On Trial: Racial Profiling in Europe

First published on The Huffington Post (23rd July 2013) //

In March last year, the German administrative court in Koblenz deemed it legal to carry out identity checks based on an individual’s skin colour alone.

Apparently, what had eluded this Judge was a keener interest in the golden rule. Consider.

Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights: The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

We can only assume that, leaning over his breakfast, the Judge had had a difficult morning wrestling with this most intricate of dilemmas, had subsequently misplaced his buttered Semmel amidst the confusion, and, now starved, decided in his delirium to settle the issue with finality by producing from his undercloth a two-cent piece.

‘Heads’ (the Coppered Map of Europe) and he would read the Declaration of Human Rights, whereas ‘Tails’ (the oak twig) meant he wouldn’t. Either way he would quickly source some breakfast.

Gnawing his lips, he impatiently flipped the coin into space.

And, as he watched it turning through the air, a small voice nestled within the chambers of his mind repeated: “No person shall be favoured or disfavoured because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith, or religious or political opinions.” The Judge nibbled harder to drown out the tinnitus.

Eventually the coin landed, amongst speckled crumbs between his slippers – its dull shine presenting to him an inexpensive reminder of our fine European Union; all of which of course meant there would be no light reading today.

Satisfied by the coin’s ruling, he quickly dressed himself for court and scurried out of his chambers. Then, upon delivering his verdict, improvising that where racial profiling was concerned there was “only a slight impairment of fundamental rights”, he quickly re-entered his office and locked himself within a conveniently-placed antique armoire where he stood for a while pleasantly observing time pass.

Months later – October that year, to be precise – he fitfully removed himself from that self-same armoire, and, when taking to his eyes that peculiar sunlight, saw immediately he was now blinking at a world somehow irrevocably changed.

In his unexplained absence, the Judge soon found out, another coin had been flipped.

‘Tails’, it had said.

Again, the coin had spoken.

And it had spoken to me, too. For I myself, along with countless other enchanted participants, was soon a grateful subject of this ‘overturned’ flipping.

Waiting in the train station at Landshut beside my Malaysian father and my Irish mother, we watched as a police wagon pulled up, gratefully blocking the view of this jaunty Bavarian town now hidden beyond the window.

The hour was late, and our train indefinitely delayed. Only three other individuals were sat nearby; young, student-types, each slowly swallowing Subway sandwiches. It was a palpably exciting occasion, and we could all feel it, sat there, staring at an irrelevant clock.

The finely-uniformed Officer appeared at the entrance-way and idled in between a narrow opening of the glass doors. He paused and looked about him. He readjusted his holster.

It was then that he and I made accidental contact. His eyes narrowed; mine blinked. He seemed to know me – an old acquaintance he perhaps privately despised – for he then serenely stepped over with a difficult expression masked to his face.

“Passports,” he said.

My father instantly displayed his papers, familiar with these invitations from a brief stint nesting in Hamburg, circa 1977, while en route to London.

I, meanwhile, explained that I didn’t have mine about me.

“I live here,” I said, in exchange for their absence.

The Officer diligently checked the geometry of my father’s face to my father’s photograph, then my father’s photograph to my father’s face, and back again.

Mistakenly, it seemed, my father had also offered over my mother’s passport, the silent owner of which was seated directly across, eating her sandwich. With a single, trained glance, the Officer seemed to find the matter of trifling interest.

Criminals are oftentimes male, I deduced. And my father and I were males.

He looked at my father.

“Why are you in Germany?” the Officer asked, his language reassuringly German.

It was a good question that I pondered for myself.

Meanwhile, my father replied: “We’re on holiday, visiting my son.”

He gestured to his mute son.

At this juncture there was much handing back and forth of paperwork, the shifting of eyes and the exchanging of breath. After all was through, the Officer turned his affections to the son.

“I don’t have it on me,” I repeated without enquiry. “I live here.”

“Where do you live?”


“Where are you going?” He was intrigued.


I produced a provisional UK driver’s license.

“Nuremberg,” he repeated, staring at my faces.

“Nuremberg,” I re-repeated.

When he’d returned the little ID to my waiting hand, the Officer briefly surveilled the three individuals nibbling their hand-made sandwiches. I shared the view. I nodded, to tempt him, as if to say, ‘Look. An immigrant.’ But he wasn’t having that. Perhaps it was because neither my father nor I was in the process of consuming warmed-over meat-balls, I thought, that the Officer had questioned our legal basis for existence.

I am unsure whether any of this stands to reason.

A few days ago, my parents now safely home, I witnessed the same treatment on a train; two fellow passengers, male, chatty, travelling from Munich to Nuremberg, seated a few rows away.

The transport police, doing their rounds of the upper deck, stopped suddenly mid-stride, perhaps noticing some anomaly.

Surrounded by passengers on all sides, the two men confusedly paused their discussion for a familiar scene to ensue.

“Passport, please,” the Border Force officer says, both us confined within City Airport.

I am going back where I belong; a paragon of this most proficient ‘Not Welcome’ policy, I had soon rearranged my things and departed for England, where the air is keen, clear, abundant and intoxicating.

It is a most efficient policy I was the faithful subject to, and one that I see has been handily re-appropriated in the United Kingdom, readily and freely applied to her own citizens. ‘Not Welcome’, the same message; ‘Stop and Search’, the procedure.

I can only assume, outside an antique armoire someplace, the coins are waiting to be re-flipped.