COURIER-MAIL: An Unwelcome
Custom [Returning from Vietnam]
Saturday, April 01, 1995
MORE than 13 million travellers a year pass
through the hands of Australia's airport Customs
officers. The officers' powers in some areas exceed
those of police. MICHAEL WARE reports.
The hypersensitive wet nose of the sniffer dog dabbed
every passenger from flight TG987 queueing at
Brisbane's international airport Customs desk and
Until I made my mistake.
As the dog approached me, I gave him a short hello.
The friendly canine leapt up and pressed his front
paws against me. I gave him a scratch behind the ear
and his minder led him off.
But the four-legged Customs employee was not so
No matter how much further along the line of
passengers he went he kept straining on his leash to
get back to me.
After the search was over he was rewarded by his
handler with his customary soft toy and immediately
raced down and dropped it at my feet.
This, I thought, was getting ridiculous. I had
arrived at 11am tired and a little dishevelled and
keen to see my waiting friends and family.
I had been backpacking through Vietnam and Cambodia
for five weeks with a one-night stopover in Bangkok.
The Customs officers had marked me as a suspected
By the time I had collected my bags from the carousel
I had been "casually" approached by three members of
what I presumed to be the Sierra Team -- a unit that
operates at all Australian airports to interact with
In my case, all three times, it pretty much went like
this: "Morning sir. Can I see your passport please?
Where'd you go? Vietnam, eh? How was that? Any
No, it was good actually, thanks.
"Business or holiday? Bit of both huh? Whaddya do?
Journalist, yeah? Did you find much while you were
over there? No, oh well. Thank you sir."
In the baggage hall, the first of the Customs
officers who had spoken to me ushered me by the elbow
to a desk. I placed my bags on the bench and my
I was asked if I packed my bags myself (yes), was I
aware of their contents (yes), did I leave them
unattended at any time (no) and was I carrying any
prohibited substances (no).
He then proceeded to go through every single thing in
my bags. He studied my film canisters, he strangled
Hw was soon joined by another officer. I dismantled
my camera and surrendered my notebooks for
"So, do you have any drugs on you? Anything you want
to tell us
about?" -- No, I do not have any drugs.
"Nothing you're trying to bring back?" -- No.
"No pot, eh? Nothing to smoke? But you tried some
while you were over there?" -- No.
"Did you see any drugs? No? You must have. Well, how
about narcotics. Are you carrying any narcotics?" --
No, I can guarantee it.
"You can, huh? Did you do any while you were there?
Come on, you can tell me, I don't care what you did
while you were there so long as you don't try to
bring any back with you." -- No. I did not do any
"But did you do any narcotics while you were over
there?" -- No.
"I'll take that as a yes," he said.
They told me the reason I was being searched was the
dog had alerted them to the fact that I was carrying
They turned my bags inside out and pulled at every
loose thread. They came up blank.
I was escorted to a room off to the side and I was
informed of their plan for me. I was given a copy of
the relevant provision of the Customs Act covering my
Then the officers left and two new ones came in ...
wearing surgical gloves.
I was instructed to strip, one item of clothing at a
time in the order they dictated: shoes, belt,
T-shirt, jeans and finally underpants.
After the ordeal, the senior officer returned and
told me I was free to go. I quietly repacked my bags,
trudged out to meet my waiting family and left the
terminal as fast as I could.
My homecoming was one I know I will never