Airport gives human rights abuse lesson

24th March 2006 at 00:00
The trip to New York last half-term was likely to be the last of daughter's school trips. That's why we forked out way over what we thought was reasonable for any school trip, let alone a few days in New York. That's also why we overrode our doubts about its educational value.

No matter how widely and liberally the word "educational" was construed, we believed this was never going to be anything but an exercise in our girl's ability to shop until she dropped or until the bottom dropped out of her bank account. We comforted ourselves that it was a further, controlled step in the direction of independence, teaching her how to travel and look after herself while under only very loose supervision.

As it turned out, our speculations were both right and wrong. Yes, there was the Bloomingdale's and Macy's thing and yes there was the show that had to be seen on Broadway, and the getting lost and found on the subway. But the trip proved educational in ways we never expected.

Several of daughter's school friends, like daughter herself, have non-European names. Three have very common male Muslim names and surnames.

That might explain why, when daughter and her friends re-assembled for a head count after passing through customs and immigration, these three had gone missing. No, they hadn't gone off to link up with a terrorist group, but for all the US airport authorities cared, they might as well have. For, despite the fact that they were very clearly part of a group of children on a school trip, accompanied by teachers, they were treated like terrorist suspects and interrogated in what daughter and her friends refer to, breathless and round-eyed, as "the room".

Nothing but their Muslim names, their faith and their appearance could explain why these boys and none of the rest of the group were pulled up.

The conditions of entry for all of them, their visas, overseen by the teachers en masse, were identical. So was the colour of their passports, their citizenship, their school, home area, etc.

For daughter, this was a sudden, sharp and shocking lesson in the nullifying of the International Declaration on Human Rights, the Children's Charter and other internationally recognised rights and obligations in the treatment of human beings, especially young human beings. Pinned to our walls at home and drummed into her they might be, but here they meant nothing. She'd been on the marches to call for their observance, seen media reports on their non-observance, but still the reality was a shock.

Suddenly her friends were not just fellow under-aged children, who would have the right to have a responsible adult, such as the accompanying teachers, at least alerted to the fact that they'd been segregated from the group and were being questioned. But these kids were denied this right.

They had lost all the rights they would have, for example, if they'd nicked something in the duty-free shops - such as having their responsible adults present while being questioned.

Daughter gained a new respect for her teachers, some of whom she may have had old childish grievances against, as they went to do battle to assert the boys' rights to have a teacher present, while keeping the rest of the children calm and determined not to go off and start a longed-for holiday already delayed by heavy snowfalls, but to wait in solidarity with their friends.

Due, no doubt to this united and determined stance or just maybe due to the American authorities' realisation of their own idiocy and paranoia, the boys were allowed to rejoin their friends. Who knows where they might have ended up had they not had teachers to vouch for them? Guantanamo? The idea is no more preposterous than the pulling up of three kids for nothing but having Muslim names.

If, for daughter, this was a harsh lesson in reality, for one of her roommates it was a nightmare. This Muslim girl spent hours in terror of being in some way implicated in something and arrested because of her name and appearance.

So all in all it was actually a very instructive holiday for daughter. A lesson in the absence of the rule of law in the treatment of certain world citizens.

Shereen Pandit is a writer and poet

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