I am watching Nothing to Declare. It's a programme which follows the activities of the UK border control, and in this episode, a woman who has just arrived on a flight from St Lucia, has been detained on suspicion of drug smuggling. She's black, possibly in her late twenties, and wears a weary, defeated expression; as she sluggishly opens up her suitcase for the officials to inspect, it feels as though she is sleep-walking through a scene which will have terrible repercussions for her life.
But if the suspect's manner expresses helplessness and fatigue, the customs officer Phil, who is dealing with her, seems keen and engaged. Like most petty bureaucrats, he is clearly animated by the opportunity to use the limited power conferred upon him, though he tries to mask his enthusiasm behind a veneer of professionalism. He explains to the cameras, in sober and serious tones, the procedure by which the suitcase is to be examined, and how the tests for drugs are to be administered. When the test for narcotics eventually returns positive, however, it proves too much: the guise of professionalism slips, and he giggles delightedly - 'that's what we were hoping for! Only a bit quicker and a bit more!' In fact, customs officer Phil still seems pleased when he delivers the news which is to devastate this young woman's life. She, for her part, merely looks stunned, as though she can't quite believe in the series of events which have led her to this.
It is a scene played out with depressing monotony in airports across the world. In the versions screened on TV, the suspect's face is usually pixelated in order to protect their anonymity, and so what the viewer sees is no more than an oxymoron - a faceless face; a blurred visage which belongs to no-one in particular. And the obliteration of identity is something which undergirds this type of programme more generally, for we are never given any information about the lives of the drug smugglers themselves; we are never told what forces and pressures have conspired or contributed to the desperate and often extremely dangerous bid to pirate these illegal substances across the border.
The concrete circumstances of these 'drug mules' remain pixelated, rendered invisible by the self-righteousness of those who have grasped that Drugs Are Bad Things and furthermore that They Are Against The Law. Nevertheless, the individual 'mules' do have backgrounds and circumstances and stories, and it is important we flesh these out. They all seem to share a common thread; that is, one of extreme poverty, and a high number of drug mules are single mothers. Overwhelmingly the women in question are from poorer countries like Jamaica and Nigeria, and the economic desperation which they experience is often adulterated by the threats and coercions of the powerful drug barons who find it profitable and expedient to prey on them.
In 2010 it was estimated that upwards of 60% of the female foreign national prison population had been incarcerated for drugs offences, in the main, related to trafficking. In recent times, films like Maria Llena de Gracia (Maria Full of Grace) have helped transform the popular image of sinister and mercenary couriers into people who are victimised in a twofold way; first by the barons who pay them very little in order to take such exceptional risks, and then by the efficiency and callousness of the state machine that locks them up.
For some of the people who patrol our borders empathy becomes nothing more than unnecessary emotional surplus, for they already have the stock-in-trade required - the rules and regulations which have been laid out neatly in advance, and which mean you don't have to think a great deal. Such people rarely bother to put themselves in the shoes of those they are so keen to castigate.
But not everybody feels the same. Great strides have been made by organisations such as Hisbiscus which has worked tirelessly against those punitive laws which strike at the most vulnerable, while leaving the more powerful almost entirely unmolested. And, in a period when interventions from celebrities such as Richard Branson have helped place the 'legalisation'question on the agenda once more, such organisations have their work cut out.