I’ve written before about how it is a privilege to travel by air, which is why I try not to complain too much about the inconveniences many of us experience while at the airport. I’ve decided to write about negative airport experiences again because of the unfortunate incident encountered by former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, who was initially barred from entering Hong Kong on 21 May because she was deemed a security risk.
Now, to be fair, this is not an experience most of us will have. Very few of us are high-profile VIPs whose actions have such far-reaching consequences that another nation would feel threatened by them. (I am obliged to disclose that immigration officials in Hong Kong later stated that former Ombudsman Morales was held and barred by mistake, though some in our country believe that her experience was prompted by the communication she sent to the International Criminal Court in March.) Still, do most of us know what to do when we are held by immigration at the airport?
Immigration laws vary by country and, in some nations, even by state. In general, I would advise all persons who receive special attention from immigration authorities to comply with their instructions and answer their inquiries truthfully. As intrusive as the experience may be, immigration authorities are merely fulfilling their vital function of ensuring security. However, be attentive and take note of everything you experience. Do not sign anything until you have the chance to consult an attorney. Before you travel, make sure that your family and close friends know of your travel plans and insist that they be informed if you are detained. Ask that you be put in touch with our embassy, or if you are allowed to speak only to your family or attorney, ask that they contact our diplomatic corps.
What if you are banned from entering a country? You can question the decision to bar you and at least ask to be informed of its basis, but unfortunately you cannot demand that you be allowed into the country. Under the international law principle of sovereign equality of states, we are all bound to respect the actions of other nations within their territory as a general rule, and immigration falls under that general rule. This does not mean that immigration officials cannot change their minds about the decision to bar you: former Ombudsman Morales was eventually permitted to enter Hong Kong after several hours of their immigration officials and our own authorities trying to understand the grounds for denying her entry. (Understandably, she was no longer inclined to proceed with her stay in Hong Kong and she and her family opted to return to the Philippines.)
I hope none of my readers ever have the experience of being detained by immigration or being barred from entering a foreign country, but on the off chance it happens, hopefully this column will help you face the situation with more calm. Safe travels!