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Fatima Zaman

An Open Letter To Border Officials

This piece by Fatima Zaman originally appeared on the Huffington Post Blog.

To airport officials across the world,

I understand you have a job to do but do you really have to panic when you see me waltz up to the UK Border Passport checkpoint?

Yes I am Brown, yes I am also Muslim and yes I am a woman travelling alone. No I am not a terrorist, so please stop treating me like I am a threat to national security!

I am a citizen who has rights so please stop ‘randomly’ subjecting me to security checks, body scans and extra questioning about the purposes of my visits. I completely respect that you have a job to do and support that, but please exercise judgement and common sense when executing your duties.

Not everyone is a threat, only a select few. To identify these select few please don’t stereotype the vast majority of civilians. The security of this country should not come at the cost of freedom for the general population. Nor should we be penalized for the actions of a violent few. This if anything has far reaching and worse off consequences than it does do good. Unfortunately I, like too many ‘Brown Brits’, have been subjected to this unfair scrutiny and so I am compelled to speak out following a recent experience.

As I walk up to security checkpoints and border control on one of my recent visits I’m met with all too familiar nervous looks. Comments are exchanged behind the counter of which I only hear whisperings. My passport is scanned and then re-scanned. All the while I smile and patiently wait. Then come the questions — what was the purpose of your visit, where did you stay, with whom did you meet, how long where you here for and will you be travelling on elsewhere? While in isolation these are innocent and perfectly proportionate questions to ask of anyone travelling, to be subjected to this each and every time I travel, is a different matter. It’s even more damaging when normal ‘White Brits’ aren’t subjected to the same level of scrutiny or similar ‘random’ checks.

Again, as I am questioned I count around 6 other British White citizens who are met with cheery grins, English pleasantries and pass through the adjacent queue with such ease. In stark contrast, I stand there met with stone cold stares and further questioning. I think to myself if only you knew — I’m not the threat here…really it’s not me!

My strong English accent does nothing to help me when I’m being asked about why I travel so much. Neither does holding that highly sought red travel document. Because sadly all people see is my brown skin, Muslim name and young age. Things about me that I cannot help.

These should not be alarm bells to any border official, but if you are going to question me please employ some tact. Don’t question me with scepticism before I even open my mouth, don’t disqualify me just because I look foreign and please do not treat me with disrespect because you have the power to do so. Because believe me it does not make me feel welcome and it certainly doesn’t make me feel safe!

Now I’m not the only person to have experienced this type of treatment and it’s not just border officials. This type of treatment happens in other countries; when one applies for a visa, when one use the national health service or even the police. But most of us leave it unquestioned and stay silent.

It’s time to speak up — the quiet scrutiny of one group of people has to stop and we need to challenge the underlying, indirect, intentional, unintentional and sometimes well intended, racism and xenophobia that acutely drives these situations.

Anyway to continue, as the barrage of questions finally end and I have argued the case for why I am just a Londoner trying to return home — I do feel bad to disappoint the border official. Sorry I’m not the security threat you wanted me to be. Sorry I will never be that threat! But I’m glad that I got the chance yet again to prove my innocence to you while no one else had to. The difficulty here is that while I’m being subjected to unnecessary scrutiny, a very real threat is eluding a border official somewhere across the world.

This situation somehow has a sad irony to it. Every time I’m questioned and I tell officials that I am actually working to counter violent extremism, eyebrows are immediately lifted. Yes the young Muslim brown woman isn’t a threat but she is In fact the anti dote to the threat. Let her into the country!

However not everyone like me has the ability to say that. And often being subjected to disproportionate questioning is very difficult to deal with. In some cases it’s exactly this level scrutiny that makes someone venture towards extremist groups. If one is not welcomed, made to feel safe or treated with dignity then sadly this WILL foster resentment. This resentment left unchecked WILL turn into hate and that hate WILL turn into violent extremism.

So as I write this feeling highly emotionally charged and on my travels back to the UK, I have one plea for the world. Random checks mean just that — do not target this towards one community and please do not panic when you see someone who’s young or of colour.

You all do incredibly difficult work and it’s never easy to make the right call. But please do exercise judgement in an increasing climate of fear. Do continue to keep us safe and do continue to question where appropriate, but be proportionate.

Don’t question people for the sake of it because it runs the very dangerous risk of isolating people who are less resilient than I am.