I'm on a day trip by coach to Europe, and as I leave the coach at customs' routine request, I joke with passengers and officers, "Its because I'm young, and Irish!"
The twenty-five minutes they spend questioning me is unnecessarry. I provide my passport, student and university staff cards, as quickly as asked. When I return, I get a round of applause upon return and kind consoling words from a number. Consensus is a senior officer is putting young recruits through a training exercise. we've missed the Eurotunnel sailing and have to wait another twenty minutes. I wonder if perhaps is it just that a friend booked the ticket? Or is it age-ism, or my status as British-Irish which has made me the target of segmentation and racial profiling.
"Customs officials have more power here than anywhere else" says the driver in resignation, as he moves to his seat.
An elderly lady I've gotten to know over a few trips sits forward in her seat. She tells me of an unemployment benefit claimant on one of these trips who was asked "Where did you get that money?....So that belongs to the state, its not yours. Someone I spoke to said he was told, "you have no right to that tobacco". It was confiscated. I'm skeptical, but stranger things have happened, and several other customers confirm the story.
The service provider is a small though progressive travel agency. Among their regular services, this route caters for mostly retired pensioners. On this particular trip I'm the youngest traveller at 35, everyone else is over sixty. The journey takes us to a hypermarket and a well-known European tobacco shop. In my four trips with this operator, I see the same faces again and again. I ask them why they come out here so often? Mostly, its to escape the isolation of living alone and to see these familiar faces from different towns. The service fosters a kind of extended family and community away-day.
Upon our return we pass through Calais UK customs and Immigration office. I breathe a sigh of relief as I get through, admitting to the customs officer that I brought three and a half kilos of rolling tobacco. The recommended allowance is three kilos. Hes done a drugs check and lets it pass. I board the coach and soon discover officers have detained five passengers. We wait an hour and a half before the pensioners are released.
"I don't think I'll do this again", says a grandmother behind me.
Talk is all around the coach expressing fears that they could stop people coming from the UK to Belgium on these sorts of trips. On a previous excursion, I'm told, passengers waited an hour for one girl. When she emerged from the office she was crying her eyes out. "*****'s wife used to join us. They kept her in for questioning one time. She never came back on the trips again." The passenger's wife passed away.
While we're waiting, the driver remarks on meeting company schedules. We can't leave. Customs will turn coaches around if they try to leave delayed passengers, he tells us. "They don't want the responsibility of taking people to Calais..they'll strip the coach and confiscate passports. We're caught between the devil and the deep blue sea."
The driver had hoped to be back at the yard for 11pm, instead he'll be home after 1. He was due another 10hrs driving daytrip tomorrow at 9am.
"They're a law unto themselves. They have more power than the police have got. A mate of mine had his tobacco confiscated" says one of the passengers. I'm told how he successfully appealed against the decision, but had to travel ***100 miles*** to Dover to collect his tobacco. When he arrived, customs hadn't kept the appointment that was set. They sent him a cheque out for the amount he had spent in Sterling, ignoring travelling expenses.
"They see the destination on the front of the bus and decide, thats it, we'll hold them. We'll have some of theirs".
People are beginning to disappear from this unique group, and new friends are warned off. The detained begin to emerge, and later on in the coach I make a point of talking to them. Two seated together included a man in his seventies with a walking stick and an elderly coloured woman. It certainly seems to further the suggestions of ethnic selection and racial discrimination. They described to me what happened in the interviews. "You're not working? How did you get this money? Are you going to smoke all those yourself? Are you travelling alone? Shes not your friend! How do you know that she is?" The pensioner communicated to me that the procedure was quite a lot of duress. When it ended, the officer left the room, and returned minutes later. He said "I can confiscate these goods, or you can submit to another interview". The pensioner informed him he would submit to another interview. At this point the offier began to fill in a new form, and stopped. I was told how he erupted at the man, "You're a liar! You're taking the piss!" the officer yelled at him. He scrumpled the form up on the table and left the room, leaving the interviewee alone.
"It was about ten by ten" he tells me on the size of the room. The elderly working class man, who cannot walk without the aid of a stick, left after a while, saying he found the surroundings oppressive. When he met with officers outside the room he was told he would be sent papers to return to Dover for another interview in thirty days.
"And yourself?" I ask the lady. Asides from myself, she is the only other person on the coach that could be interpreted as of non-English origin.
"They told her she could have an interview but they were going to take her tobacco anyway." says her partner.
The officer began to ask her questions, and she told me that at first she refused to say anything. "He began to write down notes. I said 'I didn't say anything. Why are you writing down answers that I haven't given you?'"
The gent travelling alone is a regular, and he seems less angry by comparison but this later reveals itself as shock. "you could see it in his face, he'd lost everything". I agree, he looks like hes just been robbed, and has little in the way of savings.
"There was a recording device in the room, but they didn't switch it on", he tells me. "Is this your credit card? Where do you get your money from?"
"They just took it away. They said how can it all be for you?"
I ask the three pensioners, did you try to bring over the legal limit? Each of them tells me they hadn't. In each case, the tobacco is confiscated, the reason given: "thats not all for you". In several instances, of the five interrogated it was heavily implied by customs that each fortnight they travelled they brought back full caseloads, and to sell these.
I don't quite understand if these confiscations are actions with any basis in legality. The pensioners were too upset and traumatised to request names or badge details from the officers.
Several travellers including myself plan on communicating with their MPs, and the internet has already been contacted. You can make it better by linking to this url, voting for it on Digg and Technocrati, legitimise it further with own expanding research. I will try to respond to queries, privacy and personal priority respected.