were related, or the other way around. Would that make us “mixed-gender cousins”? Or perhaps “framternal cousins”? I dared not ask.

At that point it became obvious to my cousin and I that the question was intentionally nonsensical and absurd, and that we were merely another victim of this Mr Border’s preposterous inquisition. There was no point in challenging the now absolute and irrevocable truth: Gracinha and I are maternal cousins.

Over the course of the 15 years since I moved to the UK, I have come across all sorts of absurd, offensive, intrusive, patronising, misleading and bizarre questions at immigration, particularly when I was with my Brazilian friends and relatives. I have always held a Spanish passport and, more recently, a British one, but this has only partly exempted me from such humiliation.This is why I decided to find out a little bit more about UK border world.

Challenging the UK Boarder
And so I sent a Freedom of Information request to the UKBA this afternoon asking the following: “Please explain the guidelines provided to immigration officers when dealing with Brazilians/ other foreign nationals endeavouring to enter the UK. What they are instructed to ask Brazilians? Are these officers provided with guidelines and training? Are there standard questions? Or are questions entirely at their discretion? Are there limitations as to what they can ask without interfering with the applicant’s privacy (e.g. can they ask absolutely anything they wish, however vexatious, offensive, absurd and misleading it may be)?”

I will update you once I have received a response from the UKBA. The Freedom of Information Act states that they have 20 working days to provide me with an answer, but there are ways around it. Hopefully they will not find a legal loophole exempting them from answering it.

Many of us are dying to find out more and the happy and rosy world of the UK border procedures, and the adorable people running it.In the meantime, you too can help to expose the disrespectful and arrogant ways of UK border agents. Just share with us your UK border horror stories here!!! Share with the world the joys of being a tourist or and immigrant!


  1. Victor Fraga

    Thanks to Antonia Zanotto for the constructive analysis of this article on her blog (see link on comment below).

    Very good notes on 7/7 on “loss of identity” – Britain has certainly become a more segregated and complex place to live and relate to since.

    But I’m not sure I agree with the “Notting Hill Carnivals, London 2012 and Rio 2016 have brought about a positive and contagious spirit to the people of London, regardless of ethnicity or class.” – I don’t think these events have entered the psyche of Britain and in anyway alleviated xenophobia towards Brazilians and others.

  2. Beth

    I have been living in the UK on a EU passport for 10 years now. I have never brought my mother to this country to due the hideous stories I hear from friends. Around 2005, a friend’s mother was sent back to Brazil from the airport. My friend was engaged to her British husband at the time, and he was the one who went to pick her up. They were both put aside in separate rooms for hours, while the officers would run back and forth trying to match information, hoping they would fall in contradiction. In the end, the UK border was no satisfied with the answers, and shipped the lady back. It was the first time she ever went abroad, and the most heart breaking detail is that she had not seen her daughter in 5 years!!

  3. Simone

    Year 2003, Heathrow airport. My mum came to visit from Brazil and got put aside, to the interrogation room and had her traveling bag searched. “Is this bag really yours? Why a person of your age carries sanitary pads?? And why are your t-shirts so big”, asked the immigration officer.
    My mum left the room devastated.

  4. Mari Sarayva

    in Heathrow in 2009 (I think) they searched all of the bags, went through a small diary and asked me about the telephone numbers, and I didn’t even remember who some of the people were. They checked my medication and asked question about each individual one, I was very embarressed., They call my British husband to ask questions, but he was out of the country. They made me wait more than five hours, I felt dirty and almost violated. And that’s because I even am married to a British citizen and have an indefinite leave to remain!

  5. Victor Fraga

    Stories like Jan’s and mine are rather funny. Sadly for other people they can be much more tragic and traumatising…

  6. Jan Migdal

    Like my experience in Miami. Is that girl in the queue your gf? No. Why don’t you have a gf? Because I am gay! Oh, how sad, sorry to hear that. Where is your bf and why isn’t he with you? Do you trust him?

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