Airport frustration

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 November, 2003, 12:00am

I refer to the letter headlined 'US immigration ordeal' (Sunday Morning Post, October 26).

A student, in December last year I checked in at Richmond International Airport, Virginia, on a trip home to Hong Kong for the holidays.

What started as a routine check became a frustrating inconvenience. The security staff confiscated my passport. They would not tell me what was wrong - that I was suspected of carrying explosives in my luggage. Later I learned that a piece of checking apparatus was malfunctioning; it reacted to another innocent traveller that day and was sent for maintenance.

I missed my connecting flight to New York, and was forced to stand in a restricted area in the middle of the airport, while passersby looked on. I only realised the seriousness of the situation when I had to be escorted to the toilet, and when two FBI agents arrived to interrogate me, three hours later. I was told the reason for my detention, and they questioned me for two hours, about everything from the contents of my attic to the Jamaican friend who had dropped me off at the airport.

I was released when an explosives technician and a bomb dog examined my luggage and gave me the all-clear. My pencil case that contained the highlighters that had initially set off the alert was confiscated. The agents were mildly apologetic, and offered me lunch money and a ride home. The next day I flew home.

I found my experience to be halfway between highly amusing and uncomfortably degrading. I realise the need for stringent security at airports, but found it unacceptable that I was not given any reason for my detention, and that I was made to wait in an open area like a criminal on public trial. As a non-American, I felt that I was in less of a position to demand fair treatment.

In such situations, guest students and other non-Americans must be psychologically ready to be labelled the enemy at any moment.

IRIS EU, Sha Tin