Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Living with Immigration Torture

X-rayed in Malta
In June 1990, I was subjected to a search at Malta Airport. The officers did their job with care and dignity as they stretched me to the limits. After about an hour delay, I was taken to the hospital where two stand-by doctors x-rayed my chest, or should I say my body. What were they searching for? No one cared to tell me. After they had satisfied with me, my passport was returned, and then I was allowed to go. "Enjoy your stay in Malta," said the immigration officers who had accompanied me to the hospital.

I do not remember what I felt on that day, but I knew they attacked my good name and reputation. I knew I was charged falsely or with malicious intent. Although the officers refused to tell me my offence, I had obtained from one of the doctors that it was drug they were looking for. I was not angry but I remember I was sad. I thanked God. What if they had deliberately planted it during the x-ray? May Tochi, a Nigerian youth whose soul was abruptly terminated by Singaporean government for drug peddling – rest in peace. In perfect peace.

Dollar Before Entering Rome
In March 1995, I was on transit in Italy en-route Nigeria, my country. My transit visa allowed me to stay in Italy for two days if I so wish. I was the only non-white on the plane. Along the immigration control I was separated from other passengers by a man appeared to be immigration officer. He pointed to another route for me to follow. I refused, especially when he could not tell me the reason why among hundreds of passengers, I was singled-out. I was already furious but quickly surpressed such "evil" emotion. Anger has never helped me solve any problem. He followed me to the immigration counter where his colleague demanded for my passport. I handed it.

"Nigaria," he announced rather than said, grimly. He then leafed through my passport. "You live me ID card."
"My Hungarian ID is for Hungary only," I retorted though it was with me.
"You want stay two day in Rome."
"I’m on transit."
"How much you have?"
"You’re not my financial advisor."

It was at that moment he referred my case to his superior officer, who was not as rude. He too inspected my passport. "Okay, just show us $100."
"I have no money to show...I’m going to my country."
"Then you won’t see Rome."
"That’s fine with me. Absolutely fine with me."
Oh heck! I was going to spend my money in Rome anyway. Besides, Nigeria was where my heart was.

On my way back, Italian immigration officers ordered Africans to form a separate line. Some of us protested, while some obeyed. Among those who obeyed was a Nigerian lady whose two little children carried British passport. It was genuine for they eventually allowed her to go, but she had to stay in a different line specially made for non-whites. They turned deaf ear to our protest to know the reasons behind such segregation.

How Many Kilo Do You Carry [Into America]?
In October 1996 – my first visit to the USA – America subjected me to their awful poetry of guilty by association. My ordeal started immediately we disembarked. I was not the only non-whites, but I was certainly the only Nigerian. A woman positioned herself in front of the aircraft as if she had been waiting for a scapegoat. As soon as she saw me – someone must have previously described me in details – she flashed her badge (custom), pointing to me to move aside. I ignored her – completely. Being a custom officer even gave me added confidence to neglect her. Besides, I simply detest it whenever someone single me out, especially pertaining to immigration issue. Afterall, there was no 9/11 then. Afterall, I would never engage in anything that may tarnish my image, and that of my country.

I continued walking. She followed me closely while making use of her walkie-talkie. Honestly, I was not afraid even though I had not travelled extensively then. But I knew I would have to see the immigration before custom. Within a twinkle of an eye, two men had joined in pursuing me. They were far from me but I knew their mission. They were closely observing me. For what, I thought. It was then it dawned on me that I might have opened a can of worms.

Miami Airport is quite long. By the time I reached the immigration, the two gentlemen flashed their badges. "Immigration," one of them said.
"Good," I replied.

And so my agony started. They demanded for my passport, and then other documents. I handed it but it was obvious they were not satisfied. And so the drama (for that was what it was) started.
"Why didn’t you take a direct flight?"
"Because it’s much more expensive."
"What were you doing in Amsterdam?"
"I was on transit"
"What’s your mission in the United States?"
"To join the Meridian Ship as a crew member."

Furore in Amsterdam
Then it flashed into my mind that I had caused furore in Amsterdam when I refused to declare my mission upon interrogation by Delta Airline desk officers in Amsterdam. For fifteen minutes I stood my ground, claiming that my mission in the United States was none of their business since they were not immigration officers. Besides, I had crew member visa in my passport. My Hungarian colleagues with the same visa were allowed to pass without any question. It was humiliation that brought tears. But I was determined not to show them my documents other than my passport – the only document demanded from my Hungarian colleagues. Eventually, they allowed me to board since I won’t yield.

Now I was facing the penalty?
"Where is your Hungarian I.D or something?" asked one of the immigration officers.
"In my passport. It’s in my passport."
He didn’t check it. "Any document from your employer?"
"Yes" I gave it to them.
"That’s all I received. It’s what others received too."
"You’re not going to New York tonight," the woman charged or boasted. "You’re going back to Lagos."

Lagos? I laughed. It was a joyful laugh. And it was at that moment I knew they did not even know what they were doing. Because I did not even obtain my visa in Lagos. There’s no way I could have been deported to Lagos. I laughed again when I realised that my laughter was hurting her. Let her be tortured like they were torturing me – just for the fun of it. I do not remember all the conversation, but I definitely remember the woman cutting in.
"Don’t play with me," she said with authority, "How many kilo do you carry?"

My joyful laugh flashed itself again. I was indignant at the way I was being treated, but I remained confident. "What!"
I was later told that my profile fitted that of a typical drug pusher. More than six months to be spent in America with only one hand luggage without any check-in; I did not only passed through Amsterdam where drugs are legalised to a certain amount, but I had caused furore. The drama was going on when one of them who had disappeared suddenly re-surfaced. "Let the boy go," he said. He had phoned my employer. What surprised me most was how quickly they changed their hostile attitude. They flashed their best smiles. It was contagious despite the sadness. "Welcome to the United States of is because your country is in the black book of America."

And so what? I departed with the quote from one of their forefathers, "It is better for hundred criminals to go scot-free than to punish one innocent soul." Although my subsequent visits were smooth, the experience of that day lingers on.

Egyptian Immigration Deported Two Nigerians
In July 2004, I witnessed a situation whereby two Nigerians – a man and a woman – were sent back from Cairo Airport to Murtala Muhammad Airport. The man on the suspicion that his British visa was fake, while the woman on the suspicion that she had improperly obtained her Nigerian passport. I found out what appeared to be the truth, but then Egyptian immigration officer is neither British nor Italian immigration officer. Are they?

Passport Scrutiny in Hungary
In July 2006, I was going to Ireland to participate in a Socrates Course for Secondary School Teachers. It was on that day I realised the advantage of arriving much earlier at the airport. Hungarian immigration subjected me to a forty-minute-passport verification. My grudge was not even the eternity it took them to accept the genuineness of my passport, rather the logic behind such scrutiny.

For example, I have in my passport several in and out Hungarian stamps. Doubting the authenticity of my passport means the officer who delayed me on that very day was either doing it as a routine (Hungarian authority has seized many "suspicious" Nigerian passports) or never trusted the judgement of his colleagues who had stamped my passport more than fifty times, or simply transparently being mischievous.

Although it pains each time they punish me for the crimes they usually claim are being committed by fellow Nigerians, or being discriminated against because of my race, I take a little surreptitious pleasure in the fact that I and others like me have shown that not all Nigerians are criminals. And that to tell you the truth is my consolation for the immigration torture.

copyright February 2007

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