BEING HUMILIATED AT NEW ZEALAND AND AUSTRALIAN AIRPORTS
I have to fly ten times a year through Australia and New Zealand, sometimes more frequently. As a journalist I cover Asia Pacific and Pacific Island Nations, two enormous geographic areas. The only way to move between them is to change planes at one of the main gateways: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland or Guam.
As much as I love working in both parts of the world, I hate taking flights that are connecting them. I often cannot sleep for several nights before embarking on the journey, experiencing anxiety attacks in anticipation of Kafkaesque absurdity and humiliation. And mind you, I am white or Caucasian, as they call us. If I would be of any other race, I would probably drop my travel plans all together!
Both Australia and New Zealand are supposed to be thoroughly British and fiercely free and democratic. Reading their press, one would imagine that coming from sadistic dictatorships like Malaysia and Singapore, one should feel overwhelmed by euphoric and overwhelming sense of freedom and decency from the first step one makes on the carpet of their arrival halls. But it somehow feels quite differently.
Arrive in Auckland, main gateway to New Zealand, and you will be welcomed by enormous line in front of immigration booths, especially if you are coming on one of the morning flights. After 20 minutes you begin to wonder why it takes so long to process two or three jumbos coming from Asia. As you come closer, you will slowly begin to comprehend.
?Have you ever been detained in your country?? barks New Zealand immigration officer at some 70 -year-old Chinese man who arrived on a package tour. Old man obviously speaks no English, or very little, but the lady who is interrogating him doesn?t care, refusing to change or modifying her questions: ?Have you ever been jailed in your country??
?You live here, don?t you?? barks male immigration officer after noticing several New Zealand entry stamps in my passport. ?Pardon me?? I look puzzled. He stares at me, bluntly. It is 7AM and I want to send him to hell, but that?s what he is waiting for. One error and I will end up in one of the lines reserved for suspected criminals, terrorist; whatever. Then all my bags will be opened, lining detached; each page of my notebooks scrutinized. ?No, I don?t live here?, I reply quietly, avoiding the trap. ?Maybe I forgot to add ?Sir?. They like being called sir?, I am thinking, but it is too late.
?Where did you get on the plane?? he continues. Maybe he doesn?t like my beard. Maybe he had a quarrel with his wife. Maybe he hates me for arriving in his country at such ungodly hour. ?From Japan?, I answer politely. ?What have you been doing there?? he continues. This is too much, I think. I am holding US passport (not that I am proud of it) and therefore I don?t need entry visa to this country. I have several press cards sticking from the cover. He knows perfectly well that I am not a jihadi cadre and that I am not on a suicide mission here; he knows that I must feel like crap after sitting for 12 hours on the plane. ?I worked there?, I reply. ?Where exactly?? And then it comes out again and I can?t stop it. I hear myself saying: ?It?s none of your business.?
His face relaxes; he almost smiles. That?s it! He achieved what he wanted. He writes something on my immigration and customs form, stamps my passport and I am off to that line at the very extreme right, where poor and mostly non-white victims spend hours explaining who is their mother and who was their grandfather and why on earth they decided to come to this world and what brought them to the distant shores of freedom, democracy and prosperity. If one decides to adopt more positive approach, it is possible to arrive at conclusion that the situation is not truly unique: something similar could have been experienced before collapse of the Soviet Union at arrival hall of Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport.
I am waiting patiently for 40 minutes. I try to do some breathing exercises. Nothing helps. I want to get the hell out of here. I want to be in Samoa as soon as possible, but my flight to Apia leaves next day and I have to stay over night in Auckland. I don?t want to, I have no desire to be ripped-off again by a taxi on the way to the city. No desire to wait until 2PM to be allowed into my room at Rydges Hotel (who cares that I am exhausted after long journey? It says check-in at 2PM, and 2PM it will be!). No desire to rot in line before being interrogated by some mentally unstable and moderately sadistic immigration officer.
?Look?, I say to enormous Polynesian man who is put on my case. ?Let?s make it easier on both of us. I am not here because I am suspected of smuggling drugs. I am not a member of Al-Qaida. Trust me.? I just told to the face of the immigration officer that his questions were irrelevant. I am entering New Zealand and he wanted to know what exactly I was doing in Japan.
?What exactly did you tell him?? he says. ?I told him it?s none of his business?. Immigration officer waves his hand, signs my form and smiles. ?Have a nice day.?
That was easy, unbelievably and unusually easy. It normally doesn?t work like. I thank the officer and join the line with the others, those who ?do not represent the danger?. This is of course not the end. All luggage, all luggage, has to be x-rayed. That?s another 40 minutes in line. Nobody complains. To complain is dangerous; one can be overheard and pulled to the side and checked again. Entering New Zealand or Australia feels like entering police state.
Brisbane is of course no better. That?s the airport through which you fly if you have to reach Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, or Honiara in Solomon Islands. That?s where the local security agents forced Prime Minister of PNG to take off his shoes, publicly humiliating him, triggering diplomatic crises.
In Brisbane, one word, one mistake, and you will be spending hours by being interrogated and searched. Several detectives are standing behind the immigration booths; scrutinizing passengers in line, looking for those may appear ?suspicious?.
The only way to pass through this hell is to play their game. You have to adopt servile attitude, be friendly and submissive, answer loudly and clearly, smile as much as you can after exhausting flight, look them straight to the eyes. It is almost like revisiting pages of books written about 19-th century British schools, where the teacher is holding ruler over the fingers of frightened pupil, pronouncing slowly and sadistically: ?Shall I??
I just can?t shut up. I tell them once in a while what I think about their methods. As I have nothing to hide, I let them go through all my belongings, let them ask me hundreds of irrelevant questions: in Auckland, in Brisbane, in Guam. Somebody has to tell them, after all. Not that they care.
It is always incredible relief to return to top-notch airports of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. To be welcomed by immigration officers with big smiles and candies on top of the counter. I have never been asked any of these questions in Malaysia or Singapore. Not once has my luggage been checked. It takes maximum of 20 minutes between the time that plane touches down at Changi International Airport in Singapore and the time that one picks up his or her luggage from the carousel.
I work all around Pacific Rim. Distances in Asia and between Pacific Island Nations are enormous. One single flight can often take 10 or even 12 hours. It is very important to feel good about the place you are returning to, place that you consider being your temporary or permanent home. Like many others, I choose to have my temporary home in Southeast Asia, not in Australia or New Zealand. Ironically, I feel much more tied by rules and regulations there; much more ?not free? in Australia and New Zealand than in several countries in Southeast Asia. It is not a scientific conclusion. Not something I am trying to pass as a political analyst. That?s how I feel: nothing more and nothing less.
Last year, Australia launched huge campaign, which is supposed to boost tourism. Australia is overpriced and as such it is experiencing dramatic decline from international travelers, particularly those in Asia. It is called ?Where the hell are you??
After experiencing humiliation at Australian airports, I wish some Asian travelers would write to campaign managers what they are often discussing after returning to their countries: ?Well, we are still here, but unwilling to eat your crap, mates! Get some manners, scale down your racism, put candies on your immigration counters, learn how to welcome your visitors? and we will be back.?
ANDRE VLTCHEK: novelist, journalist and filmmaker, editorial director of Asiana Press Agency (www.asiana-press-agency.com), co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org) - publishing house for political fiction. He presently resides and works in Southeast Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org