Readers' Submissions

Told You So 5 – The Paper Chase



May 2009 – my Filipina Princess and I (UK citizen) were in Cyprus, now legally married, more or less, and I was about to embark on the Alice in Wonderland journey to obtain the papers we needed and ‘go for goal’ – a UK visa for FP.

Whilst I have many misgivings about the European Union (the current financial crises not least) there are, for me at least, many benefits. Freedom of travel is one (no crap with visas) and there is also the principle that as well as obligations I have ‘rights’. A recurrent theme on the Stick site is that foreigners in Thailand have no rights of residence, etc., but rather are ‘guests’ and the invitation and welcome can be withdrawn at any time. I’m not sure I could live like that.

A fundamental and important illustration is this. My FP and I needed to get CY Residence Certificates. Not ‘Permits’, ‘Certificates’. We didn’t need ‘permission’ to be in CY, we had an absolute legal right to live there, work there, etc., and also an absolute right to be treated equally (well, that last bit never worked out in practice but that’s what the law says). At worst, we could be fined for failing to register, but we couldn’t be deported. On a practical note, when we went out I used to carry copies of our passports and a copy of our marriage certificate just in case we were subject of an Immigration Police stop / check. We never were, but I had friends who suffered. (Most UK residents I met in CY never bothered to register, and the only time it seemed to make a difference was if they were importing cars or such like. If you signed on for phone service or utilities you had to pay a hefty deposit if you didn’t have a residence certificate).

Within a couple of days of our marriage we went to our local Immigration Office. CY is an eastern Med / Middle East country and office hours start early. The office opened at 0800 and when we arrived at 0700 there was already a long queue. Cypriots have a term for ‘slowly, slowly’ which escapes me now but ‘slowly, slowly’ it was. A time for reflection and people-watching. Many East Europeans (some ladies who were dressed as if they’d just finished work in the ‘cabarets’), many Asian ladies (none of whom I recognised as Thai), many older CY men with younger and slimmer companions, and many apparent ‘agents’ who flitted back and fore, jumping the queue and who seemed to know many of the Immigration office staff. I’ve never been to an Immigration office in Thailand but from having read submissions on the Stick site I guess it probably wasn’t too different from the scene one could expect in LOS.

After three hours (it would have been longer if I hadn’t employed some rugby-type skills to keep queue-jumpers at bay, we emerged with our first trophy – a badly-photocopied copy of a form which confirmed our appointment in three months time to present our application for a Residence Certificate. Why bother? I hear you ask. Well, the first question the UK Visa office staff ask is ‘have you got CY Residence Certificates?’ and also having the appointment slip is, for the time being as good as having the certificate itself, and just like TIT, this is Cyprus. I’d just mention here that as a European with a Filipina wife we did get some ‘looks’ from the CY staff. She’s not that much younger than me (10 years, 40’s as to my 50’s) and is demure and well-dressed but then in my experience anyone who’s not CY is looked down on. FP’s Greek is much better than mine but she’s non-confrontational (except with me) so she declined to translate what I wanted to tell them.

Tatty and scruffy though it was, this scrap of paper represented a step forward (and also ensured that should we be ‘stop-checked’ by the authorities we were OK. Our next step was for FP to withdraw her asylum application. This had to be done in the capital, Nicosia, so we had to rent a car and travel there, with our papers. Similar experience to Immigration (maybe a bit more skanky) but we finally left there with, as far as we were concerned, things sorted out.

External issues intervened, and I was asked to return to the UK to provide witness statements etc concerning a serial murderer / rapist / robber case I’d been involved in before my retirement (progress in DNA techniques had resulted in an arrest and forthcoming trial). The police were happy to pay for my flights, etc. I wanted to visit UK anyway to see my first grandchild and was happy to come to a compromise about the expenses. I explained my situation (i.e. about my new wife and our immigration papers, etc.) to the (very senior) detective in charge of the case. He is a good friend and was at one time a junior officer / trainee of mine. (Note: it’s very true, be nice to people as you go up because you’ll probably meet them again on your way down). He agreed to provide whatever it took – even ultimately a government to government letter – to expedite our case, get my FP her visa, so we could go to UK, I could give evidence in the trial, etc.

Armed with this, I went to try and see the local police chief for assistance. Never got to see him, appointments were never kept and ultimately I went back to the UK alone to ‘do the business’ at UK expense. Months later I did get to meet the chief through a friend of a friend and it seems that where I went wrong was not having a ‘family’ or ‘friend’ connection.

As an aside, I’d welcome feedback on this point. As a police officer for many years (and I know that some other Stick readers / contributors were) it generally seemed to happen that if I was travelling in a foreign country I’d end up meeting / socialising with / becoming friends with police officers there. Shared experiences and values, I suppose. But I never did that in CY and I would bet that those in a similar position didn’t / don’t do that in Thailand either.

FP and I plodded on. We put together the papers we needed to obtain our CY Residence Certificates and when the day came for our local appointment with Immigration we were there bright and early and after only two hours or so after our appointment time we got to see the young lady clerk. We had all our papers ready, in duplicate. I’d taken out private medical insurance for her (not cheap, and we only got the requisite certificate delivered to us while we were in the queue at Immigration by the agent after some phone calls) and so we were good to go. I’d paid a CY lawyer a couple of hundred Euros to check our papers beforehand (they were fine) and what you actually pay for (maybe the same in Thailand?) is that they have a cousin or a friend who works in Immigration. What actually happened was that they told us that we have to get FP’s asylum application cleared. ‘Done that’ we smiled and gave them the papers. ‘Ah’ they said, ‘there’s another office in Nicosia which is a separate Asylum Appeals office and it must be cleared from there’. There is no point in arguing with these people (I wonder if the ‘face’ concept is as strong in CY as it is in Thailand) so I gritted my teeth, smiled, and asked for their suggestions. Luckily, they said (but I wasn’t feeling lucky) if I could sort this out by the end of their working week (i.e. within 24 hours, this was Thursday) they would process our application on our current appointment. Otherwise we’d have to make a fresh appointment, currently running at four months. Big smiles.

Rent a car, next day up at 4 a.m., in the capital by 8 a.m., finally found the appeals office in their rented office suite. Spoke to some swarthy guys sitting at chairs behind a desk, explained what we wanted. Neither English nor Greek worked, and it turned out that they were asylum seekers waiting for the office to open. Finally found a (stunning, but this wasn’t the time or place) CY lady, she found FP’s file and we filled in the necessary papers. I couldn’t help but noticing as she did so that she was looking at FP and I formed the opinion that she was thinking something along the lines of ‘another Asian girl has found a European husband’. Nothing said, and it wasn’t obvious but it was there all the same. When the paperwork was done I asked for photocopies (willingly provided) and we jumped back in the car to drive (with all haste) back to our local Immigration office.

We arrived there just in time and the young lady clerk we’d been dealing with was all smiles … until we sat in front of her at her desk with her computer terminal. She couldn’t deal with our application, she said, because the Asylum Appeals office hadn’t cleared FP’s case off the computer. I had got up at 4 a.m., driven 200+ kms like a looney, paid a substantial amount for car hire, fuel admin fees, etc. I had to admit that my initial (internal) reaction was ‘WTF?’ and I was suppressing a strong urge to put charming young lady clerk and her computer out through the (second floor) window. FP’s more patient outlook prevailed and I said something like ‘Oh dear, how can we fix this?’. Luckily, she spoke to the next door clerk in Greek and after a while it was all smiles and I got my Residence Certificate printed there and then. What about FP’s, I asked? ‘Ah well, this has to be dealt with by Immigration HQ in Nicosia’, they said, ‘but don’t worry, they’ll call you soon’.

Of course, they never did, and I spent literally hours, days, calling phones that were never answered or more frustrating, that were picked up and immediately put down. I knew I wasn’t alone, many of my friends were in the same boat, but I have to admit that it got me down. FP and I were OK where we were but we couldn’t escape the ‘Island of Love’ (as CY is termed by advertisers and those who know no better). We spent hours, days, and a great deal of money driving up to Immigration in Nicosia (I bought a car because it was cheaper than renting one) only for the same mantra: ‘Is not ready, we call you’.

I don’t know how this compares to experience in Thailand. I can only say that as an EU citizen in an EU country I felt exasperated, helpless, frustrated and completely out of control. How on earth I would I would have felt as a ‘visitor’ in LOS I can’t begin to imagine. <Thailand's Immigration Department is MUCH better and more efficient than this!Stick>

Luckily, nowadays we have the internet and I began to research more and more. I found out, for example, that an EU country has 6 months maximum to issue a Residence Certificate. No ifs, no buts, if they can’t do all the checks they want within 6 months their problem. They MUST issue it, and if they want to continue their checks and later cancel it they can do. (The importance of this is that with a Residence Certificate – which must, under EU law, be valid for 5 years – my FP can come and go in most EU countries as she pleases (not the UK).

I also found the site for SOLVIT (ec.europa.eu/solvit). This is an organisation of the EU established to resolve problems where, for example, one EU country won’t recognise professional problems gained in another, or to deal with immigration issues. I fired off an e-mail and had a reply within hours from a friendly young lady based in a London government office. My complaint had been logged on the EU database and passed to a CY operative. Details were exchanged.

FP and I went to meet the SOLVIT lady in her office in Nicosia after a couple of phone calls and e-mails. She is a small, softly spoken, charming CY young lady in her mid-20s. She was, at the time we met her, heavily pregnant. She is also a firebrand who takes no prisoners and believes in the EU rhetoric. She took on our case.

A little while later, FP and I went to Nicosia Immigration HQ again, with no great expectations (‘is no ready, we call you’). As it happened, we were able to actually meet with the CY lady in charge. This didn’t go down well with FP because we had to force the issue. In the lady-in-charge’s office we waited whilst she dealt with an office Tupperware party and her colleagues’ orders for food for what seemed to be an after office hours party. I gritted my teeth and smiled, FP digging her nails into my arm to keep me calm and using her knowledge of Greek to whisper to me from time to time what was happening.

As we sat in the office, smiles and all, fat lady finally opened our file. I realised, with a sinking feeling, that she was going to examine all the papers and that she might pick up on the point (which I only realised a few hours before, that I didn’t have medical insurance and the EU forms I thought covered me didn’t (a recent change in EU law). As she was leafing through the file, the phone rang. I sat slumped, but FP was all ears. The conversation was in Greek and I understood nothing of it, but the caller was our SOLVIT firebrand, checking up on some cases including ours. The fat lady was all apologies, clicked her fingers for a minion to copy some papers, and within two minutes we left her office with FP’s Residence Certificate.

A few minutes later we were in the SOLVIT office with the firebrand and her colleagues. They and we celebrated our (her) success and they seemed genuinely delighted at how things had turned out.

I wonder now, and I wondered then, how things would have gone in LOS. Not EU, of course and there’s no equivalent help. I would have been on my own with TGF.

I mentioned earlier that I’d bought a car in CY, primarily because we were up and down to the capital more than a tart’s drawers (to quote Princess Diana). Just as an aside, the fact that we had a car, and it wasn’t anything special, a Peugeot 306, pleased FP no end. We could offer other Filipinas a ride, take them shopping (but never rely on their directional skills), etc. My FP was never so happy as she was sitting in the front seat, receiving directions and requests, translating them and passing them on to the chauffeur…

So now we had EU Residence Certificates. Next stop, the British High Commission for a UK visa for FP. Onwards and upwards, as they say, but in my case it was onwards and downwards.

To be continued.

Stickman's thoughts:

This bureaucracy you faced sounds like a nightmare. In Thailand there are a lot of rules to follow with things like 90-day reporting and what not, but once you know the rules – and it is not that complicated – then things do generally work well. Immigration has also improved, in my opinion, and generally things are quite fast and pain free.