Wednesday, July 05, 2017

I, too, was harassed at Georgia airport. My letter to Sushma Swaraj


http://www.dailyo.in/voices/sushma-swaraj-georgia-airport-harassment-tourism/story/1/18174.html

I read this story on DailyO  and I was surprised because I too had faced a similar experience. This is the letter I write to external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj.

Dear ma'am,

I want to bring to your notice a critical issue that concerns all Indians visiting Georgia.

I was invited to attend an international urban design workshop in the country. Upon arriving at Tbilisi airport on May 14, I was denied entry and humiliated no end, treated like a terrorist and sent back home. Why? Because I am an Indian.

That day, I lost not only money but also my dignity.

The five-day workshop required me to study the courtyards of the older part of Tbilisi and prepare urban design proposals for the future of the city. The workshop was sponsored and hence free of cost, and I was visiting as a student. And so I planned a 12-day stay and applied for a tourist visa, which I got in three days.

On the day of my departure from Delhi, at the check-in counter, I was cautioned by the airport staff that the Georgian airport authorities had been sending several passengers back. They advised me to talk to the immigration authorities.

I then proceeded to show them the requisite documents - the visa, invitation letter - and cash and credit cards, confident that I had everything in place. My trip to Georgia was to begin.

Following a 21-hour layover at Almaty in Kazakhstan, I boarded the flight to Tbilisi. Upon reaching the Georgian airport, I joined the immigration queue like any other passenger.

No sooner had I stood there than a woman staffer asked me to move to the last counter, which had no queue nor other passengers.

The immigration officer stationed here asked for my travel papers and inquired about my arrival. I told him I was a participant at an international workshop and handed him the invitation letter.

He then asked me what the event was about and my duration of stay. I answered every one of his questions patiently and showed him the tickets. He probed if I was there to teach and I replied that I was only there to explore the courtyards.

I was then told to sit in a chair near the counter. After some time, another officer emerged from a nearby cabin and asked, "Mister, why are you here?" in a tone which was anything but polite.

To my utter shock, I was informed by the officer that I had been refused entry into Georgia.

When I asked to know the reason, he did not entertain my query. I asked again and he promptly told me go to my seat and wait. When I persisted, the officer's tone turned worse than rude.

He told me that another officer would answer my questions, but that never happened. When I approached the counter yet again, I was told I needed a business visa, not a tourist one.

I showed him a list of my workshop fellows, with their numbers and nationalities - every one of them was visiting on a tourist visa.

The officer now asked me if the workshop had any other Indian participant. I was the only Indian invitee. I tried to reason with him that no monetary transaction was involved and hence there was no context to seek a business visa.

He ignored my pleas and called a cop. I even requested him to call the organisers or to let me call them so they could clarify, but the officer pointedly refused, saying it wasn't necessary.

The policeman rudely directed me to follow him. In two minutes, I was made a criminal in a foreign country. The airport staff were prepared to put me on the flight back to India.

By now, everyone's behaviour had changed for the worse - from the immigration officers to the security personnel who frisked me to the staff who checked in my luggage. I was told my check-in baggage would be sent back in the same flight.

Without a chance to explain my situation, I was asked to board the flight to Almaty. I was exasperated, but the nightmare was far from over. Upon reaching the layover airport, I found that my luggage was nowhere to be found.

After some time, the airport authorities traced the bag in Georgia. My luggage was in Georgia, where I was denied entry, and I was in Kazakhstan.

15 hours later, I reached Delhi without my luggage. There, at the gate, I was taken to the immigration counter to fill few deportation forms. Three hours later, I was speaking to a immigration officer. He was supportive and told me that Georgia was indeed deporting Indians from the Tbilisi airport.

Finally, after two days of the harassment I was back home. My luggage arrived a week later, on May 24.

When I looked for similar incidents online, I realised there was a pattern to what was happening at Georgia. A Muslim expat was similarly harassed and thrown out because of his beard.

Apart from this, I saw forums full of people complaining that most Indians had been refused entry into the country without any explanation.
04/07/17 Nipun Prabhakar/DailyO

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