Claire Harris

I Was Strip-Searched at an Airport

(Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash)

Flying back from Los Angeles, I was strip-searched, one of the most terrifying and dehumanizing ordeals of my life. When you’re deemed a security risk, your rights disappear.

 

I write this as a white woman who will never receive the level of scrutiny that others do. I don’t often get singled out by security personnel or police—and certainly not now that I’ve entered my thirties and can list “finance” as my occupation on mandatory forms.

But back when I was a twenty-year-old solo traveler with dreadlocks, I guess it was less surprising that I was pulled over for a random drug search at Christchurch Airport.

I’d been traveling for a year and was on the home run back to Australia via the United States, Cuba, and New Zealand—the latter being where my relatives live. It was Cuba that attracted attention, not of the sniffer dogs, but of the young customs officer who checked my immigration card.

“Have you ever taken drugs?” he asked.

“What, in my whole life?” I asked.

“Just answer the question,’” he snapped.

It was six in the morning and I’d rolled off a long-haul flight from Los Angeles with very little sleep. As my first run-in with the law, this was a surreal experience. I was also terrified.

When the interrogation of all the drugs I’d ever sniffed, snorted, smoked, or swallowed continued, I had no idea whether my answers could see me arrested for a crime. A few steps away, some British tourists were giving a detailed description of an ecstasy-fueled party they’d attended some years before on the opposite side of the world.

“Not recently,” I said, while the officer emptied the contents of my backpack, item by item.

“What’s this?” he said, picking up a book by the corners as though it carried a disease. The book was Junky by William S. Burroughs.

“It’s a—it’s a classic,” I stammered.

His response was to swab test my bag. We stood in awkward silence for a moment until his machine started beeping vehemently.

“When was the last time you came into contact with heroin?” was his next question.

I froze. “I’ve never even seen heroin.” My voice came out so small and thin I could barely hear it myself.

My mind raced with thoughts of Schapelle Corby, the Australian who had recently been imprisoned in Bali after drugs were found in her luggage at the airport. Throughout her very public trial, she maintained that she was the victim of a drug-smuggling ring run by airport staff.

What if she was right? I wondered. On our flight, the pilot had actually joked that he hoped no one was trying to “pull a Schapelle.” It now seemed like the worst joke possible.

The officer coldly informed me that I would have to be strip-searched.

Brushing off the tears that I couldn’t stop from rolling down my cheeks, I asked if there was an alternative. “Can I say no?”

He explained that I could appeal the decision to a higher authority within the airport—but most likely this would take hours and the outcome would still be that I was strip-searched. I was not given any other option.

 

Something in my soul had snapped—my first experience of being treated not as a human being but simply a problem that needs to be resolved.

 

By this stage, I had already been held for over an hour—during which time, I repeatedly asked for someone to let my cousin know what was happening. She was waiting to pick me up from the airport and I didn’t have a mobile phone to contact her.

“Yes, yes,” the officer was growing impatient with my demands.

But no one was sent to tell her. Instead, two stern women arrived to escort me to a small room off to one side.

“Take your clothes off,” was the order.

I stripped down to my underwear.

“Those too,” one of the officers said.

A knot tightened in my chest at the sudden realization that a strip search meant taking off everything. I almost laughed at my own naivete.

The embarrassment I had felt over strangers seeing my underwear disappeared—because far worse was the fact that I had my period. Of course, I did.

The woman directed me to stand facing the wall with my legs apart and my palms flat against the concrete, as they examined my body and sifted through my clothes and my underwear to determine there were no traces of heroin. They took my arms and scoured them for signs of intravenous drug use.

“I don’t have track marks,” I said.

The female officer twisted my elbow and pointed to sores that were scabbing over on the inside of my upper arm, where a jellyfish tentacle had clung to my skin a few weeks previously. The swelling had all gone down but only those speckled marks remained.

“Oh yeah? What do you call these?” she said.

“I was stung by a jellyfish in Cuba.”

The woman leaned into my face and shouted, “AND WHAT WERE YOU DOING IN CUBA?!”

“I was on holiday,” I sobbed.

The women shoved my things towards me so I could get dressed.

Back at the desk, I waited in silence once again with the original officer while the contents of my bag lay strewn from one end to the other. Finally, he got the call.

“Negative,” he said. “Pack your bag and go.”

“That’s it?”

The man was only a couple of years older than I was. I searched in his eyes for sympathy, for some acknowledgement that I wasn’t the hardened criminal they treated me as—but found none. He didn’t even look at me as I struggled to squash my dirty clothes back into my bag and lean on it to do up the zipper.

All I wanted was to get out of that airport and into the safety of my cousin’s home, but I had to know something: “What about the swab test? Why was it positive?”

He responded with an uninterested shrug. “Could be heroin, could be spilled cosmetics.”

Spilled cosmetics? My outrage finally trumped the humiliation I felt. “But surely if you test any woman’s bag …”

“You can go,” he repeated, staring at the wall above my head. “Go now.”

I shuffled past the next person awaiting their security inspection.

Something in my soul had snapped—my first experience of being treated not as a human being but simply a problem that needs to be resolved.

It is a feeling that many of my fellow human beings live with every day.

 

This post was originally published on Medium. You can check out more of Claire’s work here.

 

Claire Harris

Claire Harris is a writer in exile who has spent the last decade traveling and working around the world. This is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds and usually involves scraping by on a diet of muesli and cheap wine. Occasionally together.

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