THE BLOG

My Ordeal in the Hands of Ukrainian Immigration Officials

22/04/2014 11:56 BST | Updated 22/06/2014 10:59 BST

Many years ago, back in the mid-nineties, I was employed for a number of years as an immigration officer. It was a deeply unpleasant job on many levels, not least because our task was to enforce immigration policies that essentially existed to prevent certain kinds of people from passing through our borders; those who were likely to find work illegally or to overstay. Simple economics dictated that the majority of these people would hail from the developing world, hoping to escape poverty and to seek better lives for themselves and their families, and would therefore be people of colour. Given my own ethnic background, it is not difficult to see why I found the job so hard to stomach.

Racial profiling was not of course part of the official policy, but the reality was that we were told to look out for certain physical characteristics, including modes of dress and the quality of men's suits and footwear, which would often serve as a warning sign that these people should be treated with suspicion. This modus operandi is accurately described in the controversial novel, 'Refusal Shoes', written by my former colleague, Tony Saint.

But if this revelation is disturbing, it is nothing compared to the casual office racism that was part of my daily working life. The word 'paki' was brandished frequently; passengers who were held up in the detention room were commonly referred to as 'scrotes' and the mimicking of Nigerian accents was par for the course.

In the context of all this, it was little wonder that the passengers I would stop and question would be reduced to quivering wrecks very quickly, as they waited while I decided their fate.

There can be no satisfaction is reducing grown men to tears for reasons many disagree with, but I never fully appreciated just how humiliating these experiences were until the tables were turned and I found myself in their 'refusal shoes'.

In January I travelled to Ukraine as part of a team of journalists covering the on-going unrest. As I approached the immigration counter, the expression on the officer's face changed in an instant from uninspired boredom to a spritely alertness I associate with rabbits caught in headlamps. My own experiences from his side of the desk meant I recognised that look immediately, but it was disconcerting nonetheless.

It was as I suspected; whereas he had waved through all the passengers before me, he proceeded to poke and prod my passport and stick it under an infra-red light to check for any fraudulent stamps while his eyes darted back and forth from my face to my passport photo.

As he left me standing and headed off towards an office, I knew he was not satisfied with me and was seeking instruction from a senior officer. He returned after some time and led me into an office, where I was held for a good 20 minutes, during which I time was asked a multitude of questions by an officer who insisted on placing both his elbows on the table and leaning menacingly into my face before forcing me to write out my signature three times.

All the while, various officers marched in and out of the room, took turns to examine my passport and whispered importantly to each other. When I asked if there was a problem, they replied in the negative, explaining that they were only doing their jobs, but when I pointed out to them that no-one else had been held up, they had no answer.

I was eventually allowed to go, but the experience left me feeling humiliated and upset. It's interesting how quickly one's dignity is eroded when made to feel like a criminal, and it finally brought home how those people I had interrogated at Heathrow Airport all those years ago must have felt.

The ungracious manner in which I was received by the Ukrainians was a reminder of how for so long, this continent has treated non-Europeans, and in particular, people of colour. Over the years, the walls of Fortress Europe have become almost impenetrable. Most nationals from the former commonwealth countries now require visas, which they need to obtain before they can even board a plane, so the focus has shifted to immigrants within the EU who are perceived to be a threat to western countries.

And it's not just far-right groups - whose membership numbers are growing - that are capitalising on the fact that immigration rhetoric is always a vote-winner. Even the main stream, more moderate, parties have been cashing in by playing the race card.

Many in Ukraine want to move closer to the EU. Among those protesting in Euromaidan were right-wing fascist and nationalist groups. One can only imagine how these groups feel about anyone who is not of their kind, and their views seem to be in line with much of the sentiment inside the EU. If the Ukrainians' treatment of me is anything to go by, it will fit in with the rest of Europe quite nicely.