Fear and loathing at border posts

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iol travel april 7 border SS_ss visa10 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS Passports and application forms for a visa to the UK. Picture: Damaris Helwig

Johannesburg - Even after all these years, I still feel my stomach twist as the plane begins its descent on a flight to another country. That’s because I hate borders.

That loathing is not because I am some latter-day John Lennon with his imaginings that a world without countries and artificial boundaries might not be a better place… although it isn’t hard to imagine a place where there would be nothing to kill or die for and where we would be living life in peace.

Nor am I terrorist – and there I do share Lennon’s aversion to shedding blood for ideology or religion – or a smuggler, or a criminal (my Catholic upbringing would positively not allow that, either).

But, I do feel guilty.

That’s because for a good part of my working life as a journalist, I have gone into places where people didn’t particularly want to have me around.

Like the passport officers in a small, smelly room in Lusaka airport, who summoned the police to examine my honest explanation, on my arrival form, that I was a journalist… and one representing a South African company.

Also, young and fit looking (it was a long time ago…) I could also be a South African saboteur. It never occurred to any of my inquisitors that if I was some special operative, I would hardly have declared my profession and my employer’s address…

That was an instant deportation – but at least I didn’t end up in a courtroom charged with terrorism… and in those days journalism, in the minds of many African countries, was not far removed.

It wasn’t only in Africa that I had tense times with immigration officials.

Arriving at Heathrow Airport on my first visit to Europe, accompanied by my new wife, I was pulled aside. I obviously matched their current stop-and-interrogate profile: 20-something, fit (really), bearded, travelling on an Irish passport.

As my wife waited outside (she had a British passport), I was grilled for 20 minutes as about four people studied me and my green passport with the Irish harp on the cover.

Later, as we toured Ireland, I understood.

This part of Her Majesty’s dominion was a war zone and young Irishmen (such as someone like me) were doing things in the name of liberation and the Irish Republican Army…

Then, the whole world chilled a bit and travelling was actually quite fun again. I remember when I arrived in Vienna in the early 1990s, the Austrian border police merely took one look at my green harp passport and waved me through, without even opening it.

But, after 9/11, everything changed and I fear we will never know that sort of freedom again.

Now, passports are scrutinised as never before, and people are profiled. A friend of mine who is, shall we say, not white, says that every time he travels to Europe he is pulled aside for questioning by immigration officials.

South African passport holders, too, have a tough time of it – legacy of the fact that our Home Affairs Department went through a period when its controls were non-existent and fake passports were issued to terrorists and the like.

Hence, we are on the list of “almost pariah” countries where a strict set of hoops must be jumped through before a limited time visa is issued.

Schengen visas – for Europe – seem, to me anyway, to be a nice little earner for the countries involved. Most are only short-term (for a few months at least) and cost about R1 200 a shot (including the cut for the agency arranging it, but not including the hassles, the hours or the petrol cost for the applicant) – never mind the sometimes demeaning application process where minute details have to be perfectly accurate and you, a citizen in your own country, are treated like a criminal.

But, still – I feel edgy when I approach an immigration control point. I arrived at OR Tambo on Sunday, tired after an 11-hour flight, I was still nervous. I’ve got a new South African passport and it only had one stamp in it. Would there be something wrong? Would I be pulled aside? When the place I call home is just on the other side of the barrier?

But a stamp and even a smile (something that didn’t happen at Home Affairs that long ago).

Welcome home. - Saturday Star

I’d like to hear your passport and border horror stories – e-mail me at [email protected]

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