Discrimination at the Airport

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A photo of Arjean Marie Belco from gmanetwork.com

Upon reading the story of a Filipina scholar who was barred from boarding a plane in Kuala Lumpur Airport, because of what is thought to be another case of discrimination, I was exasperated. Being a Filipina living in a foreign land where discrimination is still rampant, especially against South East Asians, I know how helpless and humiliated she must have felt when she was stopped and questioned by an airport employee for no good reason other than being “doubted” and “not ready to travel”.

The 18-year-old Filipina’s name is Arjean Marie Belco. She is a member of the Talaandig tribe of Bukidnon, Mindanao and is a travel scholar. She was on her way to Brazil to attend the World Youth Day, an international Catholic event to be held from July 23rd to 28th, but she almost didn’t get to her destination, because of the incident that happened on July 20th.

The incident was first posted on Facebook in a letter of complaint from Goodxorg, the nonprofit organization that raised funds for her trip, led by a Brazilian filmmaker and youth advocate, Luis Petzhold, and a Filipina lawyer and writer, Risa Halaguena.

According to Mr. Petzhold, Arjean went through the immigration in Malaysia without any problem, but when she headed to the KLM check-in counter for her next flight, she was not allowed to board on her connecting flight to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil via Amsterdam. A KLM employee, Mr. Shawa, and some of his colleagues told Arjean that they decided not to process her check-in.

Though she showed them a folder with full documentation proving her trip to Brazil, Mr. Shawa bombarded her with questions and statements such as:

“Why is your passport so new?”
“Your ticket is too cheap.”
“Your ticket was just purchased yesterday.”
“Why flying through Malaysia if there are flights from the Philippines?”
“How much money you have?”

Arjean and one of her sponsors from Goodxorg, who called KLM, explained that it was her first time to go abroad and she is a travel scholar attending the World Youth Day in Brazil; that she took a connecting flight, because it was approximately $1,000 cheaper than a direct flight. Mr. Shawa told the sponsor on the phone to “just buy another ticket” as there was nothing he could do. According to the sponsor, the employee was even laughing while he was explaining Arjean’s side.

Arjean had with her a bank statement from Cartwheel Foundation showing sufficiency of funds, $100 and 3,370 PHP for meal expenses before her connecting flights to Brazil and in case of emergency. She also gave the staff the address and contact information of the host family in Brazil she will be staying with. She asked the staff to call her sponsors in the Philippines, but her request was denied. The staff would not let her call the sponsors either. She was told that no calls would alter the decision previously made.

Goodxorg describes the incident as “unacceptable”, something that could be “perceived as a possible case of discrimination based on appearance, gender, ethnicity, nationality, age or social status”.

A Goodxorg official had to fly to Kuala Lumpur from Manila to make sure Arjean, who was stranded in Malaysia for two nights, would be allowed to fly out and get the proper treatment. Though he met with the KLM Ground Services Regional Station Manager for Malaysia and the Philippines, “No immediate solution was offered by KLM.”

On July 23rd, however, Goodxorg announced on another Facebook post:

We are happy to share that Arjean finally boarded her flight bound for Amsterdam en route to Rio on the late evening of July 22.

Despite Arjean’s unpleasant experience on her first trip abroad, she received tons of support and encouragement from Netizens who read her story. Her sponsors did not give up on her until she got to Brazil in time for the World Youth Day.

When I came to South Korea for the first time, I was also stopped at the immigration desk and was asked to go to the immigration office where I was interviewed. While I was waiting for my turn, a group of Filipinos, wearing the same vest which had the name of a certain company, was being interviewed by one of the immigration officials. At first, I was not nervous, because I thought that the interview was part of the check-in procedure for all first time travelers. Also, I came to Korea as a foreign guest teacher and I had all the documents necessary for my sponsored trip. When the immigration official started yelling and pointing his finger at the Filipinos, I got scared. He was shouting at them in Korean as if he was reprimanding a group of children who did something terrible. One of the Filipinos talked to him in Korean, perhaps, trying to explain their side, but the official shouted all the more. I had no idea what the hullabaloo was about, but even if those Filipinos were in the wrong, as a government official, he didn’t have the right to humiliate them or treat them that way. He could have talked to them instead of raising his voice. Those Filipinos looked more frightened than I was. Even if one of them tried to reason with the official, he would not lend an ear. I felt so bad for them. Finally, it was my turn. Thank God, I wasn’t interviewed by that official. There was obviously something wrong with him. The official who interviewed me was stern at first. She asked me what my purpose of coming to Korea was, until when I was planning to stay in the country, where I was staying, how much money I was bringing, if I had any credit card or visa card, if I knew anybody in Korea, etc. I answered all her questions, showed her my credit card (Thank God again, I brought with me my unused credit card.) and all my documents. I gave her my sponsor’s contact number and my Korean boyfriend’s cell phone number. She called my boyfriend (who is now my husband) and asked him if he knows me. Duh! Where on earth would I get that number if he doesn’t know me? She called my sponsor, too, who was just waiting for me at the airport. After that, the official apologized to me and told me why she had to interview me before letting me in. She said that there are many Filipinos who come to Korea as tourists and stay in the country to work illegally. I asked her, “Do I look that desperate to work here? I was invited here. I didn’t beg to be here.” I showed her my employee identification card in the international school where I was working and said, “As you can see, I am an ESL head teacher in the Philippines. I have a promising career in my country, and I don’t intend to stay in your country to be an illegal immigrant.” She reiterated her apology and assisted me to the immigration desk, so that I didn’t have to queue again.

As I was heading towards the check-in counter, I was thinking to myself, “Would they have stopped me at the immigration desk if I had not been a Filipino?”


From Korea with Love




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