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PA/Steve Parsons

Beware the border patrol: the nasty history of airport discrimination

This summer, if you go abroad, you will pass through border checkpoints. Not everyone can be checked thoroughly or the system stops, so border guards judge you based on how you look or sound, and they decide how laws are enforced. While widely illegal, racial profiling has increased at airports since 9/11, justified by fears of terrorism. Understanding the history of how this system developed shows that it was always designed to discriminate.

The global border checking system has roots in early 20th-century South Africa. To circumvent Britain’s ban on race-based legislation, South African laws were carefully designed to appear fair while making it possible to continue to restrict entry for Indians and poor whites, especially Jews.

The most famous means of discrimination was the language test, introduced in both the US and South Africa in the 1890s. This required potential migrants to take a writing test. Border guards decided what the test was and who passed. Officials regularly rigged the system, stopping Jews or Indians who misspelled single words, but letting in European men if they seemed the “right” sort.

A law passed in South Africa in 1913 was even more vague, prohibiting people on “economic grounds” or “habits of life”. These terms were deliberately undefined, giving the government and its border officials almost total power, with very little room for legal appeal. This was part of an increasing trend to make migration a route only open to those with significant financial resources, and to stop those deemed of a different “culture” from entering their country, two criteria still used today.

These South African laws spread to the other settler colonies, then Britain, India and other corners of empire. A system gradually evolved that encouraged border officials to practice discrimination, while allowing governments to claim that objective legal systems were in place.

A master of the art

Looking at the career of Clarence Wilfred Cousins (1872-1954), the chief immigration officer in the Cape Colony, then South Africa, at the beginning of the 20th century, shows how this system worked in practice.

He was himself an immigrant: born in Madagascar in 1872 to a missionary father, Oxford-educated, he went to Cape Town in 1896 to work as a civil servant. Cousins’ migration job was to stop the “wrong sort” from entering South Africa. And this was a system that was never meant to be fair. He explained in one official report:

It is not possible to deal with the Asiatic as with the European; the whole nature of the man is oriental, his habits are different from those of the European, and legislation that would apply easily to the European is not applicable to the Asiatic… they are both dealt with under the same law, and so a great deal of discrimination is necessary in administering the law.

This discrimination is evident in the official records, and something he celebrated in his diaries. A Jewish man with paperwork and money was deported for being “dressed in an unclean manner”; healthy people were rejected for appearing sickly; or refused entry because “one eye of one child was defective”, for appearing pale, or having a split lip. He would spend days and nights and often his own money to catch out Jews and Indians, who were for him the “enemy” – an enemy always depicted as “wily” in his private diaries and letters.

Modern airports

This system cannot be relegated to a more racist past. The technique developed in South Africa was adapted by the other settler colonies, such as Australia. Britain, in turn, used an Australian act as the basis for its first migration law in 1905. This was then adapted in India for its first migration act, and so on. When airport travel became commonplace after World War II, racial profiling remained a feature of airport security.

Airport queues are longer for some than others. EPA

While anti-discrimination laws are now common, in practice, racial profiling has become increasingly socially acceptable. Police and border officials continue to racially profile people even when it’s illegal. The fact that so many of the laws regulating the movement of people are worded vaguely and give significant discretionary powers to border guards leaves little room for appeal against unfair treatment.

Casual holidaymakers are not exempt from this process. Growing fears about “illegal” movement have blurred the lines between potential migrants and casual travellers. Passengers can be turned away if border officials think they might plan to stay, rather than just holiday, based entirely on the opinion of border officials.

While current border officials are less overtly racist, they are products of their society. As in the early 20th century, xenophobia is part of daily discourse. Even the nicest border guards are not immune. They are paid little, and have to screen ever increasing numbers of people within a limited period of time. Falling back on stereotyping to single out “undesirables” is a natural process.

Understanding this is not just about identifying racism. As a white woman, I rarely have problems travelling. A few years ago, I was pulled aside by an airport official for a random security check, but their boss walked by and reprimanded them: “She’s not going to carry a bomb, is she? Get someone else.” I was sent on my way without a check. Ironically, of course, this reliance on appearance makes our air spaces even less secure.

So be careful when you travel this summer. The system is designed to keep you out unless you “look” right; it is not designed to keep you safe.

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