Christine Retschlag is an Australian-based travel writer and author.
I am perched in an immigration room at Vanuatu’s Bauerfield International Airport, part curious – I’ve always wanted to see what back of house looked like at an airport – and more than a little nervous.
With its whiteboard of airline codes, obscure stacks of files, and a basket brimming with stamps, it resembles an Australian country cop shop. And in a sense, I am under house arrest, as I have unwittingly become an illegal alien.
My nightmare began three days previously when, after 60 days in Vanuatu, and prompted by a conversation with a colleague about visas, I decided to dig out my passport and glance at my arrival stamp. To my horror, despite handing over a 90-day letter from immigration to an immigration officer upon entering Port Vila, I have been stamped with a 30-day visa. For the past 30 days I have overstayed my welcome.
It’s late Friday afternoon on the eve of the Independence Day long weekend in Vanuatu (note to self and readers: never check anything official before a long weekend anywhere in the world) so nothing can be done before Tuesday morning, earliest.
Frantically, I visit the Vanuatu Immigration website which clearly states there are only two types of business visa: the 90-day single entry, for which I have applied and been approved, and a 10-month multiple entry visa. How in the South Pacific did this rogue visa appear in my passport?
Never bother to look at your passport after arrival? Me neither. Between the thwack of the stamp and the monotonous “next” signalling to the passenger behind you, there’s enough shuffling and stuffing of documents into pockets and purses, before you are thrust upon the baggage carousel, nervously awaiting the arrival, or otherwise, of your luggage. Then there’s the scurry through “last chance” duty free before scouring a crowd of drivers for a sign which may or may not bear your name.
On this furious Friday I text a long-term Aussie expat in Vanuatu who has spent the past 10 years being forced to fly out of the country for 24 hours every six months to have her work visa validated. A manoeuvre known around the world as a “visa run”. I explain my plight.
“That’s not good,” she says.
“You’re the fourth person I’ve heard that happen to in the past year. What they’re doing is fining people millions of Vatu (tens of thousands of dollars), giving them 24 hours to leave the country, and stamping DEPORTED in their passport.”
She wishes me luck and warns me not to front up to immigration on my own.
I run this scenario past a former colleague back in Australia who lived here for four years and has contacts who can assist me with immigration.
“Don’t listen to other expats. They love to hate the country. They love to tell you the story of how someone told someone that something bad happened to them.”
I waver between not knowing who to believe and triple-checking the stark stamp in my passport hoping it has magically transformed itself.
On Tuesday morning, I receive a message that my former colleague has arranged for her contact or “fixer” to take me to the airport at 1.15pm to address my current illegal status.
“This will only take five minutes,” my fixer says.
We knock on the door to immigration. It’s locked. There’s half a dozen bored airport police next door.
“A plane has just arrived. Come back at 3pm,” they say.
I’m deposited back home for another nerve-racking two hours.
Back at the airport, the immigration officer David is friendly and shakes my hand. He relents and agrees it was a mistake on their part. But how to rectify it? David says the only solution is to stamp a big, red ‘CANCELLED/ANNULLED’ on the incorrect visa, and to issue me another visa, dating back to when I arrived, for 90 days.
He assures me as it’s next to the incorrect one, it shouldn’t cause me any issues in future. As someone who travels the world for work, I’m not as convinced as David, but if three months in Vanuatu has taught me anything, that’s a problem for tomorrow.
It has also taught me this: be aware of the visa status which applies to you; always print out a copy of your immigration letter; take a trusted local with you should you need to meet with officials; don’t listen to expat horror stories; and always check your passport stamp on arrival.