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They herded us into the aircraft like cattle

By Robtel Neajai Pailey

I thought I’d become immune to the indignities of travelling with an African passport, but an encounter last month proved me wrong.

After a series of meetings in Dakar, I travelled back to London via Madrid on a red-eye Iberia Airlines flight. Disembarking from the plane in Madrid in the early morning hours, I got separated from my white male European colleagues — an Austrian and Brit — and was directed by a stern-looking Spanish security agent to the “RSU” section of the airport to await a connecting flight to the UK. The flashing information screens designated “HJK” as the lounge area for my departure, however, so I resolved to go there.

In the surprisingly empty “All Other Passports/Non-EU Citizens” line, I approached two immigration officials dressed in dark uniforms wearing looks of disapproval. One of the officers, a bearded man with a cropped haircut, directed me to the “RSU” section of the airport. It was way too early in the morning for mishaps, so I tried to explain in my very broken, secondary school Spanish that according to the departure screens mounted in the air like flying saucers, I was supposed to be at the “HJK” gates instead.

Visibly annoyed, the bearded man flipped through the pages of my passport and informed me that I was clearly in the wrong place. He scribbled “RSU” at the bottom of my boarding pass and motioned for me to go back from whence I’d come.

Confused, I felt like a child who had been unfairly scolded. This man had no doubt seen the blue Schengen visa in my passport, which was valid for another seven months. By law, I was not only authorised to transit through Madrid but I could have gallivanted around Spain if I so chose. Nothing should have stopped me from passing through that immigration threshold undeterred.

Yet bigotry did.

I walked through the winding airport corridors to “RSU”, found an information counter and asked the cheerful woman at the booth which gates generally served London flights. She directed me to S48, but I was still unconvinced. When I received an e-mail alert from Iberia announcing H8 as my departure gate, I finally felt vindicated.

Moments later, however, the gate changed to S48, where I observed that the dozen or so passengers milling around were all black, all African. Suddenly, a petite woman barked at us aggressively, “Hurry, because you are going to delay our flight!!!” We had been sitting patiently for at least 15 minutes waiting to board the plane, so her outburst seemed misplaced. We were led down a nondescript stairwell to a bus, and the driver meandered through the airport tarmac with a succession of sharp turns. The whole thing felt eerie and clandestine at the crack of dawn, as if we were smuggled contraband.

The next few minutes were a whirlwind of clumsy movement and activity. The flight attendants herded us into the aircraft like cattle, insisting that we quickly prepare for departure. Confronted with limited overhead storage and a cramped aisle passage, we struggled to stash our luggage and find assigned seats swiftly. I caught a glimpse of my British colleague, and whispered that I had no idea what was going on. I also noticed the sea of mostly white faces staring back at me in confusion.

Then it hit me like a forceful blow to the head.

The Spanish authorities had deliberately erected two access points to the aircraft at diametrically opposite ends of the airport: one for people who looked like me (S48), and the other for people who looked like my colleague (H8). I felt rage and sadness first, followed by amusement. It seemed both appalling and laughable that they would go to such lengths to demean us, especially when Europeans generally travel effortlessly to and through Africa with their humanity intact.

Novelist Taiye Selasi gave an interesting TED talk about how our nationalities should not define how we engage with the world and how the world engages with us. Nina Glick-Schiller, a prominent migration scholar, previously took the argument further by arguing that academics should refrain from practising what she calls “methodological nationalism” by privileging the Westphalian nation-state as the sole unit of critical analysis.

But no matter how much we believe nationalities are social constructs that keep certain people in their place, we can’t escape migration regimes sanctioned by nation states. We can’t ignore geo-politics that rank countries along tiers of importance, in which the unconscionable actions of some nations appear more legitimate simply because they have economic and military might. We can’t dismiss mobility restrictions that deliberately humiliate one group while honouring another.

Truth be told, the age-old desire for movement is under threat more than ever before for Africans and some non-Africans alike. Muslims across the globe have understood for decades that even a Western passport does not shield one from explicit profiling or proposed bans. And as much as I’d like to be considered a “human being” first, inside and outside of international travel, my Liberian passport and all the social qualifiers that come with it — my race, gender, class — will continue to determine how I experience the world.

Yet, I neither pledge allegiance to the 50 stars of the United States nor genuflect to the queen of England, so the world must also engage with me on my own terms. Call me impractically defiant or defiantly impractical, but I don’t think I should have to change my nationality to travel with dignity. I simply will not.

Instead, it’s the built-in biases of international migration that must be interrogated. Not my passport.

Mobility is my birthright.

Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author of the anti-corruption children’s book, Gbagba. She currently serves as a senior researcher at the University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute.

This piece was originally published on the Africa Is a Country blog.


  • Archbishop Tutu Fellows comprise dynamic young African professionals awarded the fellowship in recognition of their leadership qualities and the role they are currently playing in contributing towards the continent’s development. The Tutu Fellows are practitioners spread across various social, political, economic, environmental and activist sectors throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last six years the Tutu fellows have formed a strong alumnus of leaders communicating across country borders with the aim of realising the potential and power of a truly pan-African continent. The opinions shared by the Archbishop Tutu Fellows are not necessarily those of the African Leadership Institute or of our patron, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.


  1. CapnVan CapnVan 27 January 2016

    “I don’t think I should have to change my nationality to travel with dignity.”

    A perfectly legitimate demand. Everyone has an inalienable right to be treated with dignity. Something, it seems, the Spanish authorities did not do.

    “Mobility is my birthright.”

    That, however, is ludicrous. No one has an inalienable right to cross country borders. The very fact that your passport bears a Schengen visa is, ipso facto, proof positive of it. You are there *by permission*. The fact that you carry a *passport*, in fact, is all the proof one needs.

    I have no inalienable right to visit Liberia. Generally speaking, Liberia is very welcoming. But the Liberian authorities have every right to declare me a prohibited person and refuse my admittance.

    You, and indeed, everyone, have every right to be treated with dignity. But terribly sorry, the reality is, no one has the right to go wherever they want, whenever they want.

  2. Richard Richard 28 January 2016

    Visas do not actually give a right of entry. It is up to the immigration authorities at the port of entry to make the final determination. A visa simply means that you have paid a fee, and there is no obvious legal impediment to your visit (like a criminal record, unpaid taxes meaning a likelihood of fleeing your own country, previous attempts at illegal immigrant, etc.) but it does not mean that you have to be allowed entry. As South Africa declines, so we are assessed as a higher risk for illegal migration. That is why visas are now required for the UK, for example. But, again, even with a visa, there is no right of entry.

  3. johnbpatson johnbpatson 29 January 2016

    I know the airport reasonably well and every day you see racially segregated groups around departure gates.
    It started after the Madrid train bombings.
    Whether it is better or worse having it so blatantly obvious compared to other airports with different, more insidious systems of racial profiling, I do not know.
    Still, if you want to avoid it, avoid Madrid.

  4. RodB RodB 2 February 2016

    My sympathies for Robtel but for what it is worth, I have travelled on Iberia, and I reckon you’re better off in Siberia.

    Baggage lost and rifled, a mission to get compensation and no individual seat-back screens on the way back to SA. Just drop-down screen which showed – in Spanish – how Parma Ham, or whatever it is called, is made.

    I am now an expert – sort of – in how to turn pork into ham – but won’t travel Iberia again. I run the risk of becoming an expert in bullfighting or something.

    However… While I too ‘neither pledge allegiance to the 50 stars of the United States nor genuflect to the queen of England’ I travel to a country on the airline of my choice and as the old adage goes ‘When in Rome…’ – so I adhere to the laws of the country in which I find myself.

    I have been subjected to a body search by some jumped up little wannabe ‘Hitler-lite’ British security officer – for wearing my hiking boots and having a metal key on me. And my appearance is a very definite ‘whitey’.

    No one can think more highly of him than I do, and I think he was, and is, a complete prick. Nevertheless, I most definitely do not subscribe to the belief that ‘the world must also engage with me on my own terms’.

    So next time I will carry my boots and ensure even my zip fasteners are non-metal.

    I travel on an EU passport, by the way.

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