Malaysian photographer refused entry: Testimony from Jemima Yong

Jemima Yong, a talented young photographer and performance maker, was recently detained in London Heathrow Airport, denied entry and sent back to Singapore, 18 hours after arriving in the UK. Jemima is a Malaysian citizen and a permanent resident of Singapore. She studied and lived in the UK for five years. Jemima had not done anything illegal on arrival but the Home Office believed that she might break immigration laws whilst she was here.

She reveals to the Manifesto Club the deeply flawed system employed by the UK Home Office to justify a decision made on individual discretion. Her crime? Jemima only wished to visit the UK for 3 months, spend time with friends, including participating in unpaid creative activity with them. Here’s her story:

“On the 25th of July 2014, I arrived in London Heathrow Terminal 5 at 5.05am and sought to enter the UK as a visitor for 3 months. As a Malaysian national, I am permitted to enter the UK for up to 6 months at a time on a visitor’s pass. I had on hand my return ticket to Singapore, due on the 10th of November. I knew to expect questioning.

I was asked by the immigration officer to detail what I would spend the next 3 months doing. I told her I was attending and helping some friends out at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, staying with my partner’s family in Bath, doing a residency with a puppeteer in Italy, visiting a friend in Cyprus and moving the last of my possessions still remaining in the UK back to Singapore. As I was not going to receive any monetary compensation for my role at Edinburgh Fringe, I referred to it as helping out friends voluntarily. The attending officer deemed my answers unsatisfactory; she expressed suspicion regarding my intention to enter due to ‘the frequency to which I was visiting the UK and the duration of stay’. I was told to sit in a temporary detention pen (next to the immigration line) whilst my officer consulted her superiors. After over an hour, the immigration officer returned. Visibly flustered, she told me that she was at the end of her shift and would hand me over to other officers for further questioning.

Soon after, two more officers came to escort me to my checked-in baggage, which they searched thoroughly. They took my personal journals, my photography portfolio, a flyer for the Edinburgh show (ROOM) and an expired Barbican staff pass that I happened to have had in my bag. They later photocopied these and used them during the interview. Throughout this process I was never informed of my rights. Nevertheless, I sensed that my rights were being infringed upon, but I had none of the appropriate vocabulary to protest. As a Malaysian citizen, what rights did I have in this room between Singapore and the UK? What allowed them to remove and make records of my personal possessions without permission?

I was then interviewed for about an hour. My interviewing officer was very thorough in fleshing out my history in the UK – I studied at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama from 2008 to 2011, I extended my stay in the UK with a post study work visa (2 years long), which expired in December 2013. As I was not planning to stay in the UK, I did not reapply for a visa. I was then in the UK as a visitor between January and May 2014 before leaving to Singapore (where I am based) and then stopping by—again, as a visitor—in the UK in late July 2014. Referring to the period I was on a post study work visa, my interviewing officer told me that “those 2 years are meant for [me] to decide whether or not [I] want[ed] to stay working in the UK or not”. Yet, when I explained that I decided against extending this visa because I did not want to stay, they would not accept it as the truth.

When asked to elaborate on my profession as a theatre maker and photographer, it became clear to me that the UK Home Office were not equipped with an understanding of what being a self-employed creative professional meant – the fluctuating income, a project based job trajectory, the high degree of mobility required, and the lack of a traditional ‘boss’ figure who could vouch for me. Mine was not a narrative that fit neatly into any of the standard classifications and therefore defaulted to the ‘illegal’ category. Would I have been deemed suspicious if I had a neater, more clear-cut narrative? I was left in the windowless holding room with company of varying kinds, many of whom had just served prison sentences and were in the process of being deported.

My interviewing officer came back twice to ask me further questions. The second time round, he referenced the staff pass found in my luggage and told me that the unpaid internship I undertook at the Barbican was a breach of immigration law, and was being used as the sole piece of evidence to prove that I was looking for employment whilst previously in the UK on a visitor’s pass from January to May 2014. I told him that when the Barbican and I entered the agreement, we did so on the knowledge that it was legal because it was not paid. He said that we had been mistaken yet could not justify this further. “What visa should I have been on instead?” To this he had no answer.

I had names and phone numbers of individuals that could prove my intentions upon entry were honest. Back in Singapore, my family could vouch for the fact that I was currently based there. I could prove that I had more than adequate finances to support myself over the next couple of months. All these other potential witnesses were not of interest to the officers.

After 7 hours of being detained, I was finally told the official verdict which had ostensibly been made by some higher authority based on the hand written transcript of my interview. I had been denied entry and was being sent on a plane back at 9pm that evening (6 hours from time of confirmation) as they didn’t believe I was deemed as not “genuinely seeking entry as a visitor for the limited period as stated.”

All this time, my partner (a British national) was waiting for me by the arrival gates. They wouldn’t let me see him or pass him any of the things I’d brought over from Singapore for people in London. I was told that I was to stay in the holding room ‘for my own security’ until it was time to board my flight. During the 16 hours I was detained, I got to speak with many of the border staff, some of whom were lovely and some of whom were extremely patronizing. After relating the final verdict, my interviewing officer advised me to “go back to Singapore, go to the British council, ask to apply for a visitor’s pass, to which they will probably reply ‘you don’t need one’. Explain the situation, they will take a couple of days to process you, but you will probably be given a pass. Once you have that, we can’t reject you here.” Others officers advised that I marry my partner. Out of the 12 officers I interacted with that day, 4 expressed sympathy for my situation, but presumably none of them had influence over the final decision.

The investigation process was filled with confirmation bias, only considering information that supported their suspicion. The moment the first officer began questioning me at the immigration control counter, I became ‘guilty until proven innocent’. I was saddled with the burden of proof of my innocence even amidst a situation in which I had an inherent disadvantage. The decision was therefore made solely on individual interpretation of supposed evidence.

At the moment I oscillate between feeling passionately activated and utterly disempowered. I question whether this would have happened had I been carrying a Singapore passport or an Australian passport or a Canadian passport. How does one deal with institutionalized discrimination? I question what justified the decision to deny me entry altogether instead of granting me limited leave to enter – was my supposed crime so grievous? I question whether it would have been different if I had initially met with a different officer, perhaps one in a better mood? Would this have happened had my partner and I been on the same flight? Would I have been deemed less suspicious because I was attempting to enter with a British national?


This is a system that cannot consider subtleties or variations. This is a system so caught up with ticking check boxes to define right and wrong that when presented with the difficult-to-define, its first instinct is to reject. Now I could conclude this testimony by telling you how to avoid going through my experience (should you find yourself in similar circumstances), what not to do, how to game the system. Perhaps consider not telling the truth (if the truth is messy); or prepare for border processing by providing every single piece of evidence imaginable to back up your innocence; or maybe even marry someone to get a resident’s pass. But that goes against my personal principles. No innocent human should have to alter the way they live to placate an ineffective system. However, consider this: confirmation bias is legal; individual discretion is legal, and it is the law that dictates and governs our realities, our ability to travel, not ethics.

Fight for fairer immigration. Send your experiences to the Manifesto Club Visiting Artist Campaign. Write to your local MP. Write to the Home Office. We need to get this on record if we want to begin changing anything.

Read on: See the Manifesto Club Visiting Artist Campaign