Ishtiyaq Shukri: The award-winning author who Britain has banned from entering the country

After 19 years legally resident in the UK, a South African book tour and a few trips to Yemen led to author Ishtiyaq Shukri’s deportation

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The Independent Online

When award-winning South African author Ishtiyaq Shukri landed at Heathrow on 14 July, he thought it was a straightforward homecoming. Instead he was taken aside, interrogated for more than nine hours and deported back to South Africa with his British residency stamp rescinded.

Despite living in the UK legally for 19 years, having a British wife and a house in London, Mr Shukri has been barred from entering Britain.

In an eloquent blog entitled Losing London, which was posted last week on the website Africa Is A Country, he describes the humiliation of the experience and his suspicion that its intensity was driven by racism. The English branch of Pen, the worldwide writers’ organisation, has written to immigration minister James Brokenshire to express its alarm at Mr Shukri’s treatment at Heathrow and asking for a review of the case as a matter of urgency. 

Mr Shukri’s best known work is The Silent Minaret, a novel about a South African Muslim boy facing prejudice in London in the wake of 9/11, which won the European Union Literary Award in 2004. He had not been in Britain since September 2012. 

Initially it was Mr Shukri’s mother’s sudden illness and death in South Africa that kept him away from the UK in 2013. His wife was Country Director for Oxfam in Yemen, so in 2014 he travelled there from South Africa, rather than staying alone in London. Last year his second novel I See You was published, committing him to a book tour in South Africa.

I See You, Shukri’s follow-up to The Silent Minaret, concerns the abduction of a war photographer

His trips to Yemen provoked the most lengthy interrogation. “To those who don’t know what this kind of probing interrogation feels like, one curious effect is that somewhere deep inside one begins to doubt oneself,” he wrote. “That must be part of the interrogator’s intention, and it left me feeling violated.”

He describes having his luggage “surreptitiously” searched, being photographed and fingerprinted and then having his paperwork from trips to Yemen taken aside and examined. Then he was handed a letter telling him he no longer qualified as a returning resident because he had been away from the UK for more than two years.

Writing on the likely racial motivation for his ill-treatment, he said: “In the face of my efforts to overcome race, I am vexed to wonder whether, given the evidence, had my name been John Smith, I would have been extended the benefits of Paragraphs 19 and 19A [which allow for someone to be away for more than two years if their ties with Britain merit it].

“But my name is not John Smith, and I have been to Yemen. That, I believe, sealed my fate at Heathrow and led Border Force officials to think that they could not take a chance on me, to decide that, given all the options at their disposal, they would enact the harshest. Had John Smith’s circumstances of 19 years in the UK been mine, would British Border Force officials have cancelled his life on the spot?”

The Home Office insists that anyone previously given indefinite leave to remain in Britain who has been away for more than two years requires a Returning Resident visa to come back to live in the UK. A spokeswoman said: “We do not routinely comment on individual cases.”

Writing on the British deportation experience, Mr Shukri said: “I have written novels about disappearances and abductions, but it is still difficult for me to talk about the feeling of powerlessness that comes from being boarded onto a plane not of one’s choosing, except to say: I hope those immigration officials never experience the humiliation.”

He added: “The embarrassment one feels at being dispossessed of one’s travel documents, of being escorted through the duty-free shopping area, of being walked past the other passengers queuing to board the flight, of having one’s passport and boarding pass handed to the captain upon embarkation for the duration of the flight, and of being handed them back only when one has disembarked after landing, is acute; the gut-wrenching feeling upon take-off that one is being torn away from one’s family and home, more than I can describe.”

He believes his treatment is indicative of increasingly aggressive Home Office tactics. “My case is not the worst. Of that I am keenly aware. But it is part of the increasing heavy-handedness and outright hostility facing refugees and migrants at UK and EU borders, which is why I decided to share my experience.”

Commenting on Government plans to build two miles of security fencing in France to keep out Syrian refugees and other migrants, he said: “These are not the policies of the wise but of the bigoted, who legislate to placate a fearful parochial minority that neither knows nor cares for the world beyond its narrow horizon.”

He added: “Their policies fly in the face of human history, of British history, of Britain’s own hybrid genetic make-up ... To journey is to be human. To migrate is to be human. Human migration forged the world. Human migration will forge the future. We will sooner stop the tides in the oceans than the migration of people around their planet. In the meantime, if the British government is inclined to go against the tide of human history by building fences as in Hungary, let it have the courage to build them on British soil for the world to see.”

Mr Shukri says he will fight for the reinstatement of his residency rights “because they are exactly that – rights”.