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Roundtable

Randomly Searched, Harassed at Heathrow Airport?
Is Racism Alive & Well in Britain?
The Roundtable Open Forum # 125

NAVNEET KAUR

 

 

 

“Actually, I came from Toronto first. How do you think I got to Italy?”

“Yeah, but you just came from Italy. You’re not coming from Toronto.”

“Am I a threat?”

“No. I am just concerned.”

“Am I a threat?”

“No. It doesn’t make sense.”

“What’s the problem?”

“It just doesn’t sound right. You’re coming from Italy. You’re so young living at home with your parents and you don’t have a lot of money on you, and you’ve been unemployed for a year and half. I’m going to hold your passport and speak to my supervisor about what we should do with you. If we let you in, we will finger-print you, create a profile on you in our database and ask you further questions …”

I’m in Heathrow Airport standing in front of a border agent and I do not understand what is going on.

*   *   *   *   *

I’ve travelled to Italy for a workshop and have planned a stop over in London on the way back, for a few days to visit a relative and check out some museums. I have been to England before, three years ago and I am looking forward to this visit …

Leaving Italy, I feel great because I met some amazing people and with my luck I’m sharing the flight to London with a fellow workshop-participant. The captain of the plane informs us that it’s raining in London and there are some groans. Nothing new or surprising, it’s always raining in England.

Walking with my colleague to immigration, I think I’ll fly right through. I’ve done this before, no problem. Standing in the queue, I notice a cordoned off area where only people of colour are sitting. I ask myself why are they sitting there, not realizing that I will soon find out.

I walk up to an agent, an Indo-Brit woman.

She begins to ask the regular questions: “Where are you coming from?” “What were you doing there?” “How long was your stay?” 

I answer, but there is a shift and she begins harassing me with invasive questions: “It says you’re unemployed. How long have you been unemployed?” “How do you support yourself?” “Where do you live?” “What do your parents do?” “So your parents support you?” “How much money do you have on you?” “You need to show me how much money you have.” “I don’t care what’s in your luggage, the money has to be in front of me.” “Do you have a credit card? You need to give it to me.” “What’s your credit card limit?” “I don’t know anything about your financial situation, or how much money you have in your savings, you don’t have any bank statements on you. I’m a little concerned.” “How long is your stay in England?” “Where’s your ticket?” “When’s your return date?” “How do I know that you’re going to leave?” “Are you travelling with anyone?” “Where are you staying in England?” “How are you related to this individual?” “When’s the last time you saw her?” “Does she know that you’re coming to visit her?” “What’s her number? I need it.”

I ask, “Am I being considered a threat?”

“No.”

“What’s the problem, then?” I ask.

During this time another Indo-Brit agent in plain-clothes comes over to listen. I look around and no one else has two agents in front of them. The second agent just stares at me as if I did something wrong. I answer all the questions and think, why is living with my parents her “concern?”

I’m in my 30s  -- why would I carry around bank statements with me? She doesn’t need to know my credit card limit. That’s none of her business. I am new to this, so I am honest, but also steadily growing hostile inside because of this harassment.

She fails to explain what the issue is and fear grows when she says, “I’m going to take your finger prints and create a profile on you.” I am stunned. My bag is all over the floor. She has my ticket and my passport. I see my colleague waiting for me. I ask if I can say bye to my ‘friend’ - wrong word to use. She harasses me about having a ‘friend’ because I said I am alone.

I explain, “He was in the workshop with me and we were on the same flight. He’s not a friend, a colleague.”

I continue: “I should say bye, he’s waiting,” and both agents gang up on me rudely, “No.” The agent instead repeats, “I’m detaining your passport …” and then directs me to the stanchioned area, the mini-detainment centre.

I walk to this area while the second agent watches me to ensure that I make it there. I see my colleague looking for me and I go to leave, but the agent on the swivel chair with a cross tattoo on his inner right forearm tells me, “You can’t leave. Go and sit down.”

I ask again if I can say bye to my friend, and he says, “No. How do you have a friend, when you’re here alone. Where did he come from?” I tell him what I told the agent, but he’s not listening. I wave bye across to my colleague and think I’ll message him later.

*   *   *   *   *

They don’t treat you like human beings, their energy is on high alert as if they’re waiting for a fight and if you make that small step in the wrong direction no doubt they would use force on you like a butcher slaughtering an animal.

I can do nothing but sit and wait. I know my cousin is waiting for me. She’s probably concerned that I’m not out yet. I should call her and tell her that I have been detained. I don’t have a phone. I’m afraid to ask the agent guarding the detainment area if I can use his or any of the other detainees.

Thoughts are racing through my mind: if they insist on finger printing me I will say, “No. Send me back to Toronto instead. I am not a criminal.”

I sit watching a plain-clothes blonde-haired agent grilling a Korean student. I briefly make eye contact with the others, presumably from India or Pakistan, and then watch two white security guards accompany two African men to the stanchioned area with their carry-on bags.

The African men begin to open their luggage respectively, one is stopped but the other continues to take everything out.

I try not to watch.

I am amazed at how people are treated here and think about passing through Heathrow on the way to Italy witnessing some men and women getting full pat-downs in front of other travellers. The security guards appear threatening with tazers, handcuffs and other gadgets, wearing bullet-proof vests.

Is this a race issue? I only see people of colour sitting in this area. I go over the conversation I just had with the female agent -- I know sometimes I am bad at math, but I didn’t know that May 2013 to May 2014 was a year and a half. Did I miss something in school?

“No, I have been unemployed a year, since last May,” I say. And she keeps saying, ‘… you’ve been unemployed for a year and a half.’

I hear a voice call my name. Great, I can leave now. I get up and see that woman waving me over to her as she walks away from the detainment area. She says, “I spoke to your cousin and her husband, they were very accommodating in  answering all my questions. They are such lovely people.”

Wait, you spoke to my cousin, I think. When? You met with her? The agent continues, “I understand that being unemployed is a problem and how difficult it is to get a job these days.”

Why is she being nice to me now? And do you really ‘understand’? So, the issue is being unemployed. I can’t think, I am confused and really upset. I don’t think she spoke to her ‘supervisor’. She smiles, “I opened a profile on you and if you return to England next week we will detain you again for further questioning.”

I am unemployed, why would I come back next week?

“I’ve stamped your passport. You have a free Visa to enter … I have to take precautions.”

*   *   *   *   *

I walk away distraught. I want to turn back and ask her questions, but I can’t think and I’m angry and what makes it worse is that my cousin informs me as soon as I get out that the agent called her and her husband asking really personal questions about my siblings such as: “How many siblings does she have?” “What are their names?” “What do they do?” “Where do they work?” “Where do they live?” “How much money do they make?” “What do her parents do?” etc.

My cousin, bewildered, stops the agent, saying, “Excuse me. Who is calling? I can’t just give you this information. I don’t know who you are.”

Then the agent identifies herself. The agent doesn’t say hello, she calls and berates my cousin and her husband with questions. All this is put in my profile. Knowing where my siblings work and how much they earn is none of her business.

This is abusive to me and an invasion of privacy.

This leaves a damper on my trip.

*   *   *   *   *

I had failed to ask the agent her name, but will never forget her face. I can only identify her by the squiggle of her signature and by the assigned border / immigration stamp that she somehow managed to keep the numbers illegible: 5100 or 5160?

But everything else is clear. “Leave to enter for/until  - Six months - No work or recourse to public funds.”

I don’t need a stamp telling me how long I can be in the U.K. I am already aware of the Visa requirements for Canadians entering the U.K., especially when I will be leaving in five days.

I didn’t know that even as one born in Canada and raised there, with a Canadian passport I would be treated like a criminal in what some people would call the motherland of Canada.

For some, this kind of treatment is old hat.

I share my experience with some Brits and they are shocked and think how stupid. One person who works at the Heathrow Airport responds, “Why would someone detain you? So what if you’re unemployed?”

In return I hear stories about what they know about border agents at Heathrow and foreigners entering England and what I hear may not be a fact but these people’s truth.

What I hear:

Many Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are known to come into the U.K. and just sit on the welfare system.

Now there is a problem with Hungarians and Bulgarians coming in and taking jobs or applying for welfare.

On slow days at Heathrow, agents harass travellers more, ‘It gives them something to do.’ Border agents are trained to be harder on Indians and Africans because of their history of abusing the system. (A former border agent shared this information with me in confidence).

Indians have to pay a deposit before entering the U.K. (3000 Pounds are to be paid to the U.K. government per person over the age of 18 if entering the U.K. for the maximum allotted time of six months. Deposit is returned once visitor(s) leaves, if the individual(s) remains, the money is forfeited.

Other countries part of this deposit system are Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Ghana. [Source: BBC.]

However, I do not know if this is in effect, but a relative from India has stated that she won’t visit England because of this rule and that bank statements need to be provided as well. I could not get hold of anyone at the British Consulate or the Indian Consulate in Toronto to confirm this and could not find anything about this on the GOV.UK site.

Being unemployed is a high-risk threat to the U.K. (a border agent told me this over the phone before I left England; I failed to ask her name)

*   *   *   *   *

I am not coming from a war-torn country or a developing nation, my passport says Canada, does that not mean anything? Or is it because I have brown skin and my name is Indian and I am recently coming from Italy? I did get upset with the agent over the phone saying, “People lie and get past border agents and come into your country and sit on your system and you don’t do anything about it. But I have a return ticket back to Canada and I’m treated like this?”

She responds, “I’m going to ignore what you just said because it has nothing to do with your issue, and if that’s it I will hang up the phone.”

I hang up before she does, I see this as unjust treatment. I thought terrorists were high-risk threats, but no one is stupid enough to write that on their landing card.

In a smart and intelligent world these U.K. agents would use their discretion and common sense and ask questions that would satisfy them instead of saying accusatory things like “How do I know that you’re going to leave?”

However, incidents such as an 84 year old Canadian man with Alzheimer’s being detained and dying in detainment is indicative of their lack of common sense, intelligence and use of discretion.

So, for anyone who wants to get into England’s system and doesn’t know how, don’t tell them the truth; that is how other people have gotten in. I never once thought of living there or live off their system. I am quite happy in Toronto where I was born and raised here.

Digesting all of this, I know it is not a crime to live at home with one’s parents while other employment is being secured or, to be honest. I am not a criminal, but maybe being unemployed should be a crime that governments should work hard to eradicate and ensure that every able body is working at a job that they enjoy.

I do not think how I was treated was right, but I am sure there are devil’s advocates. I also don’t think I want to go back to a country that will detain me (and maybe finger-print me) every time I enter because of the profile that has been created on me, but maybe that’s what they want, they don’t want unemployed tourists basking in their rain.

And, what have I learned from all of this?

That lying is valuable because other people do it so well and get away with it; that I should listen to my intuition even if the voice is really small because I did think that writing unemployed on a landing card looked bad, but thought, ‘it’s okay’.

I feel it is important that I share these experiences with others so that others as naive as me don’t experience the same thing I did.

*   *   *   *   *


THE ROUNDTABLE OPEN FORUM # 125

We invite our readers to share their comments on the above, as well as their own experiences.

 

 

June 14, 2014

 

Conversation about this article

1: Gobinder Singh (USA), June 14, 2014, 9:22 AM.

Do they use profiles for people? Absolutely and now you are aware. Someone of South Asian origin, unemployed single? That would be another check. Since Great Britain's economy is growing so fast, they are afraid that the Canadians are trying to sneak in! Truth is behind all the talk of 'secularism', there is another aspect at play where individuals with certain religious beliefs, backgrounds and ethnicities are singled out all the time.

2: N Singh ( Canada), June 14, 2014, 5:27 PM.

As a Canadian citizen this is my experience at Vancouver airport exiting the country. A Sikh girl wearing a scarf her head looks at my passport, points out my name and hands it to the 'white' French-Canadian security officer. He then proceeds to mutter something which I can't quite understand. Eventually I work out that is a garbled attempt at "Sat Sri Akal". He waits for a response and looks intensely at me. I remain-poker faced. Then I ask him if I am being 'profiled' at which time he immediately back-tracks and quickly hands me back my passport. I am angry. Angry at the Punjabi girl for finger-pointing me out as a Sikh and angry at the stupidity of the Security Officer into trying to entice me into speak Punjabi. How dare he?

3: N Singh (Canada), June 14, 2014, 5:29 PM.

My experience at the Toronto Pearson Airport: Patting down each time I visit. Finally, I get so frustrated I speak to the aircraft personnel and the security about profiling. Both deny it but I question them as to why all the white people, including men, don't seem to set of the metal detectors. Why is it always me?

4: N Singh (Canada), June 14, 2014, 5:35 PM.

Having lived in Canada for over 15+ years I am brainwashed into believing that the Americans are the worst bunch on earth. Putting down the Americans is a national pass-time in Canada. I am so stressed out with worry about having to cross the border into the US and being detained, searched and all-sorts of horrible things that I can't sleep for a week. Border crossing at Toronto airport is painless and smooth. Never a cross word, never a frown or raised eyebrow, despite my Sikh name. The only time I had a problem was when I was unfortunate enough to get a Hindu border guard who couldn't believe that my company would provide me with a professional letter of access to cross the border. He was soon put in his place by his American counterparts and I crossed over with no further hassle.

5: Oliver Smith (Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom), June 15, 2014, 2:14 AM.

The UK's immigration system is, unfortunately, heavily influenced by political matters. That means harsh interrogations, detention, harassment of non-'white' people (including 'random' interrogations of public transport users for a short time) and a total lack of any remorse. All because a small (but not at all tiny) number of people who basically believe that if you aren't British you shouldn't be in the UK. David Cameron can't deal with EU migrants, the terms of the Union prohibit that. So in order to try and appease the far-right (including the growing number of UKIP supporters), he clamps down on non-EU migrants. As for the stuff about migrants sitting around on benefits all the time, that idea comes from the media'a fear-mongering and doesn't have much reality. Only a tiny percentage of benefits are claimed fraudulently, only 70 pence of every £100 is claimed through fraud. And it completely contradicts the other established 'trope' of anti-immigrant hysteria, the idea that they take all the jobs and put everyone out of work. Which one is it? They can't be doing both. Interesting article on the perceptions of the British public: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/british-public-wrong-about-nearly-everything-survey-shows-8697821.html

6: Jagbir Singh Khalsa (Birmingham, United Kingdom), June 15, 2014, 11:24 PM.

I am a 'hora' Singh, who emigrated to the UK seven years ago from Germany and converted here in the UK to Sikhsim. The first lesson I've learnt as a "new" Sikh is: We white and educated middle-class Europeans have no idea about racism. All we know is purely academic. I've learnt as well that British society is very ready to adopt any kind of discriminative attitudes within a meter of years - NOT generations! Within the seven years I've been here public attitudes towards anyone not being white/black and Christian/Atheist has changed significantly. Britain is a racist country. Full Stop. As I said: I am German; I've always considered my country being racist, but I was always treated better there -- with my Five Ks -- than here, where people have known Sikhs for well over a century, even two. And, what has to be stressed: this discriminative attitude has even seeped into the diaspora: some local Sikhs are very caste- and origin-oriented here and discriminate against each other. So: discriminative behaviour is very British.

7: Bhupinder Singh (New Delhi, India ), June 16, 2014, 12:36 AM.

I have experienced something similar on my trip last year. The officer lady was very inquisitive with many personal questions unrelated to the visit. This after I have been to UK probably more than ten times. I have a feeling that these Indo-Brits have a "Brown Sahib" hangover and they will unnecessarily harass their country cousins, most often to please their white bosses or to show they are impartial. On the contrary, I have chanced upon many good humoured british officers who welcome you to their country.

8: Manbir Banwait (Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada), June 16, 2014, 5:22 AM.

What nonsense this whole article is, making a mountain out of a mole-hill. You don't have the "right" to enter the country. All the questions asked by the border agent were correct. The author got red flagged due to the way she answered the questions. It's people like this that give the entire community a bad rap, complaining over nonsensical issues. This self-entitled feeling of yours that you were "picked" on is rubbish. You were red flagged because you were traveling while unemployed, with little financial means.

9: Sarvjit singh (Massachusetts, USA), June 16, 2014, 5:39 AM.

Welcome to the post 9-11 world! In my personal experiences being a Punjabi, Sikh, puggh wearing Sikh with an American passport, Heathrow has been a breeze, even though I almost decide at the last minute to take a break journey in UK. They ask basic questions like where do you work, why visiting, where are you staying, etc. Last time I traveled I was interviewed by a Punjabi immigration lady who was over friendly, and somewhat borderline flirting, she even recommended places to checkout in the two days of a last minute stop. On prior trips, they've even bumped the passport to the next level, but I have not been harassed. The worst treatment was at the Westchester, NY airport where they openly, shamelessly pulled me and my wife out of the line; my wife is a 'white' person. I have learned one rule, always answer what is asked, not even an extra syllable helps. Always smile and try to look calm, do not give any contradicting answer. Do not lock horns or ruffle their feathers. As non-'whites', distinct looking with turbans, we can be assured of special treatment anywhere in the world. In defense of law enforcement/immigration, they do have a point as they only get a 10 minute window of interviewing a potential suspect who could be a bad guy or welfare sucker.

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Is Racism Alive & Well in Britain?
The Roundtable Open Forum # 125"









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