Customs lesson in not picking on minorities

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am


It's the bane of air travel for certain ethnic minorities around the world - the extra security check. While some glide through customs effortlessly, others are pulled from the queue every time they enter a country.

Now Hong Kong's frontline customs officers have been told they need to do more to prevent racial profiling against Africans.

Adams Bodomo, a Ghanaian linguist who directs the University of Hong Kong's African studies programme, told a room of over 40 customs officers last week that their profiling was not down to misunderstanding but prejudice.

'They are singled out and they are treated differently,' Bodomo said. 'How are you as customs officers going to approach this?'

'That's why we invited you today!' Mimi Ngai Shuk-wa, a senior inspector, said.

'And I thank you!' replied Bodomo, grinning from ear to ear.

The officers were attending the Customs and Excise Department's cultural sensitivity programme.

Since 2006, Hong Kong-based experts from places including Pakistan, Japan and Colombia have been invited to discuss the peculiarities and prejudices sometimes found between travellers from their home countries and airport staff.

Often, consulate staff are invited to speak. This was Bodomo's second presentation to customs officers in a year in which more than 93,000 African travellers had flowed through Hong Kong's borders by June, mostly from South Africa.

'We have to broaden the exposure of our frontline officers to people from different cultures,' Ngai said. And during an hour-and-a-half on Wednesday, they learned a lot.

While looking at a PowerPoint slide with a picture of Michael Jackson (from the 1980s) next to Jackie Chan, Bodomo explained that unlike Chinese, Africans like to speak loudly, touch people while talking to them and receive items with their left hand.

He taught the giggling officers to say 'Hello' in Hausa (sannu). They learned the Swahili for 'Welcome to Hong Kong' (karibu Hong Kong), although 'Good morning' (habari za asubuhi) proved harder.

Translations of 'Do you have any cigarettes or liquor to declare' and 'Please open the baggage for examination' were provided on the handout, but not rehearsed.

Bodomo told them that additional searches should be 'colour blind', but if they need to select an African they should avoid him feeling victimised by choosing an Asian or white in front of or behind him.

'If you want him to co-operate you should do this. He will think the customs official is applying the law evenly, fairly and firmly,' he said.

Not surprisingly, Bodomo gets additional checks at the airport '95 per cent of the time', despite being a permanent Hong Kong resident who arrived 14 years ago to teach at the university.

His tactic is to submit to the searches, then quiz the officers afterwards on why they selected him, hoping to trigger a moment of self- awareness in them.

'I'm a teacher. I see any opportunity to ask them any question they can reflect on,' he explained.

No one at customs has greeted him in his native Hausa yet - but he's hopeful.


The record number of visitors to Hong Kong last year, an increase of 21.8% over 2009 and the first time the figure had topped 30 million