A night-time border encounter: Some reflections
26 September 2016
Borders MSc in Migration Studies Society
It’s late March. Spring hasn’t quite sprung in Eastern Europe. I’m sitting on a bus that’s travelling over night from Vilnius to Warsaw. I’ve been doing this quite regularly since my partner and I resettled in Lithuania and Poland to work.
It is 2:00am when the bus breaks to take a stop. I look out and notice that we are not at any bus station, but rather at the Polish-Lithuanian border. Three Polish border guards, armed, step on the bus and start asking for passports. Document checks have been an unpleasant discovery in my new transnational living: a friendly reminder that the circulation of people within the European Union is not as free as I always naively believed it to be. As they walk through the aisle, it would be difficult not to notice them collecting the passports of people of colour for what I guess would be a ‘random’ secondary screening.
As the first guard approaches me, I hand him my Italian ID card. He looks at the document puzzled. Italian IDs are indeed a bit atypical. They are not plastic credit card-sized badges, but old style documents made of actual paper. The guard gives me a thorough look. Then he turns around and heads off the bus with my document together with the passports of the other ‘randomly selected’ passengers.
After some five minutes, the driver exchange a word with one of the guards and, to my surprise, calls my name out loud. I stand and walk to the front while the drive walks the aisle the opposite way to hand passports back to those who were further screened. As I hop off the bus, two of the three guards wait for me while still looking at my ID.
“English? Good evening.” says the guard, somewhat aggressively.
“Yes. English. Good Evening.” I reply, much more nervously than intended.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“24.” The guard does some math to see if my age matches my date of birth.
“What’s your father’s name?”
I take a pause; the question puzzles me. That is definitely not something he could check on my ID. “Stefano.”
“What’s your mother’s maiden name?”
“What are you doing in Lithuania?”
“I was visiting my partner; she lives in Vilnius.” Thinking back on the conversation, I realized that the use of the present tense in the question implicitly hinted to the fact that we were still on Lithuanian territory and that my permission to access Poland was still pending.
“What’s the address?”
“Pilimo 120 … 124.”
“Where do you live?”
“I live in Lodz; I work at the university there.” This last answer seems to satisfy the guard.
“This document is very old.” he says, closing it.
“No, it is from 2012.”
He opens it again, checks the issuing date, and hands it back to me. “You can go.”
“Thanks sir.” I mumble, as I go back on the bus.
While walking back, I begin to realize how scared I was throughout the conversation. I sit down, take a couple of deep breaths, and start wondering why I was subjected to that secondary control. Two things come to mind. One is the unusual format of my ID document. The other is my physical appearance. Like many Italians, I have dark olive skin, dark eyes, and dark hair. I also have a goatee beard. I find myself breaking a nervous chuckle at the thought that those are the features of the stereotypical terrorist as described in pictures and words by most news outlets. I have another nervous chuckle as I reflect on the irony of the situation. A border guard, supposedly armed to protect my freedom, can very easily deprive me of said freedom if they arbitrarily decide that I am not convincingly performing … myself.
I start reflecting on my many blessings.
I am a man. Memories of papers on gendered experiences of border crossings remind me that the privileges of patriarchy served me more than well that night.
I am white. I know, I said that I believe that one of the reasons for the whole event was my physical appearance. However, I am not delusional: the guard might have doubted my whiteness at first, but probably for no more than two minutes. It would be very … white of me to think otherwise.
I own a powerful passport. It has been estimated that the Italian passport grants unrestricted access to 173 countries. My ID card might be odd, but my passport can really take me anywhere.
I am registered as a temporary resident in Poland. I can prove that with a wide range of documents, as well as by calling the University, the Voivodeship (province administered by a voivode (Governor) in Central or Eastern Europe), or the Italian Embassy.
As I start realizing that nothing bad could have actually happened, I cannot help also feeling a strong sense of guilt. All those blessings, one way or another, are connected to me having pretty much won at the birthright lottery. Never in my life had I done anything to ‘deserve’ the privileges of being a man; nor those of being white; nor those of Italian or EU citizenship. As I reflect on the insecurity that I felt, I am all too aware that it was nothing compared to what actual insecurity and disempowerment feels like.
As the night goes on, disillusion hits me. Passport free travel within the Union turns out to be a right that has been lost to States’ desire to regain control of their borders. Securitization has normalised the presence of armed guards in pretty much every public space, allegedly granting security, de facto erasing freedoms, especially the freedoms of those who happen not to fit ‘the norm’. What went wrong? Are we still in time to reverse the trend?
While I grapple for answers, dawn surprises me from the bus window. I’m in Warsaw, and a new day is starting.
IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.
This post was first published by COMPAS as part of the MSc in Migration Studies guest blog series: Viewing Life Through the Migration Lens: experiences and thoughts post-MSc.