The coronavirus health crisis has had a huge effect on the way we all live our lives, not least on our ability to travel as the activities of many major airlines and other providers have ground to a halt. Whilst this is a concerning and uncertain time for everybody, that doesn’t mean that you should have to forgo your rights – including those that relate to immigration.
Following the news that a US citizen was refused entry to the UK on the grounds that her journey was not “essential”, it is clear that the lines between the law and government health guidance have been blurred. Given that there is no existing legal requirement for travellers to demonstrate that their journey is essential, this is a concerning development and hopefully not one that will be reflected throughout the immigration system at points of entry into the UK.
In this article we’ve looked at the facts behind the story, what your rights are in respect of entering the UK during the pandemic, and what you can do if you are denied entry.
What’s the story?
Widespread concern about the response of immigration officials to travel during the COVID-19 crisis rightly follows from the story of an American citizen who travelled to the UK with plans to help her pregnant daughter during the outbreak. Flying into Heathrow, the woman’s entry to the UK was refused on the grounds that her journey was not “essential” and she was returned to the US. This news comes despite the fact that US citizens do not require a visa for tourist or business travel to the UK for stays of up to six months. In the absence of any other factors (for example if the traveller had a history of overstaying their visa), her legal entrance into the UK should have been permitted.
What does the law say?
At present, there is no legal requirement for a traveller to demonstrate that their journey is essential before they can legally enter the UK. The UK government has not yet imposed a ban on inbound flights into the country, and the only formal travel guidance that has been issued advises all British travellers to return home (as set out in the following press release).
On 25th March 2020, the Coronavirus Act 2020 came into force. This law gives quarantine powers to immigration officers, and it is possible that this aspect is being misunderstood or misapplied by some immigration officials.
Of course there are legitimate grounds that UK Immigration Officials can rely on to refuse entry clearance to a traveller, and these are set out in part 9 of the Immigration Rules (available online here). Some of these grounds are particularly vague, for instance that clearance may be refused where a traveller fails to “furnish the Immigration Officer with such information as may be required for the purpose of deciding whether he requires leave [permission] to enter” (in other words, that not enough clear information has been provided for an official reach a conclusion), and this does give Immigration Officials a wide discretion when making decisions. It does not, however, allow them to refuse entry on the basis of whether a journey is “essential”.
For US citizens and others who do not require a visa to legally enter the UK for short periods of time, commonly known as non-visa nationals, there are currently no legal rules relating to the coronavirus pandemic that prevent lawful entry into the country. Whilst the UK government has advised against all non-essential travel, at the present time their guidance remains as nothing more than domestic advice and should have no influence on the decisions of UK border officials.
What if you don’t have a visa?
Firstly, it is worth checking whether you will even require a visa to legally enter the UK. This will depend on your nationality and the purpose of your visit, and the government provides a free and simple visa check service at the following link.
For those who do require a visa, commonly known as visa nationals, whether for a stay in the UK or simply for transit onwards to elsewhere, the ability to apply for the necessary permissions will very much depend on the status of Visa Application Centres (VACs) in your territory.
You can find more information about the status of Visa Application centres in your country by visiting the following links:
What to do if you are refused entry to the UK
If you have plans to travel to the UK in the near future and either have already been granted a visa or do not require one for your stay, the news of this decision will undoubtedly be worrying. If you do travel, make sure that you provide the border officials with accurate and precise information that makes it clear who you are, where you have travelled from and what the purpose of your visit to the UK is. This can help to avoid any confusion and enable you to legally enter the country without encountering any significant issues.
If you are refused entry into the United Kingdom, remaining calm and seeking expert legal advice at the earliest opportunity could prevent your trip from ending at the airport. This will enable you to challenge the decision and take legal action to do so if necessary. Even if you are returned to your country of origin, it’s not too late to make a formal complaint or even make a formal application to legally enter the UK.
Dealing with immigration officials at the border can be daunting, but that shouldn’t prevent you from exercising your rights. At WH Solicitors, we are experienced in dealing with legal issues that arise at the UK border and regularly act to achieve positive outcomes for our clients. Our specialist team have been involved in a variety of high profile cases and are always willing to explore new legal arguments that can be raised to safeguard the interests of our clients.
If you find yourself facing difficulties when trying to enter the UK, contact our experts on (+44) 01483 608 786. We will always listen to your side of the story, and do our very best to solve the issues that you face and find solutions to your immigration problems.