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Student raises spectre of racial prejudice after family misses graduation over 'fake passport' claims

Exclusive: Aster Abebe's family spent a year planning a trip to see her graduate - but were told they could not enter the country at the last minute

Caroline Mortimer
Wednesday 26 July 2017 09:45 BST
Aster Abebe’s family were due to fly in from the US to see her graduate on 15 July
Aster Abebe’s family were due to fly in from the US to see her graduate on 15 July (Supplied)

A student has accused British authorities of racial discrimination after her family was forced to miss her graduation because they were refused entry to the country.

Aster Abebe’s family were due to fly in from the US to see her graduate from the University of York on 15 July but their trip was derailed when they were told they were unable to board a flight from Brussels at the last moment.

The 21-year-old said her extended family, who are all of Ethiopian descent, had spent a year planning the trip to the UK but it was ruined when three of her cousins were turned away at the boarding gate after being told UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) would not allow them into the country.

The party of six, including her aunt, father and four cousins, had planned to take a Ryanair flight from Brussels Charleroi to Manchester Airport on 14 July.

Ms Abebe told The Independent: “They went through Belgian security and there were no issues at all. The first time something was flagged up was when they were [about to] board the plane.

“It was after checking and it was literally at the boarding gate when they were told: ‘We’ve been informed that UK immigration are going to refuse you’."

Her aunt and another cousin, whose passport was issued on the same day as her brother’s which was refused, were also travelling with the party and were able to get through.

Aster Abebe (fifth from left) reunited with her family in Brussels after the ordeal (Aster Abebe)

The graduate said it was the first time her cousins, who were all born in the US and only hold American passports, had ever experienced anything like it.

She said her relatives, the youngest of whom is just 14, found the experience “quite traumatic” as they were separated from the rest of the family and interrogated by Belgian police as they tried to leave the airport.

The three cousins were taken into separate rooms to prove their identity.

She said her 14-year-old cousin had been forced to write his signature over and over again to prove it matched the one on the passport and her 17-year-old cousin was asked to rearrange her hairstyle so it matched the one in the photograph.

Ms Abebe, who is originally from Leeds, said her father was also asked to prove his identity despite the fact UK immigration had not refused him and he held a Belgian passport.

After the interrogation they were finally told they had been barred from entry because UK believed their passports were “fake”.

“It was really bizarre. They had to watch officials really scrutinising their passports to make sure the thread was the same,” she said.

Although she had flown out to see her family in Brussels after her graduation and been in contact with the US embassy in Belgium to prove the passports were real, Ms Abebe said she felt the situation would not have happened to a white family travelling on US passports.

“It is ridiculous. I don’t think we should have to go through this and I don’t think that if it was a white American family that they would have to go through this.

“That evening we were waiting for them in Manchester, it was all set to go ahead and we were at the airport.

“It was planned for so long so it was just crushing for it to go wrong. It was so crushing to find there wasn’t even a reason. It just feels like potential discrimination.”

A spokesman for the Home Office, which oversees UK immigration, declined to comment when approached by The Independent – saying it did not discuss individual cases.

A spokeswoman for Ryanair said: “A passenger booked on this flight from Brussels Charleroi to Manchester (14 July) was prevented from travelling to the UK on the instruction of UK Border Force. Ryanair complies fully with all such legal instructions and does not comment on individual cases. This is a matter for UK Border Force.”

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