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I land around 1pm at Birmingham International Airport.
Between the plane’s doors and the portal, everything is serene. A placid line of fellow passengers trudging up the jetway, into the terminal, though the camera-lined corridors and past the garish signs proclaiming the various indignities that await ahead at passport control. Eventually, the rat-trap tunnels converge on the intake room, the great cleansing filter which promises to keep the UK clean. The signs, now ever more strident, warn of the harsh penalties for threatening an immigration officer, failing to produce proper documentation, or lodging one’s asylum request improperly. It’s all quite official.
The intake hall is a sterile room, festooned with CCTV cameras. The EU passport holders dutifully and effortlessly slide into a swift-moving queue which gobbles them up as quickly as can be noticed. A glance at the traveling papers, a friendly question, a nod, and they’re off. I, however, must stand in the other line, the one for the non-EU visa-free travel exemptees, the tourists, the immigrants, and the sternly-warned asylum seekers.
I seem to be the very last in line, somehow. Ah yes… while the budget airline opened both doors, front and back to me in Bratislava, only the front door opens in Birmingham. Perhaps the cost of CCTV and police monitoring for two doors of a passenger-carrying aircraft is too high in the UK. I don’t question, but trundle into position behind a Bahraini family with two bickering youngsters and an impassive yet obviously distressed teenage daughter and a small group of Slovak college students and their parents who haven’t realized the practical impact of their recent change of status. The line crawls forward, millimeters at a time.
After about 5 minutes and 5 centimeters a young, dark man emerges from the labyrinth behind us all and strides up to the decision point: EU passport holder or not? He hesitates, and turns to the appropriately diverse pair of airport staff waiting to guide newly-arrived hopefuls into the proper queue. I overhear his conversation only superficially, but it’s essentially this:
He: Good day, here is my travel document. Which line should I stand in?
They: Uhhh… let me have a look… Hmmm… Somalia, but what’s this? Er, <brief walkie-talkie conversation> you’re best over there.
He: Thank you.
And he comes to stand behind me. He’s a shorter man than I, dark skinned but of indeterminate origin, someplace between 25 and 30 years old. Racially, a mix of African, Arab and central-Asian features that quite escapes categorization. He fumbles a bit with his passport and fishes out his immigration declaration form, then asks me if I have a pen.
So I lend him a pen and ask him where he’s from. “Somalia”, he says, “but I live here in the UK.”
“Somalia!?” I ask. “An interesting place to be from.”
I tell him that I overheard his conversation, and that I’m curious about his passport. He says briefly that it’s something special, and allows me to look at it.
It’s a 1951 Convention Travel Document, dark blue passport-like cover and the requisite 40 or so watermarked pages inside. It’s in English, issued in the UK, prominently displaying the fact that it doesn’t grant the bearer rights to employment or public assistance on the forceful pages, and bearing a variety of entry and exit visa stamps from France, Germany, Egypt and Spain, along with several residence visas from Tanzania.
It was a trusting and innocent maneuver on his part, and I hand him back his ticket to life beyond the intake hall reverently.
We chat a bit, as we slowly advance in the queue. Turns out he came to the UK seven or so years ago, renounced his citizenship and is now waiting for a UK passport. Works as a sales agent for one of those new-fangled almost-actually-deregulated energy utilities that has government-mandated access to the national gas distribution network trying to convince people to switch gas providers, all the while recognizing that if the gas supply and the distribution pipes are all still owned by the same people, it’s all kind of a wash. Still, it’s GBP 500 a month, and the money’s damned good in Dar-es-Salaam, where he operates a business with his brother.
As the conversation moves on, I ask him about his history a bit, Somalia, how he came to the UK, the taxes here and the surveillance they pay for, and how he ended up in this line. We talk briefly and cursorily of Somalia’s internationally much-reviled “anarchy”, the Islamic Courts Union, the breakup of the country and the fraudulent imposition of a false, foreign government on his country. I share with him my dismay at the US-backed Ethiopian invasion and slaughter going on in Somalia today.
I realize, slowly, that the little blue-bound book he handed me earlier is a declaration that he has no citizenship, no nationality, no country. Can that be right?
Me: So you are a stateless person?
Him: Yes, that’s right.
Me: I must ask you… hasn’t it caused you troubles in your life?
Him: No, it’s great being free.
Gears turn and tumblers fall into place. The door waits only to swing open.
Just before we separate for our own, individual inquisitions before the immigration officers, I ask him what he plans. “After I get my UK passport in November, I will leave here forever… this place is not good.”