Injustice at the Gateways to our Cities

In ancient times a city would have obvious and clear gateways. They would be guarded and protected. In many cultures the elders and the wise would sit at the gates to make judgements on issues of contention or disagreement as well as facilitating the ebb and flow of what came in and out of cities environment. It was meant to be a place where justice was dispensed, where good judgement was exercised and where people were dealt with the dignity of their humanity. 


Now we can see from history that that ideal wasn’t always upheld or even an aspiration. 


However, you would hope that in a modern civilisation we would have that ideal or at least the aspiration. Unfortunately, as we hear and read in our news bulletins that the reality isn’t true. We are so obsessed with our suspicion of the ‘other’ that we no longer believe that people should be treated with dignity but rather that they are the ‘other’, the potential terrorist, the invader of society and culture, the thief of our jobs, homes and children. We talk about walls and quota’s and put people in detention centres, and separate families, even children from their parents. We seem to more and more live in a world of us and them and propagate propaganda that de-humanizes people. We see them as faceless. We catagorise them, label them and call them names. We lump them altogether as those ‘other’ people.


One of our main modern day ‘city gates’ are our airports. It seems that at these ‘gates’ even basic foundations of dignity and human rights are dispensed with and people are treated worse than criminals even though they are never arrested or charged. Where is the justice at these gates of our cities?


Recently, a friend needed somewhere to spend some time to recuperate, reflect and rethink the next phase of her life. We invited her to come stay with us, to be able to do those things. As part of that she would be part of our community and use her talents to serve. She wasn’t being paid either money or in kind. She was going to contribute, pay board and lodging, and use her talents to enrich the lives of others.


When she stepped up to the immigration officer, she was full of hope and joy at this opportunity to get time to think through her next phase of life. She was not expecting what happened next. Rather than a polite exchange of greetings she was immediately questioned in an aggressive manner. She felt intimidated, she became anxious and nervousness. When asked what she would be doing she explained that she was having a sabbatical and would like to volunteer in the community she was living. From that moment on she was treated as if she was guilty of something.


She was questioned again at border control - then after at least half an hour she was taken to get her luggage which I had collected. I asked what was going on, but she was discouraged from talking to me and the officers would not speak to me at all. One officer asked how I knew her. As I tried to explain he dismissed me and threatened me. I asked how I could find out what was going on as I would be waiting to take her to our home. I was asked if she had my phone number and she had her phone, inferring that she could contact me to keep me appraised and give me updates. She was then interviewed while the officers went through her luggage. Then taken to a room and left alone ‘to sweat it out’ it would seem. When she used her phone to call me, she is told to shut it off before being able explain. Eventually, she was allowed to WhatsApp me a message to say she wasn’t allowed to call me. But no other info. I kept messaging trying to find out what was happening, not knowing that her phone had been confiscated. By this time, we are 4 hours in. She is then interviewed again before being put in a holding room with a window where she can see the officers. They then allowed to give me a number to call her. She was left there for another two and half hours. She can see them watching a television programme. During this period, I phone the pay phone in the room regularly to see if there is any news and try to help her keep perspective. The only explanation when she asks them is that she is in danger of not being allowed in the country ‘because she has not answered their questions adequately’. When she asked for clarification, they couldn’t give her any further explanation.


Then she’s interviewed again. We are now over 7 hours into the process. She is physically and emotionally exhausted. She had been travelling most of the day before this happened.


Let’s think about this. People are being held in isolation for hours. They are not allowed contact with anyone outside for long periods of time. They are not offered or seemingly allowed help by any one. They are not allowed any kind of advocate to help them or explain what’s going on. They seem to be deliberately left for long periods to ‘stew’ while watching their ‘captors’, ‘jailers’ watch them or entertain themselves. They are being held alone for extremely long periods of time. Why? It seems deliberate. They are told they have given inadequate answers but given no explanation how these answers are inadequate. These are people already crossing a culture, unsettled in an unfamiliar setting, nervous because of the authoritarian nature and culture we find at border crossings as well as often working in a second language! Although this was not the situation in this instance.


How can this be seen, or defended, as being a just system that treats people with the dignity our humanity deserves.


It seems to be using similar and outdated tactics that the police used in the seventies to get convictions. Intimidation, threats, isolation, exhaustion, indifference and a lack of independent representation.


I know the issues surrounding immigration and the terrorist threat is a hot subject, but we can’t defend treating people worse than criminals, sub-human without dignity and stripping them of their rights. There’s no place to appeal at the time, there’s no one to ask for help or explanation. Many of these people are visitors to our country, honest and good people. Even the ones we need to send back home should at least be treated with dignity. The honour of our country is on display, we say that we believe in justice and due process. We say that people are innocent until there is proof of wrong doing. My friend had no illegal contraband, no documentation that gave a hint that she was going to work illegally or scrounge off our system. Her crime was that she could not answer the questions adequately. No further explanation has been given but she was warned not to try to enter the country again for at least 6 months.


I will be honest, I was ashamed. I had to arrange for people to meet with her in Budapest – where she had travelled from – she had been at conference there but had been living in Turkey – we had to arrange for some follow up debriefing as she was so traumatized.


How has it come to this? If this was just an isolated case it maybe the immigration officers were just having a bad day, but this isn’t an isolated case it seems it is more the rule than the exception. Neither is it restricted to a type of people or a few people groups, although I am not disputing that there are greater numbers of certain people groups than others. There seems to be a ‘culture’ among the border control community of being ‘untouchable’ and a law unto themselves. They have become investigator, prosecutor, and judge – there is no defense, there is no advocate.


So, I repeat my original question – ‘WHERE IS THE JUSTICE AT THE GATES OF OUR CITIES?’


Ian Rowlands