Written by Hein Adamson
Humane Airports is an initiative with a global presence, on-line representation across several social media platforms and an on-line petition. It was created to bring attention to and raise awareness of “Harassment, abuse and racial profiling” at Frankfurt Airport and later, airports across the world. It is a platform designed to support and encourage people to speak out when they see injustice happening at airports where we are especially vulnerable to mistreatment.
In most cases, we are hungry, tired and disoriented from long hours of travel, we are in a foreign land without any benevolent contact, we are surrounded by indifference and may not speak or even understand the local language. It is one of the circumstances in which it most incumbent upon figures of authority, if our safety and peace of mind is their primary concern, to guide and direct us with thoughtfulness and consideration, with a gentle hand. Yet, it is here when we often find ourselves at the mercy of insensitive and brutish handling, with no recourse and none to whom we might make an appeal.
The incident which inspired he Humane Airports movement, happened at Frankfurt Airport March 22, 2020, when Mohanji, philanthropist, humanitarian, and all round good guy; a selfless man if ever the world has seen one, was stopped at a security check point after an all night flight from Mumbai, on his way to Slovenia . In a trice, he was surrounded by airport security and within a few minutes, Frankfurt assault police, who proceeded to search his person and belongings; entirely emptying his bags and wallet of their contents, roughly casting his things about, and asking rude, intrusive questions about his wife and daughter, photographs of whom he was carrying. They asked questions about the money he had on hand; where it came from, what it was for, and how much he had. Probing of this nature is considered rude if not taboo in most of the Modern West. His luggage was swabbed and wiped in an attempt to determine whether they contained chemical residue associated with explosive substances. All was done without explanation and with blatant disregard for the personal and financial value of his belongings, his dignity, and the value of his time. The event took at least forty-five minutes to play out. There were no other travellers being subjected to similar, extraordinarily detailed and invasive security measures. Most were going through the usual security procedures which lasted for five, maybe ten minutes.
What set him apart then, from the other travellers at the airport that day? What drew the attention of airport authorities and local constabulary to him particularly and not someone else? Why the abrasive manner in which they handled and spoke to him, despite his own consistently polite if perplexed manner? Today, we like to assume open-mindedness and acceptance across the board. Tolerance, at the very least, is something we have come to expect from an educated, modern human with a modicum of sensitivity and intelligence. So, what triggered this incident of harassment? Suspicion and mistrust obviously, perhaps even paranoia. Would it have happened if he wasn’t an Indian man, with an Indian complexion, with long hair and a full beard, travelling in business class and carrying money with him, with photographs of a Caucasian wife and mixed-race daughter in his wallet? We may be forced to confront the difficult-to-swallow reality, that it would likely not have happened if he was a white man and conclude that he was assumed to have dangerous or even murderous intent, assumed to be guilty, based on the simple fact of his race and skin colour, which made the airport staff and police feel justified in their rough handling of this man – prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, racism. In polite society: “racial profiling”.
Christopher Greenwood, executive assistant to Mohanji, was there and witnessed it all. Being a seasoned traveller, he was immediately alert to the unusual and unusually harsh nature of what was happening. It goes without saying that he was appropriately shocked, appalled, and outraged by what he saw. He wrote to Frankfurt police, reporting the details of the incident (correspondence will be included at the end of this article). The response was a flaccid, noncommittal justification their behaviour as legally appropriate and a blatant refusal to acknowledge their undignified ill-treatment of a decent man.
After some research and a deeper look into the matter, he found that it was not an isolated incident and especially not so at that particular airport. He found several on-line reports of similar occurrences at Frankfurt Airport, and later, airports all over the world, all of which seemed to have racial biases at their root.
The internet is replete with reports of racism at Frankfurt Airport, Canadian airports also make frequent apperances on the list; reviews non TripAdvisor and Trustpilot review sites, personal blogs, and an online news outlet in India, all speak for themselves. One need only Google “racism at Frankfurt Airport” or “racist incidents at Airports” to see how common this kind of harassment is. Two particularly telling incidents at Frankfurt were the forced undressing of an Indian woman in front of her 4 year old child to check whether she was carrying anything in her garments. Another Indian woman was forced to show her breast in oder to prove that she was lactating, because she was breast-feeding at the time, but was not with her infant and instead travelled with an electronic breast pump, which aroused suspicion when it was run through the x-ray machine.
Along with letters to Frankfurt police, letters were sent to several on-line platforms and news outlets and were ignored. The source, tone, and content of such letters aside, when their purpose is to address and thereby reduce racism or other forms of bigotry; to bridge the gaps between people, then they are more than letters of complaint, they are appeals to humanity and the lack of traction they found indicates a widespread complacency towards divisive human attitudes.
It was becoming clear that discrimination and racial profiling, endemic to airports today, is a systemic problem, mostly glossed over or ignored entirely, and needs to be addressed to the highest of authorities on the broadest possible scale. This is what Humane Airports is attempting to do. As with any challenge which we face individually and collectively, mere complaint will affect no changes; solutions inspired by a grander and more human vision must be offered. From the Humane Airports website:
“Air travel can become a pleasurable experience once again by making basic changes in the attitude of the people who handle passengers. If policy and training have developed this callous and de-humanising effect we see today, equally policy and training can create a whole new experience for a passenger.
We have many great solutions to these issues. Some of our most simple solutions are listed below:
- Acceptance of oneself and others with respect. Treat others how you would like to be treated.
- Feel the people (not physically) rather than “see” them. People have travelled from far and often sleepless and are anxious to catch their connecting flight.
- Prevention is better than cure. A detailed list of unacceptable materials in their carry bags can prevent microdissection at transit airports. Decide what is impermissible and through airlines, ensure the passengers are aware. That will make things easier.
- ASK. Ask who they are and such details politely before interrogation and dissection of their materials. When you know the profile of the passenger, it is easier to understand the materials that they carry. The airline also can add the profile in the boarding pass as CIP, VIP, VVIP, etc.
- Respect. The security staff should be trained in hospitality too. Respecting automatically helps interrogation. Assault police accompaniment while dissecting bags will only create fear and confusion in unsuspecting passengers.”
The campaign for humane treatment of travellers represents a campaign for a shift in the attitude of airline institutions and their governing bodies, and is fuelled by the determination not to remain silent in the face of insensitivity and discrimination. Speaking out has great value; ours are not simply lone voices quacking into the void, but are potent vehicles for change, perhaps the best vehicles for change at our disposal.
The Humane Airports petition to “End racial profiling and passenger harassment at Frankfurt Airport,” on change.org can be found here:
If you know of or have experienced similar treatment, you can share your experience here: https://humaneairports.com/
The following are the correspondences which were exchanged with Frankfurt police:
Letter to Frankfurt Police:
Nachricht: I’m writing to report an incident of severe harassment by the security guards and police during a recent transit through Frankfurt Airport.
I was travelling with Mohanji (www.mohanji.org), a world-respected humanitarian and the founder of Mohanji Foundation, legally registered in many countries with activities spread over 5 continents.
Mohanji travelled business class, and I travelled economy. I went through security without a problem, but when I looked to see where Mohanji was, I saw him surrounded by the security guards and several police officers.
When I joined Mohanji at the security check, I could see all of Mohanji’s items were being thrown out of his bag one by one as the security guard checked for “explosives”. One by one they were removed and thrown into the tray like trash. Inside the bag was a wallet that contained cards and pictures of his wife, family, friends and saints. Each of these was taken out and discarded into the tray with utter contempt.
The police officers then rechecked every item, it was an interrogation, and as the attention grew from the other passengers in the security area, the situation became utter humiliation. They questioned every item, including why he was carrying money, which is completely unnecessary as a business traveller. Mohanji always carries a reasonable amount, usually not exceeding $5000 in cash as he does not use credit cards. And since he has activities in all continents, he used to be a frequent traveller pre-covid.
What was more embarrassing was the security guards and police officers attitude towards Mohanji, which was utter contempt for the colour of his skin. Not once did they ask who Mohanji was or the purpose of his trip.
I could see that Mohanji had prepared his items very well. His jacket, his laptop, charger, hard drives, electronics and connection cords had been taken out of the bags as per the norm and put in separate trays for security inspection well before this ordeal.
This distressing and unnecessary event lasted 45 minutes, and Mohanji was left in bewilderment, having landed in Frankfurt after a 9-hour overnight flight. This particular security guard who was determined to humiliate Mohanji took the steel water bottle that Mohanji always carries as he tends to dehydrate during flights, claiming that there is water in it and threw it away. Apart from the lack of respect, it was utter contempt and racial discrimination that happened there. Every single part of the bag was opened, its contents thrown into a tray and finally, not finding any “explosives”, gave us the tray to pack back, which was not possible. We put everything inside as best as we could and left the place.
A more detailed report has already been sent to our government authorities as well.
Do let us know about the forward actions. I have included the flight details.
Executive Assistant to Mohanji
Frankfurt Police Response:
PLEASE NOTE. THE ORIGINAL RESPONSE WAS SENT IN GERMAN. The below is translated using Google Translate.
Federal Police Department Frankfurt am Main Airport Frankfurt am Main, April 21, 2021
Subject area 14 – Complaints Office
Ref .: SB 14 – 21 02 04_041 / 2021_Greenwood
Dear Christopher Greenwood,
in answer to your complaint, I can provide you with the following information. But first of all please allow me to give you the information that we are requested by official order to answer all complaints in German. I am sorry and kindly ask you for understanding.
My chief, Police Director [name removed], asked me to answer you regarding your complaint.
Dear Mr. Greenwood,
Your message to the Federal Police Headquarters in Potsdam has been forwarded to the Federal Police Directorate at Frankfurt Airport for reasons of responsibility. They complain that there should have been inconsistencies in the follow-up inspection of his hand luggage at the air security check of Mr. Mohanji on March 22, 2021 in Pier A of Frankfurt Airport. In this context you accuse the aviation security assistants and federal police officers involved of harassing and racially motivated behavior towards Mr Mohanji.
I would like to answer your impressions as follows. The following principles must first be observed with regard to the control modalities for identity checks:
The control of passengers and their hand luggage is carried out, among other things, on the basis of EU regulations, in which basic and detailed measures for the implementation of EU uniform standards in aviation security are specified. To this end, the National Aviation Security Program sets out further binding specifications in its annexes for the content-related, methodological and technical implementation of the controls of passengers, hand luggage and checked baggage in accordance with Section 5 of the Aviation Security Act. The Federal Police, as the aviation security authority responsible for defending against attacks on the security of air traffic, is bound by these legal norms and laws and, in this capacity, uses aviation security assistants from private security companies to whom it has entrusted the implementation of the aviation security checks.
When carrying out the aviation security checks, the aviation security assistants adhere to procedures that are standardized by the Federal Ministry of the Interior for all aviation security checks at German airports.
According to this, the aviation security checks should be carried out thoroughly; In this respect, temporal components must not play a role. The aviation security assistants are responsible for ensuring that passengers and their hand luggage are completely checked using technical equipment and, if necessary, manually.
This has happened in the case of Mr Mohanji. A follow-up check of hand luggage is always carried out in the presence of the passenger. For this follow-up check, it is permissible for the passenger to open his baggage himself when requested by the employee and to assist with the search if the employee asks him to do so. After the check has been completed, the passenger puts the items back in his luggage and locks it independently.
Furthermore, a so-called “ETD control” must be carried out to the greatest possible extent. This involves checking for traces of explosives on hand luggage and other objects and, if applicable, on the passenger’s body. If this check is positive, the federal police will be involved in a risk assessment.
Such a control, which was negative, was carried out on Mr. Mohanji. After the procedure was completed, you and Mr. Mohanji had the opportunity to put the checked items back into Mr. Mohanji’s backpack.
The control procedure you complained about does not deviate from the procedure ordered and ultimately serves the safety of passengers in air traffic.
With regard to the water bottle that you are taking with you, I would like to inform you that, in accordance with the above-mentioned EU regulations on the uniform design of aviation security checks, it may not be taken with you, as it apparently contained more than 100 ml. The decision of the aviation security assistant to refuse to take the bottle with you is therefore not objectionable. I also refer you to generally applicable information and advice for air travelers.
Contrary to your assertion that “this agonizing and unnecessary process lasted 45 minutes”, the evaluation of the entire control situation only resulted in a time span of less than ten minutes.
With regard to the harassing and racist behavior of the aviation security assistants and federal police officers that you complained about, I would like to inform you that both the questioning of the employees involved and the video-visual evaluation of this control situation did not show any signs of confirming your allegations.
For the federal police officers called in, the ETD control of Mr Mohanji’s hand luggage was a matter that took place several times a day and was handled by the officers in a routine, calm and careful manner. There were never any racially motivated verbal attacks against Mr. Mohanji.
I therefore expressly contradict your appearance of a racially motivated and harassing control by the employees involved.
Dear Mr. Greenwood, in conclusion, I would like to emphasize once again that the Federal Police Department at Frankfurt am Main Airport is always concerned about the lawfulness and correct behavior of the officers. I hope that the police measures have been presented transparently to you.
With best regards
Humane Airports Counter Response:
Sub: Harassment of Mohanji at Frankfurt Airport
Dear Mr. xxxxx,
Thank you for the detailed reply to our message dated 24th March 2021.
We are not here to blame you or your system of screening in your airports. Our aim and effort is to make sure that passengers are treated ethically, humanely and with respect irrespective of their class and the colour of their skin until and unless proven guilty or illegal by any means. This point has not been addressed in your reply at all. What a regular passenger expects in any airport is respectful behaviour.
We would like to point out rank disorders in the whole process which you have mentioned here. We understand from your letter that the entire harassment was in the name of “security”, which gives license to your employees to be rude, harass, and embarrass a passenger to no end and that you would justify them in the name of approved law. This is what we understand in your letter.
We would like to point out a few things:
- Human Rights(one need not go further than referring to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights valid from 1948 and the European Convention of Human Rights valid since 1953 till date).
- Ethical (Respectful) Treatment of people, in this case, passengers.
- Right attitude or behaviour towards passengers.
- Importance of understanding the background of the passengers before behaving with arrogance, contempt and racial discrimination.
You have mentioned that a thorough check of hand baggage is a norm. I had witnessed that many people in line for security check before or after Mohanji were not subjected to this kind of “thorough checks”. Why was Mohanji singled out? Is it not his skin colour that was bothering your security assistant? Was it not racial discrimination? The way he behaved with Mohanji was totally disrespectful and even contemptuous. I was there, and I saw it with my own eyes.
You have mentioned that this is normal and that this has happened to many people. If it happened to many people, it is outright shameful and shows in bad light your standard of ethics. You have also mentioned that it is well within your law to treat passengers in this way. Did you ever feel that you need to reassess this situation? You never mentioned that they could always first understand the background, position, social relevance or at least who the passenger is in this world. A thorough check need not be done disrespectfully, or is that also outside your law? We are sure EU Law is not made for Neanderthals but civilised human beings.
There are numerous complaints about your airport on the Internet, and if you think this is fine or turn a blind eye, we are determined to take it to any level possible because what has happened to Mohanji twice at your airport, even though you may consider it as “normal” is terribly abnormal for most of the civilised world. We have also taken this up with United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, and we will be sending you a copy of our communications with them too. And until ethical behaviour becomes a norm in your airport, we shall involve all possible bodies to drive this point home as much as we can.
Simple things like Mohanji’s water bottle having a capacity of over 100ml became unbearable to your staff, even when the bottle was empty. Did the security assistant ask at least once why is Mohanji carrying the bottle with him? As mentioned before, Mohanji is on a particular medication that makes him dehydrated very frequently. And even if I were to agree that the bottle had to be confiscated, does the law require the officer to throw it away abruptly? Is it not possible for him to talk to the passenger, explain the constraints politely and then take whatever actions are required? This is yet another example of a lack of ethics and a rigidity that can’t be justified. Is treating passengers without any ethics, without even knowing their health condition, the proper behaviour? And this is a transit passenger, bear in mind.
You did mention that the time taken for the procedure was less than what we have stated. Of course, we did not count the specific time amidst the harassment that Mohanji went through or the entire experience from the beginning of the security check process till the end. We might be wrong. But considering how unpleasant this was, it surely did feel like an eternity, especially after a 9-hour overnight flight.
You justified your employee by saying he did the procedure in a “calm and careful” manner. Absolutely not. This is definitely not how Mohanji would have experienced it and not how I witnessed it. The security assistant was utterly rude while literally throwing the pictures of his wife, family and his reverential teacher into the tray. We do not call this “calm and careful”. We call it contemptuous and arrogant.
You have justified everything and conveniently hid it behind the cover of law. Even if the security assistant did not verbalise racially discriminative words, his body language and manner in which he was handling Mohanji was clearly discriminative, rude and unbefitting of any professional. But if ethical treatment of passengers, with basics of politeness, humane treatment and professionalism is not part of your law, it must be hereon. If the treatment is not ethical, it is not valid and cannot be justified. In a civilized world, treatment should be civilized as well. This incident has shown that suitable training and supervision of security staff at your airport, one that would include basic respect towards the passengers during security check, is not only needed but a must.
This is our point of view, and we remain committed to the cause of humane airports and humane treatment of all passengers until it becomes our experiential reality.
Mr. Christopher Greenwood