Saturday, November 8, 2014

An immigration story

Oh my best beloved readers, the tale I am about to tell you is probably the very definition of a "First World problem". But, for those of you who are expats in the UAE, you need to know this should you have any foolish ideas about not following instructions regarding documentation required to travel to the letter, as should you do what I did, bureaucracy will make a beautiful mess of your travel plans.

The tale begins with a missing expired passport. The expired passport belonged to me and I have literally no idea where it is. Normally I am quite sensible about keeping these things in safe places, but I haven't really been with it this past few months due to the industrial quantities of pregnancy-related puking I have been doing. I discovered it was missing a few days before we were due to travel to Iceland for a week's holiday, and then on to the UK for a week's familial stomach patting and commenting about the relative giant size of my pregnancy bump.

I panicked a bit, knowing that the UAE authorities prefer you to keep expired passports if they still have your current visa in them. But a fairly comprehensive search proved it was not to be found. Who knows where it is? Possibly stuck down the back of a chest of drawers or piece of furniture, possibly thrown away accidentally, possibly taken by one of those naughty jinns that I so love to read about in the UAE news.

Nothing to be done with three days left to travel, I thought, as I had to work, and surely, as a holder of a current and valid British passport, there was nothing they could do to stop me travelling was there, right?

WRONG. With a capital WRRRRRRRR.

We turned up at Terminal 1 full of boundless optimism about escaping to a cold climate, munching on rotting shark (no we didn't do that, as I would have puked on the spot) communing with Vikings and bathing in geothermal spas. We cleared check-in then got to immigration. The UAE authorities had no record of me having entered the country as I did not have the passport with the entry stamp in it so they would not let me leave. I therefore had to visit immigration in Jafiliyah, then Dubai Courts, then Dubai Police to report the loss of the missing expired passport and visa before they would let me leave. "But I'm a British citizen," I protested, "This passport entitles me to travel without constraint or intervention (or whatever it is her Britannic Majesty requests on the passport)," No dice. The fact that him indoors and I may have muttered something about "it doesn't matter that your computer system has no record, this passport is valid and we're allowed to travel" probably antagonised them further so we were forced to miss the flight and dash round three different government entities.

So, we left our luggage checked in, knowing full we would miss the flight but if you don't show up the at gate they offload it anyway, so no worries there, and dashed off in an attempt to miraculously get everything finished in time. It was never going to happen. An airport policeman was initially quite helpful, as him indoors has a reasonable relationship with them through his work, but confirmed it was three different offices that we must visit. We climbed into a succession of taxis to start the dash because it was Thursday, and not getting it finished by the end of working hours that day would mean at least another two day delay over the weekend. And having not had a proper holiday since July 2013 (see, I told you, First World problem) there was no way that was happening.

Off we went in our clothes chosen for landing in Iceland, (ie trousers, long sleeves, sturdy boots, carrying coats) in temperatures in the late 30s, me, more than five months pregnant and already experiencing hormonal-related steaming hot flushes, him, already in a state of nervous anxiety due to his general lack of enthusiasm for getting on planes. First, home to pick up multiple paper copies of our documents. Then, on to Immigration, which was irksome, I was dispatched to the woman only section where I got to speak to the most sensible one on duty, who seemed to still not really have any idea what I needed, but AED 120 was taken from me, documents stamped. Meanwhile, her colleagues sat at their desks chatting and ignoring various other fraught looking women who clutched immigration documents, choosing instead to chat on their phones and show each pictures of their various kids.

The deed was done with only a little sobbing on my part, with sandwiches and pastries and juice consumed on taxi rides to ward off bouts of stress and pregnancy-related puking, as we sped off to the court, and then to the police station, which are thankfully next to each other, where I received two more stamps for my trouble. The great thing about getting stamps in the UAE, which one is always assured are COMPLETELY NECESSARY and IN NO WAY ARBITRARY, is that the people who bestow the stamps barely glance at your documents before bestowing the required stamp and biro squiggle.

Off to the airport we charged, by now smelling like some kind of disease infested swamp bog due to the dashing round in winter clothes in the heat, and we rocked up to show the friendly airport policeman our stamped documents. Yes, we can travel, he agreed, but after some discussion with a airline ticket sales dude, it became obvious we were not going to get a flight that day, so we motored home once more in taxi number seven or eight (I had lost count by now) to try to rearrange the flights ourselves.

We could get from Dubai to London the next day easy enough, but as the flight on to Iceland was with a different airline, that was a no go, as only business class seats were available. So, while it was only a matter of paying airline charges (AED 250 each) to change the London flight, we had to buy a business class seat each to Iceland at vast expense in order to complete the trip. Either that or wait a week. Well, that wasn't happening for reasons previously mentioned. (It was the second time in my life I have gone business class, and we ended up on a flight with Iceland's president. I didn't notice though, as when it came to it, I collapsed in a state of exhaustion waking only to demand a blanket and put my stinking boots as far away from myself as possible without gassing the banker in the seat in front of me).

Prior to this, after a few hours sleep in Dubai, we got up at dawn's arse crack to catch the only available flight to London that day. We cleared check-in once more, with the check-in man thoroughly bemused at my combined state of rage and hypertension, persistently telling me to smile. He even finished with a little speech about how "piece of mind is expensive" when we explained a little of what had happened the previous day. "Yes, especially in Dubai," I grunted, to which he gave a nervous laugh as I charged off towards immigration.

"So we can go, then," I forcefully told the immigration desk dude, waving my stamped bits of paper. No, we couldn't, go and speak to the immigration office again, we were told, and then told that we still had to cancel my visa at the airport immigration office in Terminal 3.

How we managed not to descend into hysteria at this point, I am not exactly sure. But we ran off to the other terminal, catching an airport shuttle to speed us along the way, still wearing our winter clothes, and me preventing him indoors from punching a well-meaning men who told us we had plenty of time to catch our flight.

We surged into the airport immigration office, which is mercifully, open 24 hours. By now, him indoors had gone into some kind of catatonic state, so I explained our request to the somewhat irate man behind the desk, paid some more money into a bank to get something typed out and received more stamps on various documents to have my visa cancelled.

It all looked like it was going to be OK. The documents stamped, the money paid, the "hlases" stated in clear and certain terms with him indoors sitting silently planning our escape to a remote beach shack in a Northern Emirate to complete a retreat from society should anything go wrong.

After all that, after I had gone around on a bureaucratic nightmare, done the explaining, not lost it, not descended into a quivering wreck, not wept and retreated to my bed, not complained that, "you know, is this really that necessary for a five months pregnant woman in late 30s heat?"

After all that, as I held out my hand for my passport, the man behind the desk handed MY PASSPORT back to him indoors.

I can only assume that for people who are less patient than I (and I am told there are such people in the world) there are souvenir pictures and evidence of faces and national dress covered in official stamps - the handiwork of those less patient people who at such provocation, have grabbed the official stamp and beaten the official to death with it.


I ask you.

I didn't do it. There was no "my Dubai prison hell" story to tell on this occasion, because I kept my cool, and yes, we ran back to Terminal 1, because no shuttle was in sight, shoved the final bits of paper in the face of the immigration official, and dashed as fast my now blistered feet would carry us to the departure gate. And we were gone. Away from the heat and away from national dress wearing stamp waving officials for two weeks, and with one mere slight incident of me giving a hefty shove to a woman who would not get out of my way fast enough for me to get to my seat.

So, the moral of this story is, don't assume like I did that as a British citizen, you are untouchable as long as you have a valid passport. I think I knew in the back of my head that I would need to report the passport missing at some point, but it did not in a month of Sundays occur to me that it would prevent me from travelling. Now, I am in the unenviable position of needing a new visa, which is not so bad as it was due to expire in February anyway, but will mean once again surrendering my passport while it is processed. Again, it is no biggie as I am two weeks away from my third trimester when travelling is not such a hot idea anyway, but after several months being bound to the UAE earlier this year by the debacle in the British passport office, it is not a prospect that fills me with joy.

Long-term residents of the UAE will not be in the least surprised by the sheaf of paperwork required to resolve this situation, but, be warned, my best beloved readers - this experience is not for the fainthearted. If your visa is in your old passport, you WILL need it to travel, and if you haven't got it, you need at least a couple of days free to get the situation resolved, so plan ahead. We are back now after the much-needed break, him with a cold, and me with only slight residual stress-related nausea, but cowed by our immigration experience. You may think you're a free passport-holding British citizen entitled to leave the UAE whenever you please, but should you not have the right back up documents, you are not. So, think on.

Here endeth the lesson.


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