I guess it is only fitting that I have a painful reminder of the events that brought me to Australia, in a round about kind of way. As I was sat on the plane I was thinking about how flying long haul is a little bit like sharing a cell with people. Strangers are invading your personal space. I had to tell them if I needed the toilet. I had to squeeze past them, touch them and hear them snore. I could not help but talk to one of them. To my right was a nice Australian lady called Kate, she had been in London visiting her son, we had cups of tea in the darkness together, she gave me tips and ideas, brought me snacks and we talked films. To my left a quiet, young French man with the enviable ability to sleep most of the time. Towards the end of the flight some paperwork started coming round, forms to fill in. Here we go – ‘Have you been to Africa in the last three months?’ ‘Do you have one or more criminal convictions?’.
As we filed off the plane into Sydney airport my anxiety level was rising a little. I knew it would be fine, of course, I did, I did, I convinced myself. I had researched the visa situation extensively. With my position as a Trustee at Unlock, I was more aware than most of dealing with my record in an upfront way. I was prepared. BUT STILL, as I queued I felt my temperature rising, my breath getting shallow, my head spinning with ‘what if’s’ – I was filtered out of the general population of travellers as I couldn’t use the e-portals, I was a special case, I had to queue at a special desk, say goodbye to Kate, I felt embarrassed as I did not feel like sharing it with her in my exhausted state.
I thought, ‘I’m going to just front this out, just say it as it is’ – so I approached the desk confidently and said
‘I need to declare some historic offences, that’s why I cannot use the machines’ – my bravado was false, my voice was breaking – raised eyebrows
‘Okay what exactly?’
‘I spent 8 months in prison for drug trafficking 18 years ago’ – blush, squirm, judged, humiliated ……..
‘This will have to go to my boss, one moment’
I am led away to the immigration office. I know it will be fine. IT WILL BE. But I am tired and vulnerable and I feel tears pricking my eyes. ‘Okay, can you just fill in this form about your full criminal history please. Can you tell me more about your trip to Australia?’ I was prepared, had my itinerary, my conference registration, support letters. I told the officer I had started a charity as a result of my own experiences and that had now brought me to Australia.
She took everything away, a back room, a stern boss. For 20 minutes I waited, sweating, playing out worse case scenarios in my head. It was fine. Of course it was fine, she came out smiling, said my work was really interesting, she would love to work in prisons – she really believes in redemption – she wished me luck as she sent me on my way.