How I was stalked at Brisbane airport -
By Levi Obijiofor


FLYING from Nigeria to Australia is not a journey for the faint-hearted. If you are the type of traveller who frets and sweats before and during a journey, you are going to pull out all your hair before your travel ends.

Why? Anxiety and long distance travels don't usually mix. You will spend no fewer than 22 hours in the air, depending on your flight path. And because there are no direct flights from Nigeria to Australia, you are guaranteed to spend some hours in transit at an overseas airport.

Depending on the airline you are travelling with, your transit time could be short or it could be incredibly long. If you are caught up in long hours of waiting during transit (as I once spent 17 hours in transit at Terminal 4 of London's Heathrow Airport in February 2004), you will become grumpy by the time you arrive in your destination. All these imply that by the time you arrive in Australia, you will feel disorganised, tired, empty, physically and mentally exhausted and your wearied eyes will show signs of sleep deprivation.

All you want at this point is to pick up your luggage, take a cab, return to your residence, have a quick shower and jump into bed for a well deserved nap. Before all these, however, there are some compulsory arrival protocols to accomplish. You must go through passport control, and submit yourself to checks by Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, as well as checks by Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service.

Australia has one of the toughest Quarantine and Customs regulations in the world. This is no exaggeration. As in most countries, international travellers arriving at any Australian airport are required to complete the "Incoming Passenger Card" (i.e. the arrival card) even before the plane touches down.

There are questions which passengers are required to answer when they complete the arrival card. For example, you must provide basic information relating to your passport (e.g. the country in which the passport was issued), your flight number, the residential address where you plan to stay, and whether you plan to live in Australia for up to 12 months. You are also requested to specify your date of birth and your usual occupation, your nationality as stated in your passport, as well as the country in which you boarded the aircraft. If you are a non-Australian passenger, there are questions about your health and your previous criminal record, if any.

And then comes the sensitive part. On the flip side of the arrival card, you are requested to declare all "food, plant material or animal products" in your possession, including drugs of any kind, as well as foreign currency exceeding $10,000. These rigorous protocols are strictly enforced by Australian customs and quarantine officials for a good reason. Australian authorities argue that Australia is an island nation and as such foreign diseases could be imported into the country which would be hazardous to the local flora and fauna. The diseases could also cost huge sums of money to eradicate.

Whether you have something or nothing to declare, passengers are notified that all bags arriving in Australia from an overseas destination will be x-rayed, physically inspected or checked by dogs trained to sniff out illicit material. Penalties for infringement include a fine of $220 on the spot, a fine of $60,000 and/or 10 years jail.

When I arrived at the Brisbane International Airport in the early hours of Monday, 24 August 2009, I had in my possession some items which I had already declared in the arrival card. These include my anti-malaria prescription medication and five carved (wooden) animals, namely a medium-sized elephant, a rhinoceros, a lion, a giraffe and a set of small elephants. These were gifts I bought in Ghana for colleagues in my workplace.

I passed through passport control desk with no hassles. But, immediately I left the passport control section, a diminutive customs officer approached me and requested for my travel documents. I handed them to him. He asked where I came from. I told him I attended a conference in Ghana and later visited Nigeria. He asked what I did for a living. I answered. An inquisition had begun.

The man started to repeat questions he had asked previously. He asked where I travelled from. I told him I had already answered the question. He asked where I came from originally. I told him the question was a form of racial profiling because every Australian passport holder was by law an Australian citizen either by birth or by grant.

For the second time, he asked what I did for a living. I told him. He asked what I taught at the university. I answered. He asked how much I earned per year. I ignored the question. He returned my documents to me and left.

I thought the inquest had ended. I was wrong. Anyway, I joined the queue of passengers waiting to have their luggage x-rayed. By the time I got to the front of the queue, the same customs officer emerged. He collected my documents again and directed me to follow him. He went to an x-ray machine. He requested me to place all my luggage on the machine. I did so. After the x-ray screening, the officer said I should follow him to have my luggage examined by a Quarantine official.

A female quarantine officer was requested to examine my luggage. The woman did her job in a professional manner. She searched my luggage. She brought out all the carved animals and examined them. At the end she said they were okay. While the quarantine official examined my luggage, the customs officer started another round of questioning. He asked about the conference I attended in Ghana. I answered. He asked if I had with me some documents relating to the conference. I pulled out a file from one of my shoulder bags and gave him a hardcopy version of the powerpoint slides which I used for my presentation at the conference. He examined the 52-page document and asked whether I wrote the paper myself. It was an insult which I ignored.

He asked if I had with me the official conference program. I brought out a copy of the conference program which had on it my name, the date and time of my presentation. He flipped through the pages and returned the document to me. For one moment, he stood and fixed a gaze at me. I looked at him blankly too. He said I looked nervous to him. I asked him why he thought I was nervous. He said he would like to know.

The questioning continued. The man asked whether I had a mobile phone. I brought out my mobile phone from my shoulder bag and placed it on the table. The man pulled out a drawer, took out a pair of hand gloves and slipped his hands into the gloves. If he thought I would be intimidated by that display of bravado, he was wrong. He opened my mobile phone and asked another customs official to take a swab of the front of the phone. He said he was testing for evidence of illegal drugs. I told him he was welcome to test not only my mobile phone but also every item in my luggage and if he was still not satisfied he could arrange to have me frisked and tested. Minutes later, the other customs official came back with the news that the test of my mobile phone had returned a negative result.

At this point, I asked my interrogator whether I had been singled out for special search and testing because I came from Nigeria or because of my dark skin. He said he was specifically assigned to scrutinise me because he had expertise in African people, cultures and social practices. He said he had recently returned from an official trip to an African country (name withheld) where he was mauled by mosquitoes which resulted in a serious bout of malaria that had to be treated in a European country.

The mention of mosquito bite and malaria treatment somehow softened the tone of our exchanges. In a friendly manner, he asked if I had sufficient anti-malaria prescription medication because part of the reason why he suffered serious malaria in the African country he visited was that he had insufficient anti-malaria medication.

He advised that in future I shouldn't be harsh when questioned by customs officials because they were doing their job. I said "fair enough" but also told him that every time I returned from an African country, I was always picked out for special scrutiny by customs officials. As my parting shot, I asked: "Why are other passengers, especially Caucasians, not subjected to the same treatment that you extend to me?"

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