Long queues at Heathrow – racism or no racism?

…the experience I was referring too and the anger I was expressing was not merely for the wait in the queue. It extends to the rude interrogation at the check points. I was asked how long I had spent in India, what I was doing there, what I do in the UK, and what policies I advise on in my job (“Equality and diversity”, I said with a hint of irony).

I recently travelled back from India to London. I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 4 after a nine hours flight and had to queue for two hours to get past the immigration check. My swollen feet, lack of sleep and a queue that extended from the arrivals hall to where the aeroplane exit was prompted me to some angry Tweeting. I saw lots of white people file past me to join the considerably smaller (almost non-existent) queue for British/EU passport holders while it took me over 45 minutes to inch close enough to the arrivals hall to be able to see the long snakey queue in there. Ironically, big LCD screens in T4 were playing videos of the Kate-William wedding kiss, the Queen and Buckingham Palace, I assume, as a way to welcome foreigners to Britain.

As I tweeted,

I got a couple of responses asserting that white British and white Americans/Australians/Canadians get held up in long queues at airports too, so what I was complaining about wasn’t racism per se. There is no denying that white people also have to sometimes to go through nightmare waiting times at airports too. But the experience I was referring too and the anger I was expressing was not merely for the wait in the queue.

That experience extends to the rude interrogation at check points. I was asked how long I had spent in India, what I was doing there, what I do in the UK, and what policies I advise on in my job (“Equality and diversity”, I said with a hint of irony). I know I will get “…but security is important” responses to this but consider this – I have lived in the UK for four years, I have travelled to India three times and to several other countries during this time. Every time I have come back, my fingerprints have been recorded and details verified and cross-checked through questioning. Of course, UKBA holds this data on their system and yet, every time I come back, I face the same level of scrutiny. Proportionally, this makes no security sense.

The airport experience of ethnic minority people is an extension of their everyday experiences of discrimination and abuse. As this Tweeter said,

On the day that I landed, I came across the news that the Home Office has been offering to reward staff with gift vouchers, bonuses and extra holidays for fighting off asylum cases. Asylum cases are about people’s lives, about countries where they may face persecution, even death, and about vulnerability. It is quite clear from their crass incentivisation of staff that the Home Office’s starting point when investigating these cases is how to make people leave the UK. This attitude extends to immigration checks at airports where ethnic minority people are interrogated in the hope that officers can find a stutter, a confused answer to detain them for further questioning. All the times I have travelled, I have never come across one friendly immigration office, the tone is always accusatory.

If there was anything more appalling than that report, it was news that an 84 year old suffering from dementia died in handcuffs after being detained at Harmondsworth detention centre. Alois Dvorzac was a Canadian national. He was detained at Gatwick and sent to the hospital where the doctor noted: “UNFIT for detention or deportation. Requires social care.” Yet he was taken to Harmondsworth detention centre; when his condition worsened, he was transferred to the hospital again where he was kept handcuffed. He died wearing those handcuffs. 

Is this an issue of racism? Yes, it is. That Alois Dvorzac was a Canadian national does not change the fact that his detention is yet another example of Home Office’s imperialist belief that all immigrants are here to live off benefits and steal jobs. Alois Dvorzac’s case makes my standing in the queue for two hours with swollen feet sound like a triviality. But it also goes to demonstrate that violation of human rights of immigrants is an everyday reality. You know something’s not quite right when Alistair Campbell and Olympic athletes waiting in queue at Heathrow makes news but it doesn’t matter to anyone if people like me have to do the same.